Paul Wilson: It's all over but the crying for Sanford School

Sanford Avenue School, a great hulk of genuine Hamilton architecture, turned 80 this year. After a noisy meeting last night to debate the building's future, it's a good bet the school is not going to see another birthday.
The job of demolishing Sanford School, built in 1932, will be a big one. It could start next month. (Reg Beaudry)

Sanford Avenue School, a great hulk of genuine Hamilton architecture, turned 80 this year.

After a noisy meeting last night to debate the building’s future, it’s a good bet the school  is not going to see another birthday.

The session ran hot for two hours, a hundred people or more, and would have gone longer if the venue didn’t have to be cleared. It brought passion, shouting, accusations, pleas from some to save that old school and pleas from others to knock it down fast.

And in the end, it was clear that board of education chair Tim Simmons had not heard enough to change his mind. "There’s a good reason to save old buildings sometimes, but not in every case." 

Tim Simmons, school board chair, listened last night – but was not moved off course. (Reg Beaudry)

He said he would go back to his fellow trustees, tell them what he heard. "But there’s not a lot of will on the board to change course now."

The meeting was held in the gym of Cathy Wever school, which opened in 2006 in the shadow of Sanford. The new school is named after a beat cop who worked Barton Street.

Cancer took Wever about a decade ago, age 41. On the job, she tried to put a lid on the drugs and the violence and the sex trade that plagues the area. Off the job, she organized after-school programs. The area struggles still.

And that has a lot to do with why Sanford Avenue school will surely fall. The options for repurposing the building aren’t the same here as in more prosperous parts of town.

Back when this part of the city was strong, Sanford was built as a showpiece, with 41 classrooms, wide halls, lots of marble and brass. And two gymnasiums.

The last students left Sanford in 2010, but those gyms were still being used by the community. There was a direct link to them from the Pinky Lewis rec centre, which sits right next to Sanford.

Save Sanford or tear it down – both sides won applause in the Cathy Wever gym. (Reg Beaudry)

But the boilers blew a year ago, and the community lost those gyms. Joanna St. Jacques told the meeting last night her husband is in the trade. He’d fix those boilers for free, she said. Sanford school could live on, for a time at least, and the kids could play.

Wouldn’t work, chairman Simmons said. "As long as we own the building, we’re liable for anything that happens there." The school needs to come down, he said, so the 700 kids at Cathy Wever have more green space.

And the big Woodlands Park a block away on the other side of Barton doesn’t count, said Alana Thomas, mother of five. She said her son was hit crossing the road to that park. As for people in the neighbourhood who claim not to have known Sanford was coming down, she said, "you’re just lying."

Knocking down the school also makes room for an extension to the Pinky Lewis rec centre, something city staff has been planning.

But construction is years away. At one point last night, Ward 3 councillor Bernie Morelli said it could be 2020 before it gets built. Later he said it might be a few years sooner than that.

But council has not voted on the rec centre expansion – estimated to cost $15 million –  and probably won’t until after the next municipal election in 2014.  Anything could happen.

So why not hold off tearing down Sanford, asked some in the crowd. "This is a big machine," board chair Simmons said. "You don’t just stop it."

Lawyer Michael P. Clarke, who’s invested in several old buildings on James Street North, argued the demolition would not make Ward 3 a better place to live. "Your school board rips that building down and you’ll have a vacant lot," he told the crowd. "Do you think that’s going to energize your community?

Lawyer and downtown developer Michael P. Clarke argued an empty lot is bad for the neighbourhood. (Reg Beaudry)

"We’re only asking the school board to give us a chance to put a proposal together."

Referring to a site map, Clarke showed there might be a way to reconfigure plans and keep everybody happy.

But Simmons was unimpressed. "I saw him pointing at the board... but it wasn’t very clear what the plan was." At meeting’s end, he said he would grant Clarke a short window to come up with something more detailed before talking to the board.

Several other developers with experience in repurposing old buildings were at the meeting. Dave Valvasori and his brother turned the Allenby School off Locke Street into condos and are now doing the same with Dundas District school.

He said after the meeting that condos at Sanford would be a challenge. In Dundas, the units will fetch an average of $400,000, some going for more than $600,000. Here, even though the costs of rehabilitation would be the same, the units would sell for only a third the price.

"Sanford has good bones, definitely," Valvasori said. "It’s in better shape than the Dundas school. But this is one of the toughest neighbourhoods."

There could be a future for the school, he said, if it was a community project – saving the gyms, putting neighbourhood resources on the first floor, maybe seniors housing on the upper floors.

For something like that, Valvasori said, "we’d offer some help pro bono."

Those services are unlikely to be needed. The school board hopes to begin demolition in January.

Paul Wilson is a member of the Hamilton Municipal Heritage Committee. | @PaulWilsonCBC

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