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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Requiem for Sherwood Forest School

Sherwood Forest School is about to be put out to tender; it will not survive the process.

Because nowhere in the plans that the city has discussed with the community was there any suggestion of the possibility of saving the school.

I have no particular attachment to the school. Unlike Ward 6 Councillor Phil Squire, I did not attend the school nor, unlike Ward 1 Councillor Michael Van Holst, do I have relatives who have done so.

But a school is a community hub. It’s where children spend much of their waking hours, where they make friends, some of them lifelong, where they learn their basic academic skills, where they get their first taste of competition and cooperation

It’s also where their parents meet other parents and the teachers who influence their children’s lives. It’s where they see their kids perform on the playground and in the school gym. It’s a gathering place.

It wasn’t the city that decided to close Sherwood Forest School a couple of years ago. That was the province’s doing. Just not enough little kids around to warrant keeping the school open, community hub notwithstanding. Better to drive or bus kids to a different neighbourhood and save a few dollars. All of the action is in the outer suburbs, not in the old established neighbourhoods. Sell it to the highest bidder unless other publicly funded educational institutions or the city can find a use for it and come up with the necessary dollars.

At the time the school was declared superfluous, I was looking around for a place to meet the educational needs and interests of London’s seniors. The Society for Learning in Retirement London, of which I was a member, was finding its location at Windermere on the Mount a little pricey. We needed new digs.

I love SLR. I had joined even before I was fully retired, left while I served on the Board of Control, and then returned when that gig was finished. It’s a great organization for people who love learning and sharing the results of their research efforts with others. Courses in history, literature, music, science and technology, art. All at affordable prices.

That’s because no one gets paid to teach; everyone is a teacher and learner. The curriculum is set by a volunteer committee and the classes are seminar-style. Everybody takes a turn. No one gets graded. There are no tests or quizzes.

But lots of debate and discussion. These are people who have lived and learned and want to learn some more. All they need is a place to hold the classes. A place to call home. A community hub.

That’s why, when I heard about Sherwood Forest, I thought it would be perfect. If only we could use it for a few years without paying an arm and a leg, we could keep the school going because, after all, it would just be a matter of time before there would be enough little ones to warrant re-opening the school which, after all, was in good condition. Roof recently replaced, good heating and cooling system, good sized classrooms.

And to top it off, we had the promise of a partner, a not for profit dedicated to the fitness of seniors. A perfect match, considering that the school had an excellent gymnasium. We could use it in the daytime, everybody leaves at four o’clock, and it could be used by after school groups and community organizations evenings and weekends. What could be more ideal?

Besides, the community was not big on development in that area and really wanted to keep the green space that was adjacent to the school.

For a while we were hopeful. There were talks with a representative of the ratepayers’ association, with the ward councillor, with some city administrators, with the local MPP, and with the school board about our vision and the hurdles we were facing. As a community organization, we would be treated like any developer who wanted the property. It would go to the highest bidder. There was no way we could compete with that. We really could use some support. And just when we thought we had a champion, there were staffing changes.

But eventually, city council indicated an interest in turning the school into a senior’s hub, even unanimously approving a $250,000 placeholder in the 2014 budget for renovations to that end. The project could be paid for through a community improvement plan, it was suggested.

That was in February of 2013. However, by July all bets were off. There were concerns expressed by the legal department about using community improvement funds in that way and the civic administration saw no need for a seniors’ centre in that area. Sure, the residents could use a space for fitness, but the gym was outdated, having been built in 1998. Besides, there was always the Medway Arena across Wonderland Road. And seniors today don’t want to be relegated to a seniors’ facility, the report claimed; it should be a place for all ages. The city was not interested in a standalone seniors’ hub.

By then it was too late to argue the case. We were pretty sure could cover the costs of maintaining the building—after all, we had managed to pay our bills for twenty years—but without the city, there was no way we could compete with the private sector developers who would see this as a desirable area for a lucrative infill project. Who would front us the cash?

Imagine my surprise when, without warning, the city suddenly laid out $1.2 million to acquire the property.  Apparently the ward councillor, Nancy Branscombe, and the ratepayers’ association had convinced them of the need for a bit of parkland/open space in the area. However, most of the land, particularly the part on which the school was situated, would be sold off for housing. Not a high-rise. Something that would fit into the neighbourhood a little better. The community would be consulted on what it would be. Then, the city would prepare a request for proposals from the developers to implement something.

And that’s what staff brought forward this week.

It had consulted with the community, drawn up a number of options and submitted them to the community for its consideration. The school, vacant for the last year and a half, was slated for demolition and the property re-zoned to make way for some single family detached and cluster style housing. The process used to achieve this would be a model for other infill developments across the city. There would be conditions, of course, such as conformity with design guidelines, for the successful bidder. Perhaps the community could even appoint someone to represent it on the staff evaluation committee, the committee that would choose the lucky bidder.

