How to save a community landmark

Posted on September 7, 2009 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinions – How to save a community landmark
September 07, 2009.   Carol Goar

This could have been a story about a working class neighbourhood losing a cherished landmark. The demolition order was ready.

It could have been a story about a small community group being brushed aside by municipal decision makers. That is where the plotline was heading.

But someone was smart enough to change the trajectory.

Claude Bergeron, president of the Carleton Village Residents’ Association, isn’t sure who the hero was – not him, he says modestly.

It might have been a far-sighted architectural team. It might have been an enlightened planner. It might even have been Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.

What Bergeron can say definitively is that everyone is happy with the outcome: the community, the architects, the police and city hall.

He likes to tell the story. And it’s worth hearing because it is a rare example of a clash of visions being resolved to the benefit of all parties.

Last year, city council voted to demolish Carleton Village Public School in the heart of Davenport West neighbourhood. It had 435 students. One wing was already closed.

But the 96-year-old schoolhouse at the corner of Davenport Rd. and Osler St. was a piece of living history and in the eyes of local residents – though not the city – an architectural gem.

The property was acquired by the Toronto Police Service, which needed a site for its new 11 Division station. The existing 50-year-old building could not accommodate the tools of modern law enforcement.
“The community was not informed and that hurt,” Bergeron recalled.

The first meeting between the police and the residents did not go well. “They reminded us that they had the power to demolish the building. We weren’t at all confident we could save it,” Bergeron said.
The first positive sign came when the police hired Stantec Architects, who had transformed a derelict Consumers’ Gas building on Parliament St. into a state-of-the art station for 51 Division.

Bergeron accompanied Michael Moxam and Tom Kyle, the architects in charge of the project, on the first tour of the school. “I could see they thought the building was special.” But he doubted they could persuade the police to incorporate the old school into the new station. It would be more expensive and pose construction challenges.

The second promising signal was the police chief’s personal involvement. Blair came to the neighbourhood, listened to residents’ concerns and made it clear he wanted the new police station to be a welcome presence in the community.

Throughout the process, senior officers at 11 Division kept residents abreast of what was going on and answered questions.

In July the architects presented their draft design to the Toronto Police Service Board. Three-quarters of the original schoolhouse had been preserved. An addition, built in the 1960s, would be razed to make room for an eye-pleasing structure that fit the streetscape and provided the police with modern offices, investigation and interview rooms and holding cells. It had a green roof. It was completely barrier-free. The parkette in front of the school had been enhanced.

On Aug. 25 they showed it to the community. “It’s magnificent,” Bergeron said. Residents commended the architects and the police.

Blair was there for the unveiling. “We want to be good neighbours,” he said. “We’re trying to respect your neighbourhood, respect its history and create a new history, a new public space that belongs to everyone.”

The police earned a lot of goodwill that evening. The residents of Carleton Village got a revitalized landmark. The public got a demonstration that community consultation, done right, can work.

Bergeron is still shaking his head. “It’s pretty unusual.”

The ribbon-cutting in 2011 will be a fine event.

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