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Priced Out

Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement faced with finding a new space By Grace Wells-Smith
  • Photo courtesy of Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement

After fifteen years, Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement has been priced out of its home on 6 Noble St, in Toronto’s west end.

On December 31, 2015, Dermot Sweeny of Sweeny & Co Architects Inc. bought the building with the intention of keeping the school in the new development. But after the city rejected the original fourteen storey building, reducing the new building to eight storeys, there was no longer room for the not-for-profit school – not unless they could contribute more than $3.5 million to the project.

Pia Bouman calls her school a “hub.” Not only does it house dance classes, but the space is rented as affordable rehearsal and performance space for artists, all of whom will have to find other locations to do their work. “My serious worry is the same that everybody here has,” Bouman said in an interview. “Artists and parents are concerned that we’ll be pushed out of the centre of the city.”

One of the school’s defining features is the bursary program. The school’s mandate says that all children who want to dance can dance, regardless of their financial situation. “It puts in jeopardy the whole bursary program,” Bouman said. This mandate applies to, as Bouman explains, “all the kids that are on bursary who live in the neighbourhood or who use city transit to get here.”

The school sits near the corner of Queen Street West and Dufferin Street, between the Dufferin bus and the Queen streetcar, making it easily accessible. Bouman says that if the school leaves Parkdale, some students would be faced with hours of travelling to get to class, or traffic in the area would increase if they are forced to drive. “You would do everything that is against what makes a healthy city.” In Bouman’s eyes, keeping the school located where it is creates a healthy city by supporting and giving opportunities to children with unstable financial situations.

This is not the first time the school’s future has been uncertain. Before moving to 6 Noble St., which Bouman found by simply driving by, the school was housed in a church on Queen Street West. After twenty-five years, they were evicted.

But the story is not exactly the same this time around. Bouman and Sweeny have a history: his daughters used to dance at the school. She said that after he bought the building, he came to her and said that the school would be included in the new development. “We did not take any steps for two years,” Bouman said. She, along with everyone else, believed the school’s future was secured. “Our property taxes went up and up and up, and we managed but we were not able to build a war chest for an eventual move.”

Then, Sweeny’s proposal was rejected and the development was cut down to eight storeys. “We decided there was no way we could support the dance school anymore,” Sweeny said in a phone interview. The two did not have a signed agreement. “If you do not know what a project is, how do you do an agreement?” Sweeny said. He does, however, say that his “word is pretty good in life.”

After a full economic assessment of the building, Sweeny said the company determined that if Bouman still wanted to be included she would have to contribute between $3.5 and $5.5 million  – an insurmountable amount for a not-for-profit dance school. “Eight storeys will not yield enough to cover the cost of housing the dance school,” Sweeny says. He emphasizes the enormous costs attached to building.

At an all-candidates debate in Parkdale in October during the Toronto municipal election, candidate David Ginsberg accused incumbent Gord Perks of not doing enough to save the school. Some residents at the debate agreed with him.

However, city planner Kirk Hatcher said in a phone interview that Perks did all he could to help the school. He said that when a developer, not the city, buys a building the councillor does not actually have that much power. “It was the developer that couldn’t make it financially work,” Hatcher said. “We all knew the space was for Pia and hoped it would work out.”

Bouman says she feels her school is an important part of the city. “That is such an irony,” she says, “that where the city needs it most, you’re being pushed out.”

Bouman’s lease is up in August 2019. She has three task forces of volunteers: one devoted to finding space, one devoted to fundraising and one devoted to how the move is going to logistically happen.

“Find a space, find a space, find a space,” Bouman says. “That’s the mantra.”

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