Moments of Zen: Saving Sanford School becomes theatre of the absurd

I had a Jon Stewart type “moment of Zen” last night at the special community meeting organized to discuss the looming demolition of the 1932 Sanford Avenue School. Actually, I had several and perhaps that’s the best way to report back on what happened. I felt in danger last night of spontaneously turning into a giant insect – or at the very least, that I was viewed as one by many of the Cathy Wever School posse that composed the majority of the over 90 people in the room.

This Parking Lot brought to you by 1984

I’ll start with the moment that stands out for me and will probably haunt me for the rest of my life: A staff member of the Cathy Wever School actually stood up and passionately – emotionally even – defended keeping the east end of the parking lot as her friends “drive to work everyday. Where are they going to park!?!”. She was offended and angry at my idea of putting the proposed soccer field there *instead of* demolishing a perfectly good heritage building.

My mind unpleasantly expanded then contracted in that instant. Here was a public school staff member advocating tearing down a historically significant piece of architecture in favour of parking. Maybe the bureaucracy of a school board taking that posistion is not a surprise, but one tends to hold a romantic idea that individual people in the public education industry would see the intrinsic value in a historic building of world-class design as an ideal environment for young minds – for now and future generations in the community. But she doesn’t think that way. She wants to see it leveled as soon as possible, erased from the landscape of the neighbourhood and the community’s memory. If you wonder where the problem with kids being disengaged from the value of academics comes from, then the culture of the adults working with them in the public school system is probably as good a place as any to look at. Actions like this is how attitudes become ingrained in children.

Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy works in Ward 3

The next moment of Zen for me was suddenly feeling like I understood Barack Obama’s flustered frustrations in debating Mitt Romney’s overly simplistic and misleading “I’ll give you all jobs” mantra. Last night, simply take out “jobs” and drop in “parks for the kids” and you have the position of the School Board staff, City officials and parents in the face of overwhelming evidence that demolishing Sanford School was not desirable or necessary in order for the kids to have parks and a soccer field on that site.

We tried to point out that there is no approved funding for replacing Sanford School with anything but an empty lot. We pointed out that a mere 40 parking spots could be moved to get that park, that soccer pitch there. We proved there were parties with the expertise and means to turn the empty school into a vibrant community fixture. We proclaimed our support for everything the parents wanted for their children – but none of this reality seemed to matter. It fell on deaf ears. It truly was a moment where any meaningful discussion was simply not possible in the face of what bizarrely could be called “park propaganda”. Effectively, all they did was help ensure local kids will likely grow up with another giant, empty lot that acts as another barrier to this area’s chances of economic recovery. Has anyone actually calculated the loss of tax revenue for the City of Hamilton in allowing a development friendly building to be demolished?

One developer told me property taxes would be “about $150,000 a year”. Imagine what that kind of injection could do this for this community. I keep thinking that is one expensive parking lot.

A warbling, sentimental speech about how kids love parks

This was the first moment where many of us looked at each other with incredulity. The chair and trustee of the school board read off a rambling speech about how he grew up in a more affluent area of town where there were parks for the kids. As a kid, he loved parks. His kids love parks. Kids love parks. Parks are important for kids. Kids here should have parks. Parks for kids is what the kids want. Parents want their kids to be in parks.

This turned out to be perhaps the most strategically clever moment of the entire night – he set the divisive tone to set the two groups against each other . The Cathy Wever School crowd clung to this “all or nothing / with us or against us / you’re for the kids or against the kids” politics that reminded me of the playbook of Vic Toews. They opted for passion over reason, and framed those of us trying to participate in this process as the agents of passion over reason. A neat trick.

Another deft result this long winded prepared speech had was to eat up valuable time, as the meeting had an expiration date of two hours. Two hours to somehow fight through the noise, and several times our Trustee and Councilor dismissed presented options because they were not “concrete enough”. It was impossible to present what they claimed was needed to earn a reprieve in the demolition of Sanford. This was crazy. Some might call it a sham.

It must also be pointed out that the childhood neighbourhood Tim Simmons waxed sentimental about is Westdale – an area that was allowed to keep their heritage school building. They have green space and bike paths. They have two way streets, with parking spots on them, in lieu of the vast parking lots that are central to the Sanford School debate. Westdale is an area of town that is one of the best places to live in Hamilton, with a very high quality of life.

Uncovering a conspiracy of lazy neighbours and developers

“You’re lying” one parent outright accused us, in response to our claim that our neighbours and ourselves were not provided an opportunity to participate in the consultation process. This ugly acccusation was the tone for the pro-demolotion group of school staff and parents in dismissing our concerns, and was dramatically presented enough to warrant being repeated in some news reports of this meeting.

