Those entering the old heydon Park Secondary School are greeted by police Inspector Bryce Evans. His handshake, friendly if somewhat hard to avoid, sets a warm tone but also strikes a note of confusion. This is the school board meeting, right?
Most police in Evans's unit, 14 Division, work out of a small and somewhat dilapidated building across the street on Dovercourt. The force is eager to move out of it and consolidate with the community response unit beat cops currently stationed at the Ex.
If a deal with the Toronto District School Board goes ahead, they'll get their wish, and an easy move to boot. But the proposed new site, the former Heydon Secondary at 11 St. Anne's, is in the centre of a square, with three streets of houses facing it, and residents are wary.
One of 10 school board properties declared surplus in 2000, and 48 they eventually hope to close and unload, it's currently vacant save for women's drop-in Sistering. It's the first for which the board has a potential buyer so this is also the first time the board has dealt with public input on dispensing of surplus. And it shows.
Speaking to the group of about 30 locals, Michael Ellis, facilities manager for the police, says rebuilding 14 Division is one of the force's top priorities, and moving would allow them to double the size of the shop, currently around 20,000 square feet.
Councillor Joe Pantalone, from the abutting Trinity-Spadina ward, speaks next. "I'd like to thank the school board for helping us solve a problem," he says, "an old station that isn't allowing the police to work effectively."
But it's at least as much a case of the city, through the police, helping out a seriously strapped school board. The money from the sale would go into the board's Pupil Accommodation Fund, capital dollars for rebuilding or expanding old schools in the (relatively few) neighbourhoods where student populations are growing.
But thanks are a bit premature. Ellis, board executive superintendent Sheila Penny and trustees Maria Rodrigues and Scott Harrison take turns acting as MC, jumping up to make arguments for the sale. We need the money. The land will remain in public hands. It will make the neighbourhood safer. And, after all, it's just a move across the street.
They seem nervous. They've come prepared to present the deal as a fait accompli and will go to council for approval this month, but residents keep complaining that this is the first they've heard of it.
A tired-looking man stands to ask when residents will get to say if they want the proposed sale to go ahead. "The community piece,' he says (referring to notices promising an opportunity to "share with the community"), "that's what I'm wondering about."
"There would be a second community piece through Planning," says the TDSB's Penny. Someone mumbles about when the first was. "That would go through the planning process, the zoning process. There are lots of opportunities for consultation." But zoning only kicks in after the sale, which most here, regardless of their position, feel they've had no say in.
Most, like the trustees, also fear condo development if the land is privately bought. But there are concerns over parking: the force hopes for an expanded parking lot, but residents are leery of losing green space (council, incidentally, has prioritized preservation of the school's playing field) and are equally afraid of increased on-street parking.
In fact, it's clear that almost no one here wants a new police station, but it's not clear what they do want.
"You're not a good neighbour," says resident Marie to Division Commander Ruth White. There's mumbled agreement across the room. People mention 5-foot weeds abutting their property, sidewalks not cleared of snow, unresolved noise complaints, officers speeding past children at play.
Rodrigues reiterates that having a station in the middle of a neighbourhood makes it safer. "A police station doesn't make a safe community," interjects a young man. "The community makes a safe community."
"And the police are part of the community," responds Rodrigues, like a kindergarten teacher reminding us how to put our boots on. To be fair, most 14 Division police live outside the area, Evans will later say in conversation.
But why are school trustees making a sales pitch while also running the meeting? The facilitators are hardly neutral. In a way, it's hard to blame them. The board is robbing Peter to pay Paul to pay Peter. The operating budget, which surplus properties eat into, is being topped up by the capital budget. The capital budget needs the funds from the sale of these buildings to expand other schools because under-capacity schools have closed.
Not that residents are prone to objectivity either. Property values in this part of town have jumped of late, and people are reluctant to see that change.
"We just learned of this transfer a week ago,' says Nancy Freeman, a participant in the Sistering drop-in, who suggests transitional housing and a community centre, plus possibly a police community storefront, on the site but locals are equally leery of that idea.
As people begin to grow restless, someone asks again about how a decision will be reached, and it's eventually decided that a poll will be mailed out and results tallied in November.
As folks gather their belongings, someone remembers that the issue will go to council in September. Pantalone promises to make sure staff do not approve any transfer until after the poll, but one has to wonder if anyone would have caught that if a local hadn't.
"We could end up putting this out to the general public, and someone could build a 20-storey condo,' says trustee Harrison. "We've got 10 buildings we should probably sell right now."
They should probably work on their process.