Patti Bacchus: Preserve or demolish? School boards face tough decisions

When it comes to seismically high-risk heritage schools, adequate space and flexibility for expansion are key issues

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      Victoria school trustees have a tough decision ahead about the fate of the iconic, 114-year-old Victoria High School, which needs a full seismic upgrade or replacement to prevent it from massive damage or collapse in an earthquake.

      They are considering three options. They could build a brand-new school for an estimated $50 million to $60 million, which would include much needed space for 150 more students than its current 850; they can seismically upgrade the existing one for $60 million to $70 million; or they could keep the heritage exterior and rebuild the interior for a whopping $100 million to $110 million. The latter two options would keep the school’s capacity at 850, although it really needs space for 1,000.

      The debate that’s starting to take shape in Victoria is both a familiar one for those of us who made decisions about several of Vancouver’s old schools—including Kitsilano, Strathcona, L’École Bilngue, Douglas, Sexsmith, Kitchener, Queen Mary, General Gordon, Nelson, and Fleming—and an indicator of what is still to come for the VSB as it determines the fate of several of Vancouver’s high-risk secondary-school buildings.

      I got involved in school seismic safety 16 years ago, when I started asking questions about my kids’ elementary school on Vancouver’s West Side—Queen Mary. I discovered it was a high-risk building that could suffer significant structural damage—or even collapse—in the event of an earthquake.

      I joined students and parents who formed a group called Families for School Seismic Safety that successfully lobbied the Gordon Campbell government to commit to upgrading all of B.C.’s seismically high-risk public schools. (Queen Mary’s seismic upgrade was completed about a year ago, and my “kids” are now adults.)

      Often cheaper to build a new school than to upgrade the old one

      What we didn’t realize then and have learned since is that it’s often cheaper to bulldoze old, unreinforced-masonry buildings and rebuild them from scratch, using all new building components, state-of-the-art, energy efficient heating, cooling, and electrical systems, and the design flexibility to support modern teaching methods.

      That reality set off a series of small battles over whether old schools should be retained and upgraded to preserve their heritage value or bulldozed and replaced with new ones. I suspect there are several more battles ahead, and they might not be small ones.

      The case for heritage preservation

      I’m just back from a couple of weeks in Paris, where I was awed by the beauty of the old buildings and their gorgeous, detailed designs. The thought of someone bulldozing and replacing them with simple, efficient, modern boxy buildings is truly horrifying. Although we don’t have buildings anything like those in Paris, we do have iconic buildings that embody some of our relatively brief settler history, and public schools are prime examples.

      I’m all for preserving old schools if it can be done cost effectively and if it doesn’t compromise student and staff safety, and during my time as a VSB chair we managed to upgrade and preserve some important ones. But those are still some big “ifs”, as it turns out.

      The case for building new—and bulldozing the old ones

      Building brand-new schools to replace seismically high-risk old ones has many practical advantages over upgrading the old buildings. It’s often cheaper; it allows you to “right size” the building for whatever its projected enrollment is (in some cases, that means building a smaller replacement school; or, in a case like Vic High, building a larger one); you can budget the project more accurately as there aren’t the kind of surprises you get trying to fix up an old building; and you can design for maximum accessibility, flexibility, educational functionality, and energy efficiency.

      In B.C., there’s a massive backlog of maintenance work, and many schools on the seismic upgrade list are in terrible condition. Rebuilding wipes all that out and new buildings tend to come with warranties that reduce maintenance costs for several years.

      New builds can be far less disruptive than upgrades

      In most cases, although not all (I’m looking at you Kitsilano, General Gordon, L’École Bilingue, and Bayview), there’s enough room on a school site to build the new building while the old one continues to operate. Once the new building is complete, students and staff simply move into the new one and the old one can be demolished. We did that for Kitchener, Douglas, and Sexsmith, and previous iterations of the VSB used that approach for the rebuilding of Magee secondary and Dickens elementary. You lose some playing-field space for a couple of years and have the hassle of increased construction traffic, but it’s a lot less disruptive than having upgrades and renovations going on in the building in which you you’re trying to teach or learn.

      If there isn’t space on-site, it’s sometimes easier to relocate the entire school to a “swing” site, as the VSB did for General Gordon and L’École Bilingue, while the old school is demolished and rebuilt.

      Post-quake usability needs to be considered

      Upgraded old buildings can require significant repairs following an earthquake or may even have to be demolished and replaced before being used again. Seismic upgrades are designed to protect life and safety, allowing occupants to get out even if the building is damaged. It doesn’t mean the building will be safe to reuse.

