Oakwood Collegiate is a distinguished and historic Toronto public high school with a tired, worn campus. After 100 years of sticking things here and there to keep the site functioning as changing times demanded, it is a hodgepodge. Chronic funding shortages have meant upkeep lagged and facilities deteriorated. This distressing state of affairs has been discussed in the neighbourhood for years. Around here we are park-deficient, and Oakwood is our local green space – the place where we can see the open sky, where kids play soccer and ball hockey, where runners circle the track, and walkers enjoy the cherry blossoms. Whatever its state, it’s our local gathering space. We care for it and want it improved.
Like the junior school kids who regularly play pick-up basketball there and long for the sound of a swish now that they finally have the height and skill to make their shots. Last spring a couple of them asked their parents to buy nets for the hoops, and they helped put them up. They bought four, but discovered that only one hoop was intact enough to be able to attach the net, and even that one required a coat-hanger modification. That’s the net everyone plays under, of course. A few days ago they went back and removed last year’s tattered net and replaced it for this season. Swish!
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In 2015 when the school was considered for closure, alarm spread locally at the potential loss of this public asset. Visions of townhouses and condo towers taking over the site spurred some in the community to action. The local BIA approached the school, hoping to collaborate on sprucing up the St. Clair frontage. And some residents formed an ad hoc advocacy group, Friends of Oakwood, to work with the school in keeping it viable.
Closure is now off the table – Oakwood Collegiate will stay open. The TDSB (Toronto District School Board) made their decision, invested in improvements to the building and turned their attention to the school grounds. They set up a participatory design process – “an essential step in the process is to involve stakeholders with design ideas in preparation for engaging a landscape architect. Stakeholders include: students, teachers, parents, caretakers and community.”
A remarkably inclusive committee developed this Landscape Master Plan over the course of several meetings in 2016. The Oakwood Landscape Steering Committee included Oakwood staff, administrators and students, the Parent Council, TDSB sustainability, landscape and environmental staff, and local BIA and residents’ associations. The planning process was so inclusive and collaborative that the head of Sustainability for the TDSB commented that he considers it a model of deep involvement to be implemented in other schools. Everyone built on each other’s ideas and together came up with a landscape plan that will revitalize the campus for the students and invite the neighbourhood into the green space at its centre.
The Landscape Master Plan
The main entrance – a new plaza
This is the main entrance at the corner of Oakwood Ave. and St. Clair W. The round planter in the centre of the walkway will be removed and paving will be extended to create a large plaza area and gathering place for students, away from the busy intersection. Wooden tables and benches designed and built by Oakwood students will be installed in the plaza near the doors. This is the section of the plan that is already funded and will be constructed in summer 2017.
The lumber for outdoor furniture
The lumber for constructing the furniture is stored in the school’s underground garage, protected from the weather while it dries. Oakwood students who will design and build benches and tables for their school grounds with this wood have been monitoring the moisture levels all year, and planning their designs based on the natural shape of the tree trunks. The project is part of the Technology curriculum under the direction of tech teacher Joe Flynn. Most of these trees came from Toronto school board property – they were Mountain Ash trees and victims of the emerald ash borer. The Red Oak tree came from Metrolinx, who made every effort to save it during the Eglinton Crosstown construction, but it was just not in the right spot.
Basketball court currently
The court is completely enclosed by a high chain-link fence, and surrounded by driveways and the parking lot. There is no seating or social space adjacent. The court surface is cracked and uneven, marred by weeds and puddles. Some hoops are missing, and only one even has the hooks to hold a net. The phys ed teacher does not conduct classes or practices here because the conditions make it unsafe. In spite of its condition, neighbourhood kids shoot hoops here all the time, as well as learning to ride their two-wheelers in this enclosed, off-street spot.
Basketball court – new location at Rosemount-Oakwood corner
The frontages along both Oakwood Ave. south of the school building and along Rosemount Ave. are just one long parking lot vista. This uninviting view will be replaced by a spectacular new basketball court, gardens, seating and tables for chess and ping pong. The parking lot will be shifted further west as far as where the current basketball court butts up to the rear driveway. This new basketball area will be seamlessly connected to the grass and walkways all along Oakwood Ave. in front of the school.
