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Don’t Sell off Those Downtown Schools!


 In these times of declining enrolment, cuts to school budgets and no prospect of new income sources on the horizon, it is easy for a school board to look at the valuable downtown properties and consider selling them.  However, in many cities, such as Ottawa, there are still many families from all walks of life living in the inner city.  In the not far distant future, these families will be looking again for schools for their children, preferably community schools.

To achieve the goal of keeping downtown schools open and providing income or capital for the school boards, we need to rethink our use of property.  We need to consider sharing space the way stores have shared space with offices, apartments or condos above them for many years, even centuries, nay millennia.  The Romans had their stores or business places at the front of their homes, while the living quarters occupied the other three sides of the courtyard.  On many Canadian main streets there are stores with two or three stories of apartments or offices above them.

Obviously, because the health and safety of children is always a priority, schools sharing space with other facilities would require more careful planning than most arrangements.  In an age when we are locking school doors after school starts, questioning unknown adults on the schoolyard, insisting that visitors report first to the office for a badge and requiring all volunteers to have a police check, sharing property must be done with careful regard to student safety.

An example of the model I am proposing is this: in downtown Ottawa exists a former high school that takes up the better part of a city block.  Across the road from it are its former playing fields.  It would be too expensive to bring the building up to standard, but it is sitting on very valuable land ripe for development, eyed by property developers.  Here is what I propose.

Replace the high school with a three-story high school at the base of a multi-story condo. Immediately below the high school put a parking level for teachers, parents and visitors.  There set a security camera outside the stairwell and elevator leading to the school.  When visitors pressed the bell for admission the office would remotely unlock the door or elevator after checking the person through the camera.  If the elevator and stairwell opened immediately in front of the office, then visitors from the parking lot could be observed as they arrived on the main floor of the school.  Make the front entrance also visible from the office and security may not be perfect but it will be very good.

The condominiums would be from the fourth floor up.  Their lobby would be at street level, but on a street where there are no doors to the school; if the entrance to the parking lot was on the same side, there might not even be space for first floor windows in that side of the school.  The condominium lobby need not be much larger than the area required to accommodate an appropriate bank of elevators, mail boxes and small waiting room.  The elevators would serve the lower parking levels reserved for the use of the condominium owners, but skip the school parking level and the school itself.

This may sound complicated but this kind of mixed use or designated elevators is already being used commercially.  If you have ever been to a late movie in a theatre in an office tower, you might have noticed that the elevator was programmed to go only to certain floors and the parking garage.  On the other hand, if you have gone to dinner outside the building, leaving your car in the garage, you will find that access to it from outside would have been only through a door found in the building’s airlock.  Not only is there no need to go into the building to get your car, but those inner doors to the building will be locked!

Security cameras are not ubiquitous in our city and rightly so.  However their judicious use at entrances has been employed by organisations that are concerned about who is admitted to their building.  Women’s hostels are a case in point.  While I would not advocate security cameras within a school, their use at entrance and exit points is well worth considering.  It would certainly ease concerns about a high school and homes sharing the same building.

Why would people consider buying a condominium over a high school?  In this case, the view will be magnificent: the Ottawa River, the Gatineau Hills, the Parliament Buildings and much of Ottawa would spread below you.  Secondly, if carefully thought out, it might be possible for the condo and the school to share sports facilities.  A swimming pool, weights room and gym on the school’s third floor that was accessible to the owners of the condominiums outside of school and extra-curricular hours might be attractive.  In addition, the playing fields over the road could be accessible for Ultimate Frisbee and soccer and the track around it would be great for the runners.  There might be room in one corner for a tot lot.  Careful tree planting would provide shade in summer and make the playing fields attractive.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board does work to make school facilities available (for a modest fee) to the public outside of school hours; in fact the schools that are open most evenings and weekends are called Lighthouse Schools.  This would be an extension of that concept. 

Many schools these days are allowing day cares and even private schools to move into their unused facilities as enrolment shrinks.  The smart thing to do would be to design this high school with decreasing enrolment in mind.  One corner of the school could be designed to be shut off from the rest of the school if necessary and the rooms rearranged to suit offices or day cares or whatever organisation might be looking for space in the area. How could that be done?  I’m not sure, but isn’t that what good architects are for?  It would certainly be a challenge as walls that successfully block noise between classrooms are not easily removed for remodelling.

Enrolment does decrease from time to time, but eventually that earlier big wave of children will have children and enrolment will increase again.  We need to design our schools with the flexibility to meet the challenges of changes in enrolment.  We need to rethink how to effectively use expensive downtown space to the financial advantage of education.  Let’s not sell off our biggest financial assets but use them to guarantee schools within walking distance of the students who need them.  Let’s be innovators!

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