      There’s no guarantee that won’t happen to new builds as well, but they are built to a higher safety factor, with new components from the foundations on up, and thus stand a better chance of being safe to use after a quake.

      That’s something school boards and government must weigh when they’re deciding whether to upgrade or replace the dozens of B.C. schools that remain at high risk of significant structural damage—or collapse—in an earthquake. It’s not just about spending project funds wisely; it’s also thinking about how we’ll recover after an earthquake.

      Getting students back in school as quickly as possible will be important. If old, upgraded buildings have to be demolished and replaced after an earthquake, or undergo major repairs, that will not only be expensive but it will delay getting our schools up and running after a significant quake.

      Horgan government should improve “area standards” to address valid arguments against rebuilds

      A common argument against replacing heritage schools is that budgets for new builds don’t always cover the “extras” the old buildings have, like school auditoriums, stages, wide hallway and stairways, high ceilings, and extra spaces that can be used for art, childcare, rehearsals, small-group work, and storage.

      Critics of new builds also point to the fact that new schools are often already too small once they’re completed, and they’re right. But that’s not because they’re new schools, it’s because of inadequate budget and space allocations dictated at the provincial government level.

      In B.C., public-school construction projects—building upgrades, new schools, and seismic rebuilds—are funded directly by the province with dedicated capital-project budgets. School districts can add funds if they have any available. The government uses a formula based on expected enrollment for how much space they’ll fund, under what’s called “area standards”. The standards, which were revised under the B.C. Liberals in 2012, are woefully inadequate, shortsighted, and in dire need of a review and overhaul.

      Seismic replacement schools—and all new public schools—should be built with flexibility for expansion and with enough space to accommodate all that actually goes on in thriving, vibrant schools, not with just the bare-minimum space available, which is too often the case.

      VSB’s tough decisions—past and future

      Schools like Vancouver’s Strathcona elementary on East Pender Street and Kitsilano secondary posed some tough and expensive challenges for the Vancouver school board (VSB) and the previous provincial government when it came to seismic mitigation. They were both assessed as high risk. In Kitsilano’s case, we reached an uncomfortable compromise after a long consultation process, with some of the heritage façade being retained while most of the school was demolished and rebuilt.

      Strathcona was preserved and upgraded at considerable cost, and it took years to convince a reluctant provincial government to fund it. It was a unique case, being the district’s oldest operating school, and that was one I was willing to fight to keep.

      In the case of several other old, seismically high-risk VSB schools, including Kitchener, Douglas, Sexsmith, L’École Bilingue, Nelson, and General Gordon, the VSB, which I chaired at the time, determined it made more sense to build brand-new buildings to replace the old ones. Some of those decisions were easy and straightforward, while others were more difficult. What I learned was that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, weighing several factors.

      I expected a tougher heritage battle over Bayview elementary in Kitsilano, as it’s rated as one having among the highest heritage value of VSB schools. It’s in horrendous condition, however, and upgrading it would be an expensive and difficult task. Just days before the by-election last October to elect the current VSB, the NDP government announced that Bayview will be demolished and replaced. While a few noses may be out of joint about that, it’s the right move. The current building is a death trap, and for years the parents have been pleading to get on with making it seismically safe. Tennyson and Begbie are also slated to be rebuilt.

      Keep an eye on what happens to Vic High

      I have a soft spot for Vic High. My mom graduated in its class of 1940 and I took her to several reunions over the years, until she was into her late 80s. I’d be sad to see the old building go, and a lot of folks have similar attachments. I have no doubt that Victoria trustees are in for a tough decision about whether to keep it or demolish and rebuild. Whatever they decide, they also have to convince the province that it’s a sound approach so government will agree to fund it. The previous government made it crystal-clear over the past couple of years that it was over and done with paying for heritage retention if there was a cheaper option available.

      Vancouver has some tough decisions ahead as well. Point Grey Secondary (my old high school) is considered a valuable heritage site, and some will argue that John Oliver, Killarney, Churchill, Templeton, and several others still on the seismic list are too. They’re all as high risk as Vic High. and it’s time to get on with either upgrading or replacing them. I’m glad those decisions aren’t mine to make any more—they won’t be easy.

      The Horgan government could help smooth the way for pragmatic decisions by revising the area standards to make sure people aren’t fighting to keep old buildings just because they’re afraid they’ll be replaced with inadequate ones.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.