Raised planting beds
This is an excellent spot for raised planter boxes where the students with disabilities can create a garden. It’s sunny, near a water source, and close to their classroom area so they don’t have to cover a great distance to get to it. In this protected location away from other active play, plants won’t get trampled or crushed from bouncing balls. It’s at the edge of the relocated parking lot and beside the driveway – the student gardeners will pass by on their school buses every day.
The athletic field
The athletic field is surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Only one narrow gate is ever open for access to the field. There are steps down onto the track. This field is a FIFA minimum regulation size soccer pitch. There is no spectator seating anywhere. The landscape master plan calls for removal of the fence on the side adjacent to the school on the field’s eastern perimeter except at the two ends, where the slope of the grade requires it. Tiered seating would be installed where the fence was, and allow ramp access to the field. Seating will also be installed at the two northernmost corners of the field along the St. Clair fence, and the centre section of the fence will be set back to create access openings.
A fence is necessary along the field’s eastern edge at either end, where changes in grade require it for safety, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a high fence like what’s currently there. In the centre section the grade is level and that’s where the fence will be removed entirely. Opening that side of the field will integrate it with the rest of the school grounds and make it far more accessible than it is currently. Bench seating of two to three tiers will be installed where the fence had been and will provide a spot for spectators during sports events or for casual lunch and recreational space.
The fence continues unbroken west of the school building along St. Clair Ave. The landscape plan calls for the centre section of this fence to be set-back approximately four feet, without gates, to create an opening which invites passers-by to enter. The field and the track will remain intact. The fence would still function to keep athletes and their balls within the field, and at the same time allow access from the sidewalk along St. Clair. Seating at the two northern corners of the field under the shade trees would be a pleasant spot for lunch or a relaxing little break. This area will be enhanced by a lighting feature of some kind, and the fence will have decorative elements applied that will still allow visibility into the field. The lovely points of penetration where trees have grown through the fence will be preserved.
The performance area
Just west of the main entrance at Oakwood, on the north side of the school building along St. Clair West is a little-used, haphazardly paved shady depression. This spot is destined to be a flexible outdoor performance space. Paving stones will replace the asphalt, and the trees in concrete containers will be removed to a sunnier spot where they have a better chance to thrive. A low stage and moveable tables and chairs will create a spot for performance by students in the music, dance and theatre programs. A small section of tiered amphitheatre seating will be installed along the sloping curve near the school. It will also be another pleasant place to eat lunch outdoors.
Great plan – where does it stand?
The master plan is now on the roster of TDSB capital projects, but with no timetable of commitment for completion. They have allocated funding for only the plaza segment at this time, and construction will commence on that in summer 2017. It’s estimated that to complete the project will cost an additional $1M. What can move this project forward is partnering and raising seed money, and the community is engaged on several fronts in this important campaign to support a valuable community asset.
Friends of Oakwood is holding a kick-off fundraising party on May 4 at Starving Artists on St. Clair West with local bites and drinks, and an enticing silent auction. This is an opportunity for everyone to contribute, to get a good look at the plans, and a chance to talk and strategize together about how to make this great community cause a reality. Tickets are available online by clicking here, or by following the link on the Friends of Oakwood Facebook page. An additional way to support this effort is with a donation to the Oakwood Collegiate Common Ground GoFundMe page. All proceeds go directly to the Oakwood landscape project.
Our local neighbourhood cannot raise the entire amount necessary amongst ourselves, but this fundraising is an expression of the community’s support for the landscape plan. We are letting the school board, the city, the province and other potential funders know how important it is by putting some of our money where our mouth is. This is a true city-building project.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin
Read more from us here – Oakwood Collegiate: The School that Built a Community.
This is an excellent example of what neighbours can accomplish as community activists: a beautiful historic building is preserved; the campus and neighbourhood are beautified; and students feel a sense of belonging and usefulness by building with their own hands benches and table for the campus. This is the true meaning of environmentalism.
Robert L. Fisher, Toronto
This is truly impressive work! Sorry I’ll be away that day but will buy tickets and spread the word.
Pat Saul, Toronto
Great article! I will be attending the fundraiser May 4th and will spread the word far and wide.
Angie Van Damme, Toronto