Nature Band-Aids and the Proposed Board of Ed Building

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 26, 2012

this blog entry has been updated

If you haven't watched it yet, James Howard Kunstler's February 2004 TED talk is a hilarious, offensive and insightful rant against the waste and alienation of sprawl.

Off the top, Kunstler lays out his thesis on the role of architecture in enabling civic life:

Your ability to create places that are meaningful, and places of quality and character, depends entirely on your ability to define space with buildings and to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes, rhythms and patterns of architecture in order to inform us who we are. The public realm ... has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the quality of the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there.

It was with Kunstler's words ringing in my ears that I read today's report in the Spectator on the proposed design for the new Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) head office near Mohawk Road East and Upper Wentworth Street.

Proposed Board of Education building
Proposed Board of Education building

Kunstler explains how to design and build a city:

[T]his pattern of building downtown blocks all over the world is fairly universal. It's not that complicated: buildings more than one storey high, built out to the sidewalk edge so that all kinds of people can get into the building, other activities are allowed to occur upstairs, you know, apartments, offices, and so on. You make provision for this activity called 'shopping' on the ground floor.

After eviscerating an inept attempt to replicate traditional downtown building design, he points out a bush in front of the building and notes:

To make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it.

Kunstler goes on to rage against the idea that the solution to bad urbanism is to retreat into a pastoral ruralism - or, more often, an ersatz pastoral suburbanism.

I call them nature band-aids because there's a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains. That's not good enough: we have to do good buildings.

He goes on:

One of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, the urban and the rural. They're not the same thing, and we're not going to cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city.

It's particularly astonishing that the HWDSB - our civic organization overseeing public education - is gearing up to retreat into the ersatz country of a suburban business park only now, at a time when the rest of the continent is already busy rousing itself from the 70-year fantasy of suburban living and returning to cities.

Update: Here is the site plan of the proposed Board of Education building:

Board of Education Building proposed site plan (Image Credit: HWDSB)
Board of Education Building proposed site plan (Image Credit: HWDSB)

Thanks to RTH reader George for linking to it in the comments.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2012 at 09:23:29

Check out Graham Crawford's poster on the 'Dissidents (Hamilton Chapter)' facebook page. Quite the powerful commentary, too.

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By PaulV (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 09:35:14

Thanks Ryan, obviously the intention of the rendering was to consciously disregard modern planning principles. Its soft, pastoral and safely removed from the dystopian downtown. Its a sigh of relief.

And just look at all that parking up front. And the roundabout dropoff circuit? Maybe there's a way to incorporate a Tim Horton's drive thru.

Comment edited by PaulV on 2012-01-26 09:35:30

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By George (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:01:07 in reply to Comment 73323

Ugh! The pavement!

Comment edited by George on 2012-01-26 11:41:09

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By Rob (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 15:02:16 in reply to Comment 73327

Looks like the parking is equivalent to...what...three times the building's square footage? Include the greenery and it's more than four time, no?

Isn't it sad when the most positive part of this is "at least it's not one story"?

480 parking spots...anyone know how many people work there? My guess is 400. You know, so everyone can drive to work, and they still have visitor parking.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 09:47:49

In the middle of a residential neighbourhood too....if you didn't know any better you'd think they chose the site with the purpose of making it as humanly hard as possible for non-car owning 'code red' residents to ever show up and have their voices heard.....not that they'll have any schools left to worry about.

And remember, this is a public institution using public money.
Why not purchase Scott Park for $7-$8 million and spend the rest of the $32 million allocated for the new HQ on completely renovating Scott Park? In the heart of code red with a future LRT station out front. I guess the drawback with that idea is that it would make the board accessible by those who pay their salaries and bills.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2012 at 14:02:24 in reply to Comment 73324

Why does it even need to be a special school building? The BoE is an office complex, not a classroom.

Imho, the city should just say "you get one. You got one custom-built, stylish, architecturally neato building. You dont' get a second. Your new building will be a bland office tower that we can reuse or sell as generic office space when you get bored of it.".

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By George (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 15:05:23 in reply to Comment 73336

Yes, that makes sense. Stelco tower it is then.

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By George (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:17:22 in reply to Comment 73324

As much as using Scott Park is a better idea than what they have now, what they should be doing is re-establishing themselves right downtown. Double the height of the downtown Mac campus and occupy the other half. Give Hamilton another iconic building at King/Main and Bay.

Shame on them for abandoning downtown!

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 18:38:43 in reply to Comment 73328

you mean what was proposed 4 years ago

Deal Breaker Alert: No Parking.

Hamilton is obsessed with parking and not having to pay for it. Then surrounding it with shrubbery so that we feel like we are in nature. A Prius feels better parking beside a collection of Hostas.

Just wondering what happened to the "two and a half story building". What a joke. Fire the entire Board of Trustees next election. Starting with Judith Bishop.

