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More schools needed near Toronto condos to keep up with family boom

Sofia Spoltore poses in front of her school bus before joining her mom Natasha Tysick.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Among parents living in Toronto condominiums, Natasha Tysick counts herself lucky.

School boards have struggled to keep pace with the boom in high-rise construction, meaning many children are bused several kilometres through city streets because existing schools have been filled to the brim.

But there is a giant hole in the ground near Ms. Tysick's condo, so she is hopeful.

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A Catholic and a public elementary school are scheduled to open steps from her downtown complex in 2019. Her five-year-old daughter, Sofia Spoltore, will be a three-minute walk from school, as opposed to a 10-minute drive. The complex, known as CityPlace, is near the base of the CN Tower.

Read more: The condo boom is pushing Toronto's downtown hospitals to the limit

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"It will bring this community together," Ms. Tysick said. "When we first moved [here], there weren't too many children. Now you see so many kids."

The plan at CityPlace to build two schools for the community stands apart from other tower developments in the city.

Condo living is increasingly being marketed to families, with more three-bedroom units being built. According to city planners, the number of families with children living in high-rises, both condos and rentals, rose by 10,145 – a 15-per-cent increase – between 2006 and 2011.

Yet, families who embrace high-rise living are discovering that the buildings may be family-friendly, but many of the neighbourhoods aren't. Neither the public nor the Catholic board can keep up with the explosive concentrated growth, so they have started to pro-actively warn parents that they shouldn't expect their children to go to the closest school.

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Walking to school, as opposed to riding the bus, has been shown to offer physical benefits, but it is also associated with improved academic performance and socialization. For most Toronto students, walking has been the norm, unlike the case with their suburban peers, who more frequently take buses.

"My observation around here is that the results of development on local schools is not a concern to the city," said TDSB chair Robin Pilkey. "I think it's unfortunate because that's the concern for the local residents.

"It's an old-fashioned view to assume there won't be any kids in those buildings," she added.

Councillor Joe Cressy says the pressure vertical developments are putting on schools hasn't escaped notice. Near King Street and Spadina Avenue, a downtown intersection with skyrocketing development, Mr. Cressy and city planning staff have proposed that developers hold off on new residential buildings until schools, parks and community centres are in place to support those new occupants.

"We've seen huge development and increasing pressure of it," Mr. Cressy said. "But unless we catch up on the social infrastructure, it will not be livable and it never will be."

In many parts of the city, especially along the Yonge Street corridor, the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board post warning signs along the fences of construction sites to alert potential buyers that their children won't necessarily have a spot in the local school because it's full. Last year alone, the Toronto District School Board asked the city to install signs to that effect on 110 developments.

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The condos at CityPlace are an exception. The project was approved at a time when school boards had the ability to tax. (Now, money for new schools flows from the provincial government.) When planning began to transform the old railway lands into a high-rise neighbourhood, an agreement was struck between all sides for development levies to fund the future construction of two elementary schools, a child-care centre and a community centre. The city has collected about $36.2-million for the construction of the two schools.

About 15,000 people live at CityPlace. Although it's not clear how many families reside in those towers, the school boards say they will be able to accommodate about 1,100 students in both schools.

David Percival, senior manager of building design and renewal at the TDSB, describes the CityPlace project as "unique."

"Normally when we talk to developers, there is no clear picture as to how the school would be paid for or if there needs to be a school," he said. "Fortunately in the case of CityPlace there is. And even at that, it's been a long, drawn-out process to get to this stage."

Angelo Sangiorgio, associate director of planning and facilities at the TCDSB, says he is concerned about whether the schools will be big enough to handle the number of children coming down from the towers. He says the school boards have made projections and hopes they will address the student population of the area.

"School boards only have one opportunity to designate a school site and make arrangements to construct a school in the community," he said. "So this is our one opportunity."

Ms. Pilkey of the TDSB says school boards would not necessarily be able to repeat the model of CityPlace. "They did planning for that and they said, 'One day we're going to need this and you guys are going to have to pony up,' " Ms. Pilkey said. "We can't do that any more."

Some condo residents, however, believe the city, developers and school boards should be more involved in the planning.

Marc Bhalla, president of a condo association on McKee Avenue, near Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue West, says children from his building are being bused to an elementary school even though he can see the neighbourhood school from his kitchen window.

"It's quite frustrating for them [parents]," Mr. Bhalla said. "There are concerns out there that once developers are paid and they've turned over the condo, they don't have any lingering responsibilities."

He says that as the city approves these developments, it should also look at how they fit into the neighbourhood so condo dwellers are not separated from the community in which they live.

Ms. Tysick echoes the sentiment. She moved to the condo at CityPlace after living in Mississauga and North York because she preferred living downtown.

"I feel like the planning is off. They're not planning for families and children at all," she said. "The reality is they need to start making changes – and start making things more family-oriented. There are so many families moving in here."

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