If we think about this for moment, it makes no sense that we are lying about not knowing. I’ve probably put in more than a hundred hours over the last ten days to this decisision, and there are my neighbours and development professionals in the community all expressing alarm at being caught off guard. Almost ninety people showed up to this meeting precisely because of this public consultation process being flawed from the outset. I, and almost certainly the rest of the citizens protesting this process, would rather have had a chance to attend a more civil, constructive and publicly announced community meeting *before* this decision was made. Claiming we knew this was going to happen all along, and that we knew there was a meeting and simply were too lazy to attend and do anything about it until a Herculean last ditch effort is ridiculous.

But this meeting was not about thinking this through. This meeting was about stirring up emotions and hurling accusations at a community that does not happen to be part of the Cathy Wever School. These are classic political strategies for dividing a community, isolating the group that disagrees with you and then conquering your opposition.

Why did the chicken cross the road? For every other reason but to get to a park.

The same parent then described how one of her children got hit by a car crossing the street to the extremely close Woodlands Park. This was to demonstrate that there needed to be a park beside the school.

Remember when I mentioned earlier that no one is arguing against having a park or soccer field at Cathy Wever School? Any reasonable position that was not pro-demolition got swept aside by dramatics and emotional statements. The councilor, school trustree and city officials in attendance did nothing to record the conversation so as to dissuade this sort of distraction.

The vast majority of these parents and children have to cross these dangerous streets twice a day to get to the school and then return home. Many of them cross the vast soccer field at Woodlands Park to get to the school, which is about a one minute walk away.

This also, astonishingly, did not spark the notion for this group that the neighbourhood would be better served by safer streets, including segregated bike lanes. It further eroded the validity of my side’s position – we were forced to somehow try to justify small children getting hit by cars or do crazy things to the streets that these people did not care about at all. Most of the staff and decision makers drive in and out of this community to arrive at an area with an excess of parking. Why would they care about that extraneous, unrealistic solutions we were putting forward? This is, of course, more absurdity. This emphasis on driving on dangerous, huge streets that are virtual highways in this community is what put this parent’s child in danger in the first place, and is directly correlated to the view point that Sanford School needs to be demolished to make a park that is safer for the kids to get to.

No one mentioned the crossing guards who attend the intersection to and from Woodlands Park before and after school. In retrospect, I don’t feel like pointing that out would make any difference at all.

Back to the Future … of Parking

I need to make clear here, as I tried to make clear over and over to the crowd last night, that the core issue here is the city planners not considering shifting 40 parking spots to somewhere else. They could move the spots to the street, which is huge and under utilized. They could have the staff and employees of Cathy Wever School and the Norman “Pinky” Lewis Recreation Centre park at one of numerous empty lots close by and save the remainder of spots for clients and parents. Who has not had to walk a block to work or home after parking? Apparently, the staff of Cathy Wever School find this concept unthinkable. In turn, I find this deeply disturbing and frankly irresponsible.

Did this proposed solution gain any traction? None at all. Did any other option proposed get considered? Nope.

Seems like what we needed was a community developer with a proven track record to show up and present another option that would benefit the community by keeping and developing the school, and with some frank professional criticisms of the current plan that some of the parents and staff may be unaware of. Michael Clarke, a local lawyer and developer who was involved in key parts of the success of James Street North, did just that.

He was dismissed immediately by the Trustee for his “sales pitch”. Yet, his was the message that the school board and councilor claimed was absent that led to the decision to demolish Sanford School. The only thing he could have done that might of immediatly changed some minds was show up with a giant pile of money and perhaps NickelBack to play a pro-Sanford concert on the gymnasium stage while tossing out free bottles of vodka and soccer balls to the assembled crowd.

Clarke was asking for some time to be able to propose a plan – something that was impossible to do given he has had only 10 days to prepare and further hindered by the fact demolition can start next month

I have to list these other obvious questions that were not addressed last night:

Why is the rec centre expansion not incorporated into the Sanford School building?

Why was the Cathy Wever School building not incorporated into the Sanford School building?

If parking is and will be such a large problem, then why are solutions such as a underground parking and / or a parking structure not considered?

Would the millions of dollars saved by not demolishing Sanford and by utilizing it as part of the Cathy Wever School / Norman “Pinky” Lewis centre instead of re-building a structure from scratch be better used for a parking structure?

A passionate plea for our insurance and bureaucracy heritage.