Ward 14 Councillor Jared Zaifman thought the ability to “repurpose” the property was “tremendous.” But he had a concern. They shouldn’t impose too stringent conditions. After all, you don’t want to drive away potential developers.

City manager Art Zuidema agreed. “Don’t clog it up,” he warned. This was a fantastic example of how the community and city could work together. The plan would be sensitive to adjacent property. There would be intensification. The needs of an aging population would be met. People could move from their big houses to something more manageable. He couldn’t have been more pleased with the result.

Everyone agreed. They all thought it was great.

No one mourned the loss of a community facility, a community hub.

Nor did anyone at any time through the process think to inform the Society for Learning in Retirement London about the plans. We learned about them, as did others, from the agendas posted on line.

We weren’t particularly surprised. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. We had thought that a not for profit organization dedicated to the mental and physical fitness of seniors would work well with an aging population in an age-friendly city. Especially in a school that the community had already paid for and, apparently, no longer needed for its young.

But it won’t provide the tax revenue that a whack of new residential units can.


Anonymous said...

I think there are greedy interests in every council who see only how to look after certain particular interests.

Vicki Van Linden said...

Nancy Branscombe was a hard worker and someone with vision. Here is another example of how she worked to develop a community asset that would have provided social value. I am sorry that this project did not come to fruition. Intensification of housing is so important, but the permanent loss of community-owned properties is also a concern.

Is there time for a compromise to be worked out on this Gina? Is there any way that we can lobby for the building itself to be saved as a community hub but the surrounding yard mad available for housing?

Gina Barber said...

I think the die is cast. No doubt the project will be a good fit with the neighbourhood and the process engaged them fully. It's just unfortunate that all options couldn't be on the table.
We are also very lucky to have found a home at Grosvenor Lodge which is owned by the city. But it's a very tight fit with no room for growth. Still, more and more people are retiring and looking for stuff to do. Would be nice to keep them off the streets!

Bigfoot said...

As bad as the last council was, the youth and inexperience of this new group has cost seniors an opportunity to grow one of the most rewarding and exciting opportunities available to us in the city.
We lost the baby with the bath water I'm afraid.

Gina Barber said...

The current direction was actually put in place by the last council. It would be very hard to do a turnaround now.

Vicki Van Linden said...

Let's remember that there were some excellent councillors on the last council. The at-times bizarre behaviour of some has cast a shadow on them all, but there were some good decisions made during the last council - which is rather amazing when you recall the shenanigans that went on during so many meetings.

I am grateful for those councillors who maintained professional demeanour and continued to work in what was at times a bad carnival atmosphere.

Unknown said...

I would really love anyone looking at developing this school to drive an hour to Zurich, Ontario. Their public school was closed then later sold to a visionary Zurich resident who modified the existing building. Classrooms became apartments. The gymnasium became a community space that could be rented at low cost by residents or by other citizens for family or cojmunity events. The former playground area was left to belong to the new renters to do with as they wished-ie if they had grandchildren to visit, they could get up a soccer game, or family picnics could be had. This is an absolutely amazing space that the whole community is behind. My aunt, due to age, sold her home and moved into one of these rental units. They are senior-friendly, but not a 'retirement' home per se. I could see a model like this working in the Sherwood Forest area where many of the residents there could be ready to downsize but might not want to leave the neighbourhood.

Sandy Levin said...

Jacqui, it worked in Zurich because that resident either was the only bidder or outbid others. The risk the community in Sherwood Forest wanted to avoid was if the City's idea was not acceptable, the School Board would have sold it to the highest bidder. In London, the odds are it would have been a developer or builder who would have asked to rezone the entire property for housing as was done with the former elementary school on Tennent Ave near Lucas. The unknown was not where the community wanted to go.

Unknown said...

I just happened to be googling down memory lane when I found this blog. I no longer live in London but was saddened to hear of Sherwood Forest PS' fate. I did find it a bit amusing however to hear praise for the gym.
I attended from 1979 to 1986 and at that time the "gymnasium" was also the 'auditorium' - carpeted and quite small. We all suffered rug burn playing floor hockey - but it was fun. My siblings were able to enjoy a large 'portable' gym that was built just after I left for Orchard Park in Grade 7. I wish I knew more of the history of our little school. My first teacher, Mrs Billington (kindergarten), was the mother of hockey goalie Craig Billington. Other teachers' names I can recall: Miss Nakumura (Gr 1&2), Miss Green (Gr 3&4), "Miggs" Morris (Gr 5&6 also VP), Mrs Spence (Gr 5&6?) and I think Mr Parsons (though that may have been Orchard Park - Grade 6?).