The cash-strapped TDSB is studying whether more mixed-use schools and private-public partnerships makes sense for Canada's largest school board.
Toronto could see more schools in condos and commercial buildings, as the financially struggling Toronto District School Board studies the implications of using more mixed-use buildings to match the growth patterns of a rapidly evolving city.
There are currently two TDSB schools located in mixed-use developments. Downtown Alternative School, a primary school that shares space with co-operative housing above, shops below, and a playground with Toronto Catholic School Board’s St. Michael’s School, has operated since 1980.
More recently, North Toronto Collegiate Institute (NTCI), one of the oldest schools in the TDSB, was rebuilt and opened its new building in 2010. The building was developed with private development company Tridel in a deal that saw the developer purchase 0.7 acres from the TDSB for $23 million.
Martin Laws, a former NTCI student and the student council president in the school’s first year in the new building, recalls classes in the old building had to be cancelled when it rained because the roof leaked so badly.
Through the public-private deal, two high-rise condos were built on either side of the new high school. The school and the condos do not share entrances or exits, but residents have access to a green roof on top of the school.
According to the school board agenda, the main reason for mixed-use schools is that with Toronto’s growing population it is impractical to find a traditional plot of land on which to develop new schools.
Due to the TDSB’s budget restrictions, Trustee Shelley Laskin (Ward 11, St. Paul’s) believes entering into more deals with private development companies should be something that is seriously considered. “Given the school board’s financial limitations, development partnerships with the private sector is an opportunity for the board to access significant revenues to reinvest in school buildings,” she said in an interview with Torontoist.
The committee outlined three possible geographic areas that could benefit from this type of development.
The City’s requirements for development of schools in mixed-use buildings remain unknown. The proposal lists this as the main issue in going ahead with this type of development.
The Vancouver School Board is beginning construction on a downtown Vancouver elementary school in an already established mixed-use living and shopping development, International Village. The board hopes to open the new school by January 2017.
The process to build a non-traditional school wasn’t easy.
In order to complete this project, the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver School Board had to file a joint petition to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in August 2013, which was approved by in November 2013.
But in urban markets with red-hot real-estate prices, some officials believe it’s necessary to look at alternative solutions to accommodate growth.
“Toronto is a growing city and we have a lot to learn from other major cities in the world that build schools in condos,” Laskin said. “To ‘worry’ about future land ownership for the successful delivery of education programs is futile.”
Public-private partnerships to build schools in mixed-use buildings can have their limits, though, and can alter the student experience in unexpected ways.
When Laws was student-council president, what worried him most was that staff and students were not allowed to alter the appearance of the new building.
“[In the old building] we got to paint the hallways and do murals and all the stuff normal high school kids do and in the new school everything was brand new, the admin was pretty hard core,” Law recalls.
“I certainly saw that NTCI wanted to do more to make the new building a school and not just a new building,” Laws said. “But that was tough because Tridel owned the rights to the inside of the school for three years, [and] the visual look of it had to go through Tridel. After three years it became a normal school again.”
Laws adds that it does not seem coincidental that NTCI was chosen for this project, even though there are many schools in the TDSB that need to be redone. He notes that this sort of development model only works in places where people want to buy expensive condos. “Central Tech or Eastern Commerce will never be touched,” he said, referring to two of Toronto’s oldest schools. “When you have that condo partnership you have to be building schools where there can be condos built.”
Currently there are no concrete plans to start construction of new schools in mixed-use buildings, but TDSB staff will report back to the board in February 2016 on the subject.
The TDSB declined to comment until the staff update is provided at that time.