Seismic upgrades threaten Vancouver's heritage schools

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      More than two dozen Vancouver schools that are vulnerable to earthquakes may be demolished despite their heritage value.

      Although it could be years before the fate of each of these 29 schools is finally decided, the experience with General Gordon Elementary School in Kitsilano doesn’t provide much cause for optimism.

      Built in 1911 and opened the next year at 2896 West 6th Avenue, the landmark will be replaced by a new, modern school.

      “It’s seen as the heart of Kitsilano,” resident Jean Gordon told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “For it to go and for there to be a modern box in its place I think would be a really sad rupture of the landscape of the neighbourhood.”

      Although General Gordon Elementary received a “noteworthy” evaluation in a principal category from a consultant that assessed the heritage value of schools in the city in 2007, it didn’t rate as “superior” like many others.

      The school got a score of six out of 10 in Category A, for aesthetic and functional values. Commonwealth Historic Resource Management Ltd. also used three additional categories for educational, historical, and social values.

      A draft dated September 2011 of a new assessment of 48 Vancouver elementary and secondary schools with significant seismic risks shows that 26 other schools have the same score of six as General Gordon.

      Seventeen are elementary schools: Beaconsfield, Begbie, Brook, Bruce, Fleming, Grenfell, Hudson, Jamieson, Livingstone, Macdonald, Maple Grove, Maquinna, Nelson, Osler, Queen Alexandra, Quilchena, and Southlands.

      The nine others are secondary schools: Churchill, Gladstone, Hamber, Killarney, King George, Prince of Wales, Templeton, Thompson, and Windermere.

      Three elementary schools got a score of only two. These are Cunningham, Waverley, and Weir.

      The list of 48 vulnerable schools, prepared by Coriolis Consulting Corp., excludes General Gordon. On October 17, the Vancouver school board voted to knock down and replace the century-old school.

      A total of 19 schools garnered a perfect score of 10 in Category A. Sixteen of these are elementary schools: Bayview, Carleton, Carr, Cavell, False Creek, Franklin, Grandview, Kingsford-Smith, L’Ecole Bilingue, Lloyd George, MacCorkindale, Mackenzie, Nightingale, Renfrew, Seymour, and Tennyson.

      The three others are secondary schools: Brittania, John Oliver, and Point Grey

      “Category A is the aspect of heritage significance that is most directly associated with the historic and architectural merits of the buildings and the importance of the designer (i.e., heritage value associated with the building per se versus the school’s role in the story of a neighbourhood or the City),” the Coriolis draft report states.

      According to school-board chair Patti Bacchus, it would cost $857 million to tear down and replace all of the 48 vulnerable schools.

      Bacchus noted that this option costs less than the estimated $1.1 billion for the full upgrade of these learning facilities, which would involve both seismic and maintenance repairs and would also mean saving the heritage features of the schools.

      A seismic upgrade only—with no maintenance work on the roofs and electrical and mechanical systems—is the cheapest option, amounting to $618 million.

      However, Bacchus stressed that the board will look strategically at the heritage rankings and will not replace each and every vulnerable school in the city.

      “When we’re negotiating with the province, we can say: ‘Okay, we’re not going to ask you for a full-upgrade retention on every single school,’ ” Bacchus told the Straight in a phone interview. “But we’re going to ask for these particular ones that we know are very significant.”

      A lot may depend on how much money the province is willing to give. “We are in stiff competition for this kind of funding,” the school-board chair said. “We do have to be realistic.”

      However, all other decisions must wait until after funding totalling $132.6 million has been made available for four pending seismic projects. These include the replacement of General Gordon, at $14.6 million.

      According to the draft report by Coriolis, the three others are the replacement with heritage-façade retention of Kitsilano Secondary ($66 million); a combination of replacement and upgrades for Queen Mary Elementary ($19 million); and seismic upgrades to the three heritage school buildings of Strathcona Elementary ($33 million).

      All three have a Category A heritage ranking of 10, compared to General Gordon’s six.