Comment edited by TreyS on 2012-01-26 18:47:17

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 19:31:27 in reply to Comment 73351

Dude, you were bang on 4 years ago. Wow. Scary. They are willing to hold the city hostage and Mac hostage so they can get a publicly funded parking lot.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:43:43 in reply to Comment 73328

There are footings for a second tower under the parking lot, put there in anticipation of future expansion, but staff's addiction to surface parking will ensure that those publicly funded footings will end up in the landfill alongside the beautiful board building.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 09:59:53 in reply to Comment 73324

Plus all the staff would have to drive through those icky neighbourhoods on their way to work and eat their lunches in local, independently owned restaurants. (Shudder.)

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By TnT (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:44:28

I find I am suffering 50/50 syndrome. I am filled with hope for humanity for the city reading the stone heritage articles. Then despair over our abuse of heritage designs like BoE. What is the balance? Is there more good then bad? Is it just the bad is so overwhelmingly shocking it drowns out the positive.

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By realitycheck (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 13:23:09

The rendering looks similar to the squat campus buildings being built at McMaster Innovation Park.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2012 at 13:31:22

An ugly, but not unexpected design. This concept drawing evokes the same sense of utopian naivete that I remember from the first plans I saw for the current 100 Main site and the "Civic Square" which was to surround it. In both cases the fantasy of big-grassy-setback as "public space" or "greenspace" dominates the blueprints, even though all experience tells us it will be neither.

With an implied sense of private (public) property, and a general rule of 'keep off the grass', the current School Board lawn gets as little actual use as it's parking lot, if not less (there are often more people sitting or gathered around the parking lot). On the mountain, with far less foot traffic, there's likely to be even less. Ecologically speaking, these spaces are completely artificial and look more like a golf course than any actual natural space you could name, requiring lots of costly and energy-intensive maintenance (irrigation, mowing, chemicals etc). Unless there's something to close the space off main roads or something to denote it as public park space like trail access (old HPH grounds, etc), these might as well be oversized parking lot islands.

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2012 at 16:28:56

Fits with the Trustees vision of closing urban schools and building new fancy pants ones on the outskirts of the City.

Everyone knows that it is nicer and more cost effective to build a new school on a farm field and bus whatever urban students are left out to it - rather than actually fixing up your existing schools and busing the hordes* of suburban students into the City. Suburban parents moved to the suburbs to raise their families and DAMNIT they NEED schools within walking distance!!!

*hordes of suburban students exist for 5-10 years after which the children of all the families that had moved to the farm fields have grown up and moved to condos in downtown Toronto.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 17:56:59

Lets do the math

Based on this listing, serviced industrial land on the East Mountain looks to be going for upwards of $250K an acre.

The site space looks to utilize about 1/4 for the building, and 3/4 for parking and the associated landscaping needed to hide it.

At 9.85 acres, this means that before paying for construction costs, the city is already paying $1.8 million for the land utilized by employee parking. With 480 spots, that works out to about $3,800 per space.
Add in another $2K per space for paving and drainage and we're looking at a subsidy of about $6,000 for each Board of Ed employee who drives to work (if all the spots are used). Financed over 10 years at 2%, that works out to a benefit of $650/year per employee.

Fiscally conservative?

Comment edited by arienc on 2012-01-26 17:58:21

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 18:31:03

This should not be funded by the Province. It does not fit with the Places to Grow act, it is too low density for the amount of land used.

I hope Mac doesn't buy their building and this deal fails. This has always been about free parking.

Almost 4 years old now, but nothing has changed. Except that parking has gone from 300 spots to 480 spots. Keep in mind the Board has about 350 employees, why every employee needs 1.5 parking spots, and why they need to have useless shrubbery and lawnscaping on 42% of 9 acres? I don't want my tax money to pay for watering and upkeep for 4 acres of Kentucky Blue Grass and Hostas that serve no purpose. Plus pavement of another 4 acres for car storage 9-5, then lighting for an empty parking lagoon at night.

This is absolutely ridiculous. The board should not be allowed to move out of downtown. The City should not be encouraging this. Mac should bail on this deal.

Comment edited by TreyS on 2012-01-26 18:39:29

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 20:30:45 in reply to Comment 73349

Agree 100%. The board is really wasting money and land with this inefficient design.

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By jason (registered) | Posted January 26, 2012 at 19:32:49 in reply to Comment 73349

I've really wanted Mac downtown, but I now agree with you.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2012 at 19:45:11 in reply to Comment 73354

Mac might be great downtown, actually. But not in the form they're proposing. Someone else had a better, more 'life-infusing' notion for their presence.

Mahesh? What was that you'd posited once-upon-a-time...?

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:53:35 in reply to Comment 73355

"...But if you must fight, then fight to bring the School of Liberal Arts out from the suburban campus before it gets built there, into the heart of the city - and make it stand proudly on the same square as the art gallery, the theater and convention centre. In doing this you may finally see the youthful vibrancy you crave so much in the core..."

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 01:51:29 in reply to Comment 73355


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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 27, 2012 at 05:11:16 in reply to Comment 73359


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