In Louise-Arbour elementary school, fridges, photocopiers and filing cabinets are stashed in the hallways and stairwells — signs the French public school west of downtown is well over capacity.
"Overcrowded. It's unsafe," said Ben Lee, father of three kids who attend the school.
"We're not talking about luxury. We're just, you know, we're talking about the basic well-being of our kids and educational experience."
Many parents are anxiously awaiting a new, more spacious building as part of a sprawling development between Preston Street and the Trillium Line in Little Italy.
But in a draft plan for the property, the school is plunked directly in the footprint of the century-old Plouffe Park.
A sign reading 'Save our Park' hangs on the fence outside the Plant Recreation Centre in Ottawa. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)
Since the plan was released in May, local community groups have mobilized to protect what they view as a precious sliver of much-needed green space.
But some parents are concerned sending the city back to the drawing board may delay construction — and any delay would be unfair to the kids.
"I can understand the concerns, but it's a short-term concern," Lee said. "I think the people need to understand that there's an urgent need for this school."
One-on-one lessons taught in storage closet
Since 2017, École élémentaire publique Louise-Arbour has held classes in a rented school annex owned by the Catholic board.
The building, Lee said, is woefully inadequate for the students who are "shoehorned" into it.
Even with five portable classrooms set up in the yard, Lee said space is in such short supply the school can't fit a usable library.
A photocopier in the hallway and a cluttered storage room are examples of overcrowding at Louise-Arbour in Ottawa. (Submitted)
André Poulin-Denis, the outgoing co-chair of the school's parent council, said teachers who give individualized lessons are relegated to an office in a storage closet.
"Literally a storage closet," he said. "If the storage closet is occupied, then [the students] go to receive that assistance in the hallway or the staircase."
The school also lacks mechanical ventilation and a proper playground, Poulin-Denis said.
Kids have to cross the yard to use the gym in a neighbouring building, he added. Once they arrive there, they're met with a gaping hole in the ceiling.
A fridge in the stairwell at Louise-Arbour and a hole in the gym ceiling in the neighbouring building. (Submitted)
Lee said access to a French-language education in his neighbourhood is "essential," but the condition of the school is turning some parents away.
"There's lots of people that are pulling their kids out, have already pulled their kids out, to give them a better experience," he said.
CBC reached out to the school board for comment on the state of the school.
In an email, a spokesperson for Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario (CEPEO) said Louise-Arbour remains a priority.
"We will inform our school community as soon as we have updates to share on the matter," the email read.
Available land 'crux' of issue
In 2017, Ottawa Community Housing purchased a large tract of federal surplus land in Little Italy to build Gladstone Village, which would combine affordable, subsidized and market-value housing.
At the time, the French public board said it hoped to operate a school in the village within five years.
Four years later, the board had shifted its move-in target to 2026 and entered into an agreement with the city to use 1010 Somerset St., a city property just south of the proposed village, for the new school.
In the current plans for the property, the school — which received $14.5 million in provincial funding last May — appears alongside several new amenities, including a multipurpose community centre, public athletic fields and multiple residential towers.
But to the disappointment of many residents, it also goes where Plouffe Park currently exists.
The draft site plan proposed by the City of Ottawa for 930 and 1010 Somerset St. on May 25, 2023. (City of Ottawa)
Poulin-Denis said the neighbourhood doesn't have viable alternatives.
"That's kind of the crux of the issue, is that where we are in the downtown core, there isn't a parcel of land," he said.
School should be priority, parents say
For those who want to protect the park, the hope is the school can simply go elsewhere on the same property.
Even though another park is proposed as a component of the broader project, community groups say it was never meant to replace the existing one.
They also worry a phased approach to construction would leave the area without any green space at all for up to a decade.
A bike is locked to a tree outside Plouffe Park in Ottawa's Little Italy. The park is a much-needed sliver of greenspace in a neighbourhood otherwise bereft of it, residents say. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)
But Poulin-Denis and other parents are concerned reworking the current plan in an effort to accommodate both park and school may further delay construction — and leave kids in a subpar learning environment for longer.
The loss of the park is a concern, he said, but with alternatives within walking distance, the need for green space shouldn't be overstated.
"Our priority is to remedy this situation," he said. "[It] is not acceptable for our children to attend school in this type of facility."
Somerset ward Coun. Ariel Troster previously told CBC any conflict between the school and the park is a "false choice."
"We don't want to say either/or," she said. "For me, it's really a both/and."
Kevin Wherry, the city's manager of parks and facilities planning, said in an email to CBC the city is continuing to collect community feedback on the development.
The city is "aware of opposition and support for a school at the location proposed," he wrote, adding that a report to council on the development is expected early next year.