'I will not be pushed out': 40-year-old Parkdale dance school faces uncertain future

After 40 years in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, a local dance school faces an uncertain future as development looms.

School is a ‘cultural hub’ that enriches Parkdale neighbourhood, founder said

Pia Bouman, 76, started her school in a church by Queen Street West and Beaty Avenue in 1978. (Submitted by Pia Bouman)

Pia Bouman has a clear mandate at her school: anybody who wants to dance should be able to do so.

The school is a registered charity in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, with a bursary fund to ensure all children have the opportunity to dance and perform.

But after 40 years in the area, the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement faces an uncertain future after its building was sold and development looms.

"I don't want to be pushed out," said Bouman, who is searching for a new home for the school. "I will not be pushed out if I can help it."

'Part of the tapestry' of Parkdale

Bouman started her school in a Parkdale church basement in 1978, and watched the neighbourhood slowly change over the next 40 years.

In 2004, the school moved to an old industrial building near Queen Street West and Dufferin Street.

It's more than just a dance school, it's a "cultural hub that enriches Parkdale on many, many fronts," Bouman said.

Artists come from many places to use the studios for rehearsal and as a creative space, she said, and the students feel that energy.

It's a safe space where children walk after school and do their homework. And the school brings economic activity to the neighbourhood, as parents drop off their children and support local shops, Bouman said.

The Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement is a cultural hub and community institution in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. (Submitted by Pia Bouman)

Staying in Parkdale is important to Bouman.

"After 40 years, I'm really embedded in there . . . I'm part of the neighbourhood, part of the tapestry that is Parkdale," Bouman said on CBC's Metro Morning.

But with the building poised for development, the school is searching for a new home — and Bouman is determined to stay in the community she loves.

14-storey building too tall

After the building was sold in 2015, the developer originally proposed a 14-storey building at 6 Noble Street.

The dance school could have a permanent space on the bottom two floors, said co-owner and development consultant Dermot Sweeny, whose own children attended Bouman's school. 

Sweeny said the plan was to have rental apartments and some affordable housing in the new building.

But 14 stories is too tall when the highest nearby buildings are half that height, said Coun. Gord Perks.

The building was too high for city planning rules, he said, which only allow for six to eight storey-buildings in that area.

Some local residents were opposed, he said, and it would create an "open season" for other developments.

I'm part of the neighbourhood, part of the tapestry that is Parkdale.- Pia Bouman, founder

After public meetings and discussions with the city, developers eventually revised the application to an eight-storey building. But at that size, they could not build enough units to cover the costs of housing the dance school, said Sweeny. Bouman would have to pay more than $4 million for the space. 

Bouman said they can't raise that kind of money. They could maybe muster $1.5 million.

'No way' the school will close

But Bouman says there's "no way" the school will close. 

"What would my bursary students do?"

They would no longer have a chance to dance, she said, and it would be a loss for artists, youth, and the Parkdale community.

Bouman is working to find a new space, and holding out hope for a gust of philanthropy.

"I'm just hoping that somewhere along the line, one of the money gods is looking down on us," said Bouman.

Need for more arts funding

Perks said he's committed to helping Bouman find a new space for the school, and hopes it can stay within the neighbourhood. 

He said a key issue is that the city and province need to do a better job at funding mid-sized arts organizations.

"The lesson learned here is you can't rely on private wealth to do it for you," said Perks. 

Coun. Gord Perks says he's committed to helping the dance school find a new home.

'Running out of land'

Sweeny, the developer, said Parkdale needs more density and people. He believes a 14-storey building would have been reasonable in the area.

"We're running out of land," Sweeny said, adding that the revised building will include condominiums instead of apartments.

City council will next consider the application for the eight-story building on July 23.