Outside a North Toronto public school on Wednesday morning, a boisterous demonstration was under way. Charming boys and girls in sneakers and backpacks chanted "Save our school." Their proud parents chimed in. TV cameras rolled. Was their school being torn down? Closed?
In fact, what is happening is this – hold your breath, now: A tall building is going up next door. A tall building, you understand. In Toronto.
That might not seem shocking to the average person. But to many parents at John Fisher Junior Public School near Yonge and Eglinton, it is an outrage. They have been waging a furious campaign to stop the 35-storey apartment tower due to rise on the Erskine Avenue site.
It is too tall, they insist. Worse, it is dangerous.
The windows could pop out, raining glass on the tots next door. Things – bikes? barbecues? house plants? – could tumble from the balconies. And what of the construction perils? All those trundling trucks. All that dust and clamour. "No noise during recess," read one placard held high by a girl in pink-laced runners. "Let us play!"
Problems seldom get as First World as this. Visitors will notice that Toronto has quite a few tall buildings, many of them right next to parks, community centres, libraries and even, yes, schools. Just a couple of blocks from John Fisher, developers built two towers of 27 and 24 storeys next to North Toronto Collegiate, which got a new school building as part of the deal. Schooling continued. No one perished. Today in the downtown East End, teachers teach and pupils learn as cranes from another project swing next to Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
John Fisher itself has seen tall buildings gather all around it. A building boom half a century back saw lots of residential high-rises go up in the neighbourhood, some of them within steps of the school. Life went on. A new building boom is bringing more high-rise construction. The growth plans of the province and the city make Yonge and Eglinton a development node, earmarked for density. With the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line going in, the intersection will be one of the country's busiest transit hubs. If this isn't the place for tall buildings, where is?
There is no reason to fear for the students of John Fisher. The developer commissioned a thick report on limiting the risks and the school board has scrutinized the safety measures. Air quality and vibrations will be monitored. Construction netting and tall hoardings will guard the school, which will move its playground to the far end of the property, away from the construction, and install double-paned windows to keep the noise down. The developer will kick in half a million dollars to help with the costs.
The protesting parents are not mollified. They say the tower should never have been approved in the first place. It was foisted on them, they argue, by the evil Ontario Municipal Board, which ignored community concerns and let the developer bulldoze ahead. That's a stretch. A settlement over the project sprang from a mediated agreement, with the city, the residents and the developer at the table.
Yet somehow this project came to stand for everything that is supposed to be wrong with the development process. The provincial government is scrapping the OMB and replacing it with a new, less powerful tribunal. Mayor John Tory calls what happened at John Fisher "preposterous."
The rhetoric is wildly overheated. Having more people living in the centre of the city, near transit, is a good thing. The Erskine project will be rental, just the kind of housing the city and the province claim they want to encourage at a time of soaring housing prices.
The world will keep turning after a tower goes up next to John Fisher Junior Public. Kids will play and read and practise their French. Go to Hong Kong or New York and you will find lots of schoolyards with tall buildings looming nearby. The kids are all right. They will be all right at John Fisher, too.
"Development or kids?" said another placard at Wednesday's rally. Come on. A mature city has to learn to live with growth. Of all the things in the world worth protesting, the last on the list is a tall building next to a Toronto school.