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Source: Toronto Sun

An aerial view of the St. George School Loft and Townhome development near downtown Newmarket.

It seems only fitting that on the day after Labour Day, and for many the first day back to school, that I would visit a condo site that was once a school.
So, on this day, I had a look at The King George School Lofts & Town Homes project in Newmarket.

Having visited a number of ‘condo conversion’ projects over the years — where an existing heritage building like a church or school is turned into a place where people live — I know it can be difficult. I’ve had more than one developer of these type of projects tell me it would have been a lot easier (and much less expensive) to demo the thing and build from scratch.

Having said that, these beautiful buildings are worth preserving — the King George School had been declared surplus by the local school board — even if deemed no longer suitable for their original use.

When complete, The King George project will consist of 11 loft units in the school and 14 surrounding townhomes. It is about 60 per cent sold, with renovation scheduled to be completed by September 2019. (Townhomes are priced from $1,150,000 – $1,350,000; Lofts at $540,990 – $998,990.)

My tour of the site is led by Daniel Berholz, President and David Bannerman, Project Manager for Rose Corporation, a boutique real estate development firm founded in 1982 whose portfolio of projects include the Tannery District in Kitchener.

Berholz tells me that only the facade and exterior received a historical designation which allowed the builder to totally gut the inside. Some of it can be preserved, like the luxurious wood frame doors. Virtually everything else — windows, fixtures, HVAC equipment, you name it — had to be upgraded or replaced.

The developer describes the project as “old meets new with a Yorkville vibe.” The basic appeal is a loft-style of living with its 13-foot ceilings, huge windows and exposed brick, and amenities include a courtyard.

Also of note, two styles are being embraced, classic Victorian in the schoolhouse itself while the townhomes will have an ‘Edwardian’ look. The architectural details are important, because with
an infill development like this, it needs to fit the neighbourhood.

“We’re in an area where there are lots of beautiful heritage homes,” explains Rick Nethery, director of planning and building services for the Town of Newmarket. “It’s such a beautiful building, and we (Town of Newmarket) were hopeful it could be retained.”

Then there is the planning aspect. The gutting and renovation may take about a year or so, but the planning — consulting with the Town, local residents, business owners, community organizations, developers and other stakeholders — is a process that takes years.

Fitting a project into a plan is not easy work. Unlike other communities with lots of land to accommodate new home growth, Newmarket is hemmed in, depending on ‘infill’ and ‘intensification’ to deal with its rapid growth (expected to be 33,000 residents over the next 30 years.)

To meet its growth needs, Newmarket has zoned the Yonge and Davis St. corridors for rapid transit and high-density development, while preserving its downtown for a more lower-density, village-style of living.

As a result, development in the downtown area needs to be approached differently, says Nethery, and must be “done to a particular scale.” Typical high-rise buildings won’t fit here and three- and
four-storey boutique-style condos and townhomes are the way to go.

Adding to the complexity, Newmarket is also taking steps to improve its downtown, putting in patios and making it more walkable and accessible to bikes. Several programs are in place to provide local merchants with funding and incentives for restorative work.

“We are continuing to examine our development approvals and our zoning by-laws to make the process as smooth and easy as possible.” says Nethery.

Put it all together, and it sounds like a lesson in planning and co-operation that could be taught elsewhere.