Nelson Mandela school opens next week after renovations run $8M over budget

The overruns were largely blamed for the provincial government’s decision to temporarily freeze funding for new Toronto District School Board buildings last year

Article content

Following months of controversial cost overruns and delays, the revamped Nelson Mandela Park Public School is finally opening its doors to students next week.

Article content

Inside the shell of a heritage building, crews have been working for about two years on a “deep retrofit” that has delivered a new library, an airy central atrium and a new kindergarten corridor with big bay windows that look into the classrooms. Workers have replaced all the floors, ceilings and lights; installed a new air ventilation system; and brought updated technology into the classrooms.

Much of the recent attention, however, has focused on escalating costs — what began as a $21.7-million project is now about $8-million over, the local trustee says — and a missed opening last September. The overruns were largely blamed for the provincial government’s decision to temporarily freeze funding for new Toronto District School Board buildings last year.

Article content

There is no question mistakes were made

Trustee Sheila Ward said she was “delighted” to be welcoming Regent Park students back next Tuesday to their old home, which she now considers “one of the best schools in the country.” But she openly shares her displeasure with the way the project unfolded, noting if she had known earlier about the state of the building and the costs to fix it, she would have voted instead to tear it down.

“I understand people are mad, people are really mad… There is no question mistakes were made,” Ms. Ward said.

Lead architect Maureen O’Shaughnessy blamed much of the escalating costs — which she says have been “overstated” — on contaminated soil and deteriorated structural columns, which were only discovered after construction was underway. She also cited “challenges” in accessing the construction site amid the larger redevelopment of Regent Park public housing.

Article content

“I think it’s very unfortunate … Absolutely it’s very challenging that these overruns happened, however, I do think that restoring and rebuilding that beautiful building was the right thing to do,” said Ms. O’Shaughnessy, a principal of CS&P Architects.

Built in 1915 and said to be the oldest school standing in Toronto, the building was renamed after former South African president Nelson Mandela in 2001. The board approved the contract for a makeover in February 2011.

Ms. Ward was the first to sound the alarm last summer that the project seemed nowhere near ready for the first day of school; issues with the roof and steel columns under the building’s west side were also exposed.

Ms. Ward says she has a “fairly clear sense of what has gone wrong,” but not the expertise to be able to point a finger at someone.

“Clearly on our side there were mistakes made as well as mistakes made on the contractor side,” she said, noting what is most important now is the lessons that have been learned.

“The next time we look at dealing with an old school, I’m going to be asking very hard questions,” Ms. Ward said. “Can we afford to spend the kind of money we may need to spend in order to preserve this old building and bring it up to snuff?”

National Post

[email protected]