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Does Toronto want to wreck an ‘extraordinary’ building? It's time for an answer

"An extraordinary example of mid-century modern architecture." That was what the National Trust for Canada had to say this week about Davisville Junior Public School in Toronto.

On Thursday, the non-profit heritage organization named the midtown Toronto school to its list of Top 10 Endangered Places. Why? Because that 1962 building, flagged by City of Toronto planners as a heritage asset, is headed for demolition.

As I wrote in February, the backstory is long and complicated, but the Davisville case has huge implications. The Toronto District School Board and its predecessors built hundreds of the most important public buildings in the city.

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Here it seems the board, and the Ontario Ministry of Education, are willing to trash that heritage rather than fix it up. Their plan for a suburban-style replacement school is indefensible on cultural, environmental and urbanistic grounds. And city politicians, led by local councillor Josh Matlow, are lending a hand.

It's time now to reopen the conversation: Toronto City Council should consider whether to designate this building as heritage, and if they don't, explain why it needs to be trashed.

Time is tight. At the beginning of May, the school board submitted plans to the city for a new school – using $6.8-million in city funding – that anticipates a future community centre. This plan would put the new building next to the old, and demolish the old completely.

The goal is to create a new "community hub," combining school and recreation facilities. That makes sense. But this process should begin with rebuilding the old school. It should be renovated and expanded.

That building, designed by the architect Peter Pennington for the old Toronto Board of Education, is a community asset worth keeping. City staff say so: Last June, planners recommended in a forceful and clear report that the building be protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. But the local community council, following Mr. Matlow's lead, shelved the report – effectively condemning the building.

It is an expressive structure influenced by the English modernism of the 1950s: a set of house-like brick pavilions with concrete roofs drawing wild, origami-like shapes in the air. The National Trust praises its "futuristic gull-wing roofline, jazzy vertical and horizontal window placement, and fine interior materials like limestone, terrazzo, stainless steel and black walnut." Its floor plan, "broken up into four modules with adjoining glass staircases – is intended to surprise and delight students and humanize the building's scale," the Trust says in a statement.

There are ways to build on this. I recently sat in on a studio at Ryerson University's Department of Architectural Science. Professor Marco Polo and instructor Joey Giaimo asked their students to look at the building as a case study in rebuilding and expanding on a modernist building. The ideas were fascinating, and they treated the building's geometries, structural system and ornament as valuable.

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Not everyone sees Davisville that way. John Hiddema, a Davisville parent, told me "the design is fundamentally flawed." Trustee Shelley Laskin told me that the unusual roofs are "impossible to fix."

This is total nonsense, but the 55-year-old building does need repairs. The TDSB has cried poor: They can't afford to renovate, because Davisville needs so much work.

But how much? Angelos Bacopoulos, the board's facilities manager, told Toronto East York Community Council the building needed "$13-million of investment." Yet the board cited that number in 2014 as $9.6-million, and now on its website gives a figure of $5.4-million. Go figure.

The real problem is that the building stands in the way of a deal between the province, the school board and the city that would create a new neighbourhood facility for this well-connected community. Parents advocating for demolition, including Mr. Hiddema, are also involved in Midtown Hub, a local residents' group that lobbied for the community centre.

The new school, with room for a public pool to be added, is a suburban-style building with suburban-style yard, parking and driveways. The designers, Snyder Architects, are school specialists, and their scheme is generic – with a few flourishes on the façade to evoke the old building. For variety, there are two colours of concrete block.

Why does the community hub have to involve wrecking the old building? It shouldn't. Artscape Youngplace, in a 1914 school building downtown, shows the potential of renovation. But the TDSB is working with provincial standards that demand a large amount of open space for each child and massive parking and loading areas. The new school will have an underground garage plus nearly half an acre of driveways, drop-off zones and ramps. That's millions of dollars' worth of public real estate for automobiles – right next to a subway station.

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All of this should be negotiable. There are a number of downtown TDSB schools that have small yards – or in one case, none at all. Students at Market Lane P.S. downtown play in an adjacent park. Are those students being let down? Likewise with drop-offs. My son's downtown TDSB school has no driveway at all. Cars and buses stop on the street. Life in the city goes on.

It's time for the Ministry of Education and the TDSB to drop their bureaucratic defensiveness and acknowledge the value of this school building to the wider community – and set out a policy to guide other redevelopments. If they don't, it's time for the city to do its job and force their hand.

Or else it's time to admit, loud and clear, that expediency and suburban standards matter in Toronto more than heritage. City Council should make that call before this redevelopment goes ahead and before something extraordinary goes out in dumpsters.

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About the Author
Architecture critic

Alex Bozikovic covers architecture and urbanism for The Globe and Mail. He is also a staff editor at The Globe. He has won a National Magazine Award for his writing about design. More

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