      But the ranking assigned by Commonwealth Historic Resource Management in 2007 doesn’t impress heritage experts like André Lessard. He is a member of the Heritage Vancouver Society and president of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals.

      “Whether it’s a great building or not is a moot point,” Lessard told the Straight in a phone interview. “We’d rather keep beautiful buildings, but some buildings may not have great architectural values but a lot of significance in terms of their place in the community.”

      Heritage advocate Bruce Macdonald didn’t attend General Gordon, but his father did. “In Vancouver, those schools built around 1910, they were the tallest things in the neighbourhood,” Macdonald told the Straight in a phone interview. “They have a long, cherished history. If you do build brand-new schools, I mean, I understand the appeal, especially to new immigrants who don’t have a sense of our own history here. Why would they?”

      However, Macdonald stressed that the preservation of at least a heritage feature, like a façade that allows children to walk through the same door their forebears did, “gives a whole sense of a distinguished past”.

      A school-board staff report dated September 26, 2011, notes that the exterior and interior features of General Gordon have been altered over time, thus degrading its heritage value. The report also states that replacement with retention of the school façade would cost $22 million, compared to the full-replacement cost of $14.6 million.

      Bill Uhrich, an architect, recently moved with his family from Kitsilano to North Vancouver. He has two children who used to attend General Gordon.

      He and other parents got word of the board’s preference for knocking down the school one evening last summer when they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of General Gordon. Performing at that event was the legendary Kitsilano Boys Band that was first formed in the school during the 1920s; the band is regarded as a legacy. “These are incredibly valuable stories that a community needs to hear and needs to understand, and I think the school is indelibly part of that,” Uhrich said.




      Oct 27, 2011 at 2:40pm

      Vancouver residents who want to preserve beloved heritage schools could learn from the City of North Vancouver's role in saving two heritage schools, Ridgeway and Queen Mary, while providing funds for a new five-storey school administration building, a gallery for the Artists for Kids Collection and land for HYAD - Housing for Young Adults with Disabilities.


      Oct 27, 2011 at 8:42pm

      Yes, maintaining and keeping "heritage" buildings is important, especially in Vancouver where it seems it is not a priority.
      However, our children's lives and the lives of all those who work with them in school, are far more important. That is a no-brainer.
      You want a heritage building kept no matter what death and damage that means? Or, if you want it kept, upgraded with everything that needs fixing, fixed fast, if possible, then advocate the provincial government for the funds and workers NOW and without those costs affecting any educational costs.
      Whatever is decided has to be decided fast, we're overdue for a major quake and the bottom line, our children alive can build their own heritage. So take pictures.
      L. Clemens

      L. Weir

      Oct 28, 2011 at 12:11pm

      I must say that Vancouver has a history of putting historical value over functionality and safety. I find this slightly disturbing. How did we get to a point where the building becomes more important than the people who go to school in it? If an earthquake happens, and we do live in an earthquake zone, and the building falls down then it has been destroyed anyway. Why risk keeping it up so that it can fall on children. We are lucky to live in a part of the world where we have the luxury of building safe and resilient buildings that can withstand earthquakes. We should take advantage of that fact and save lives, not facades.
      If the building is so important to you then raise funds so that they can do the full restorations on them, and put them up to earthquake code. Otherwise stop complaining.

      R. Renger

      Oct 28, 2011 at 7:37pm

      Over the years, the City of Vancouver has supported the upgrading of privately-owned heritage buildings by granting their owners/developers many millions of dollars worth of density they can sell to developers to allow them to increase the size of their new apartment buildings in other parts of the City. For example, a larger apartment tower in Coal Harbour has been built on a relatively small site by using saleable density the City gave a Gastown developer to help pay for the the upgrading of a heritage building there. Why can't the City get together with the VSB to support the upgrading of our heritage schools in the same way -- by granting the VSB density that it can sell to developers of apartment buildings elsewhere in the City? Preserving heritage schools as assets in the City's neighbourhoods would arguably be more of a community benefit than supporting the upgrading of Gastown heritage buildings into condos or luxury rental apartments (as was done for example for the Old Spaghetti Factory building).