More existential angst inducing moments have to be credited to the various public officials who offered helpful insights as to the impossibility of simple actions like fixing the broken boilers at Sanford School or spending any of the millions of dollars supposedly earmarked for demolition and expansion on any other option. If it’s not insurance issues, well then it’s an issue with the Ministry. Or the bureaucracy is “too big a machine” to change direction on – and the trustee and the councilor could not change anything because there were other people involved. People who were not there last night and will only hear our side of the debate via the councilor and the trustee.  And there is absolutely no way to consider moving parking spaces.

You would think the common threads of elected officials and our tax money might be more important to finding a better solution than not trying at all – but you would be mistaken in this case.

Crouching community, Hidden agenda

To me the most terrible aspect of this sordid affair was the manufactured nature of the community consent for demolishing Sanford. When the City and School Board “consulted” the community, they only consulted stakeholders inside the Norman “Pinky” Lewis and Cathy Wever School organizations and not any of the residents who are not part of these organizations. They are of course supposed to, and there is a mention of a public information meeting in 2010, on paper, but there was no notice posted outside the school and no notices distributed to the community. Not to my house, and not to my neighbours.

Other disturbing facts about this process is that Sanford was declared “surplus” 10 years ago – meaning no developer or organization was even allowed to present any other option for the building. And now, incredibly, the school trustee and councilor claim that there was no interest in it so they had no choice.  It is a fact organizations and developers did approach the school board about Sanford – and they are lining up now to take a shot at acquiring it – but were rebuffed because it was unavailable. One organization was told “the city has plans for it, so we can’t accept any other interest in it”.

A few more of my hairs went grey just typing that, and I think I’m developing an eye tick.

One of the victims of this boondoggle is the Cathy Wever Hub – a service provider for this area that wants expanded green space, more basketball courts and more facilities for the kids. They did not advocate destroying our built heritage but sort of got blamed for it by the politics of the situation – the city, the school board and the Cathy Wever School group all point to them as a “community” that were consulted. The Hub called this special meeting last night to correct this assumption and bring the community – my neighbours and myself – together to talk to the real forces behind these decisions. When I first spoke, I tried to help clarify this as well by citing Hamilton Community Foundation policy that Hubs are not neighbourhood associations (and neither are school or recreation staff, for that matter). I think that was a tactical mistake on my part – the Hub people thought I was attacking them and the parents / school staff thought I was undermining their place in the debate. It was ridiculous.

To me, the real victims last night are the duped parents and kids of Cathy Wever School who unfortunately think they are getting green space anytime soon. If it happens, and that’s a big if, then it would be earliest at 2016 and may take to 2022 or even later. To me, some of the worst culprits in this misinformation are those who happen not to be elected, or at all accountable to the larger community but exert great influence over the thinking of the parents and kids in attendance last night – the staff of Cathy Wever School. The feedback of the staff at Cathy Wever School, while  important, is not a community consultation. There was no proper community consultation or public notifications. This is kinda indisputable at this point but, in another moment of zen, appears to simply not matter. The rules of process do not matter here. This is not democracy – this is my local public school.

An apology from the worst culprit of all

That would be me, because last night I allowed the emotion and passion of the immediate situation to affect me. I sneered, I snorted and I quipped out of turn – it was very rude of me and I apologize to everyone there. It did not reflect well on the point my neighbours and I were trying to make, and played into the perception that we were being unreasonable. There is a saying that you should never argue with an idiot because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. I was beat by engaging on a gut reaction emotional level and that compromises any future dialogues with the same groups of people. Though those who were there from start to finish can attest to the many triggers that led to such emotion, I can only imagine what those arriving half way through must have thought.

A tool for preserving our democratic heritage emerges from the rubble

Incredible. Out of the blue and without any knowledge of the Sanford School situation, a Toronto based architect phoned me today to help him build a special website. He is concerned because he is going to help with a new development in a small city and wants to make sure there is communication with the community, and an online forum for tracking feedback on the proposed public project. Citing problems with public meetings where a few aggressive people can dominate any conversation, he thinks together we can help define a template for developers and a community to engage meaningfully over the course of “at least two years” before the project is started.

Compared to what has been happening here, I almost cried. There are people out there who want the same things, there is hope. Together, we are going to build this tool which may help prevent what culminated in the frustrations of last night.

Perhaps the best part of all is that I am going to name this content management tool for developers “Sanford”. This beautiful building may become an empty lot, but the lessons learned here may help other communities. In this way, I will help preserve some of our built heritage the best way I can.

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