Declining enrolment and rising costs have driven some Canadian school boards to sell surplus property, with aging neighbourhood schools among the inevitable casualties.
The search for new uses for a school, once closed, is fraught with complications: redevelopment restrictions, renovation costs and potential opposition from local residents.
But some non-profit groups and private developers are finding success in reimagining surplus schools as cultural centres, artist live-work, police stations and residential development. The effort, not without challenges, takes patience, innovative financing and collaboration between proponents and local residents.
Indicative of the trend is the Nvo. 19 opening of a "repurposed" century-old school in a condo-hot neighbourhood west of downtown Toronto as a 75,000-square-foot cultural hub for artists, cultural organizations, community groups and the public.
Closed in 2000, the former Shaw Street School sits on 0.7 acres at 180 Shaw St. in the West Queen West area and was sold for $1.5-million to Artscape, a not-for-profit developer of affordable space for artists in Toronto.
"When a school closes, it is like ripping the heart out of a community," says Artscape president Tim Jones, whose organization purchased the building from the Toronto District School Board in 2010. "There was a consensus in the community that it was an important 100-year-old institution [as of 2014] that should continue to serve a public life."
The Shaw school is one of 58 surplus properties sold over the past five years by Toronto Lands Corp., a TDSB subsidiary set up to maximize revenue from sales and respect community building.
"We were really happy when Artscape indicated it was a site that would work for them," says TLC chief executive Shirley Hoy.
To date TLC has generated $338-million in revenue, with 60 per cent of properties sold to education and other non-profit bodies and 40 per cent to private developers, who usually replace buildings with low-density housing.
In Calgary, after two failed private-sector proposals, the public school board sold the King Edward School to cSPACE Projects, a non-profit developer of affordable space for artists and social entrepreneurs. The organization purchased the heritage sandstone building, vacant since 2003 at 1720 30th Ave. S.W., for $8-million.
Situated in the middle of a three-acre city block southwest of downtown in the Marda Loop area, cSPACE King Edward will reopen in 2015 as an arts hub and incubator, with 10 live-work units for artists. At the east and west ends of the property, cSPACE sold 1.4 acres of rezoned land to two developers (selected from 50 candidates) for single-family, medium-density and seniors housing. The land sales of $9.5-million will defray the $22-million renovation.
"We worked very hard with the local community about what good density would look like," says cSPACE president Reid Henry.
In Vancouver, local residents successfully fought off the potential closing of 10 schools in 2010. The public school board has since sought requests for proposals to adapt two empty heritage schools that have been replaced by new seismic-proof schools on the same sites, says board chairwoman Patti Bacchus.
Given the emotional pull of the neighbourhood school, the process of imagining new uses takes time and sustained consultation with residents.
The transformation of Shaw school, renamed Artscape Youngplace, was six years in the making.
Initial redevelopment ideas included new condos or razing the building for green space. Both suggestions ran into stiff opposition from local residents, not least because the old school is adjacent to an operating elementary school.
"Parents at the school wanted something to go into that building that would be beneficial for everyone and maintain the building," says parent Gaelyne Leslie. "Whoever took it over would have to be as passionate about it as we were."
She made early overtures to Artscape, which won acclaim in 2008 for transforming a former, century old streetcar repair shop into a mid-town Toronto community hub, now known as Wychwood Barns, for arts, culture, urban agriculture.
For the Shaw school project, Artscape began consultations with community residents, artists and private developers in 2005. One year later, the school board hired Artscape to translate an emerging consensus to rezone the four-storey sandstone building as a new space for artists, cultural organizations, a children's centre, coffee bar and public lounge.
The heritage-listed school has architectural charm – 14-foot-high ceilings, 10-foot-high windows and natural light – but the innards had to be gutted for new plumbing, wiring, heating and elevators for wheelchair access. Structural repairs pushed the renovation cost to $17.5-million. The wide corridors and stairwells that made the school space inefficient under provincial funding rules have become assets for showcasing art work.
In a new financing model, Artscape sold 27 per cent of the building to established artists and organizations (including the Luminato Festival) to generate equity for the project.
Toronto contemporary artist Barbara Astman jumped at the chance to own a 1,000-square-foot studio. After working in five different rented studios over a 30-plus-year career, she now has a place to call her own.
"I don't want anyone telling me to leave again," she says, intrigued by the "incredibly exciting experiment" of diverse artists rubbing shoulders with each other and the community.
As well, Artscape will offer market and below-market leases to a variety of tenants, with fundraising and other revenue sources to ensure the new hub is sustainable.
Artists who cannot afford to rent or buy will be able to rent workspace for as little as four hours at a time through the "Flex Studios" program.
"I hope this means there is even more diversity [of artists]," says Elisha Lim, a graphic artist who is signing up for a four-hour rental.
Six years after fighting to save Shaw school, Ms. Leslie is excited about its new life.
"It is awesome, it is fantastic," she says. "It is exactly what I hoped would happen."
The anti-Soho effect
The "Soho effect" refers to the Manhattan neighbourhood that saw artists in low-rent buildings driven out by gentrification.
The "anti-Soho effect" is taking shape in Toronto's West Queen West neighbourhood through collaborations between former adversaries: artist groups and local developers.
In 2010, after a lengthy battle over redevelopment of the increasingly trendy neighbourhood, Artscape (and arts activists) negotiated with Urbancorp, a major Toronto condo developer, to subsidize 70 units for artists as part of a proposed 21-storey high-rise project. Artscape Triangle Lofts is one of several arts-sector initiatives in the area supported by Urbancorp, which has built 2,300 condominium units in West Queen West and has an additional 2,000 units under development.
"It is bucking a whole North America trend to push artists from a neighbourhood they made successful," says Urbancorp president Alan Saskin. "Trying to keep artists in the downtown core helps keep Toronto a more vital city," he says.
Urbancorp has since donated funds to the Shaw school project, the latest effort by Artscape to maintain (and expand) the presence of affordable live and/or work options for artists in gentrifying neighbourhoods.
"I can't think of anywhere else in the world where there is this booming urban development and yet at the same time an intensification of the creative space in the neighbourhood," says Artscape president and CEO Tim Jones. "There is a realization for the first time that I can recall that it makes sense for the urban development community and the arts community to be working together."