Paul Wilson: New hope to keep the wreckers away at Sanford School

Last week, 80-year-old Sanford school was on death row. Now, suddenly, it stands a fighting chance, with a public meeting called for next week.
Here's an aerial view of what might replace Sanford Avenue school if it is demolished. (Google Maps, Kevin Gamble/CBC)

It’s three minutes to midnight, but suddenly there is fresh hope for those want to keep big, old Sanford Avenue school from the wrecker’s ball.

The news broke last week that the school board had applied to City Hall for a demolition permit for Sanford, which opened in 1932 as Central High School of Commerce.

That permit will be issued no later than Dec. 10. The board has said they’d like to start bringing the school down in January.

That brought lots of heat on Twitter and Facebook.

Tim Simmons is chair of the board of education, and trustee for Ward 3, where Sanford is located. "We’re in a political environment, as you know," he says. "And when things start to snowball, you need to find a way to melt it... and people do need to understand that due process is being followed."
The gas company came by yesterday to cut the line to Sanford school, but it hasn't had heat for a year anyway. At a neighbourhood meeting next week,some will argue this building deserves to live. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Simmons has maintained the board is just responding to the wishes of the community. And he’s heard the people there say they want more services in that block between Sanford and Wentworth, just south of Barton. Specifically, they want an expansion to the Pinky Lewis rec centre and a new soccer pitch for Cathy Wever school. 

To get those, it’s been said so far, Sanford has to fall.

But in the past few days, there’s been a plea to slow the process down. Maybe there’s a way to come up with some green space, a bigger rec centre – and a new life for Sanford. Condos perhaps, or a seniors' residence.

If there’s going to be a delay in the demolition, Simmons says, the neighbourhood must agree.

The tarmac plains behind Sanford – maybe there's room to put in a soccer field without demolishing the school. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

And yesterday Simmons called Alex Moroz, head of the Cathy Wever Hub, a small group of parents trying to make life better in a part of town with more than its share of challenges.

Turns out Moroz had been feeling the sudden storm of protest too. And after that talk, Moroz has now announced a public meeting to discuss Sanford school options. It’s next Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 6 p.m. in the gym of Cathy Wever school, 160 Wentworth Street North.

What if the neighbourhood decides that night that it does make sense to hold the wreckers off long enough to get expressions of interest from developers who think they might be able to make Sanford live again? (That’s the process the city’s Heritage committee proposed this summer, but council just bounced the motion back.)

Simmons says if the neighbourhood asks for a demolition delay, "I would be obligated to take that back to the board." It was the board who voted to demolish the school, and those same trustees would need to grant it a temporary reprieve.

Moroz welcomes this process. He hopes many people, developers and otherwise, will come to that meeting with ideas.

"If everybody says, ‘Let’s give some time to these developers and see if we can meet all the objectives,’ then that absolutely makes sense," he says. "We didn’t know there could be other options."

The cornerstone at Sanford school, signed in the bottom right corner by Prack, noted firm of industrial architects. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

One hard truth that hasn’t been aired so far is that any addition to Pinky Lewis is far from a sure thing anyway. Moroz says that unfortunately, this is so.

So does Rom D’Angelo, director of community facilities for the city’s rec department. He wants Ward 3 to get more space at the Pinky Lewis centre. But the addition's target cost is $12-$15 million and the project is only in the feasibility stage.

It’s in the forecasted budget for 2015, but not the capital budget. The project has not been approved by council yet.

"And priorities could shift," D’Angelo acknowledges. "In 2014 there’s an election. That could bring different directions."

Moroz says a voice he listened to in the last few days was that of Hamilton lawyer Michael P. Clarke. "He was one of the first to come forward and say, ‘There are some options.’"

Clarke is not new to bringing old buildings back. He is one of four partners who bought the derelict Hotel Hamilton on James North a few years ago. That now thrives, with studio space and the Mulberry Cafe.

And just a month ago, Clarke partnered again on James North and bought two properties next to the HIStory + Heritage storefront museum. There will be retail space below, and two three-bedroom 1,000-square-foot apartments above.

The tearing down of the board of education headquarters at Main and Bay this fall hit Clarke hard. Then he discovered last week that Sanford was to fall too. Since then he’s spent his days networking, talking to developers, politicians, bloggers.

"I just couldn’t let this one slide through," Clarke says. "It’s late, but we’re just looking for a chance."

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

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.