Patti Bacchus: The VSB should pull the plug on B.C. Hydro’s school substation plan

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      West End residents crowded into a Mole Hill community meeting room Wednesday night (May 9) to voice their opposition to a B.C. Hydro proposal to build an underground electrical substation at the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) Lord Roberts Annex site by Nelson Park.

      The plan is to build a new school in Coal Harbour and move the Roberts Annex kids there, then build the substation on the annex site on Nelson Street, essentially inside Nelson Park. Once the substation is built, the VSB could build a new school adjacent to it if they decide they need one and if they have the money for it.

      That’s a lot of “ifs”, and it’s a lousy deal for many reasons. The West End community knows it—at least the folks who spoke at this week’s meeting. As one speaker said: “There’s a lot wrong with this proposal. Actually, there’s everything wrong with it.” Indeed.

      Roberts Annex could be closed for eight years, or forever

      For starters, unless there’s an ironclad commitment and time line for rebuilding Roberts Annex—and it appears there is nothing of the sort—then the VSB is legally required to go through a formal school-closure process in accordance with its own policy before it makes any deal with Hydro. That takes several months, and if it’s not done correctly, that exposes the board to costly legal challenges. Making a deal with B.C. Hydro before completing that process could be seen as biasing the closure process. For that reason alone, one could argue the VSB shouldn’t even be participating in B.C. Hydro’s consultation, but it is.

      Lord Roberts Annex.

      Then there’s the matter of the way the Hydro documents released so far dangle the carrot of getting the new school at Coal Harbour built “sooner”. Sooner than what? The Ministry of Education gave the Coal Harbour project the green light to proceed to project definition planning in its recent response to the VSB’s capital-plan request. There’s already a site ready for the building and funding for new schools is a provincial responsibility. I can’t see anything about this plan that could speed up the construction of the new school any faster than it’s already moving, unless the government is trying to backtrack on its responsibility to pay for it.

      If the VSB approves Hydro’s proposal, the new Coal Harbour school will be needed not just for neighbourhood kids but it will need to take the Lord Roberts Annex students as well for what sounds like at least seven years, or maybe forever. That’s right, there is now talk of not needing the Roberts Annex at all, once Coal Harbour is complete.

      Five or more years of heavy construction

      Then there’s the neighbourhood disruption. Construction at the Roberts Annex site wouldn’t start until the Coal Harbour school is completed, around 2023. Then they’d start digging a big, deep hole and building the substation, which would take at least five years. That’s five years (or more) of major construction in a very dense neighbourhood that already struggles with crowding and traffic issues. Ouch.

      f they decide to rebuild the school, tack on another three years of construction, taking us to about 2031 before there’s any realistic hope of a new school at the Roberts site.

      Imagine living across the street from all that, in the condo you’ve invested your life savings in. No, thanks. Imagine trying to sell it, with that project looming. Buyer beware, and all. Good grief. What a nightmare.

      Health and safety risks are residents’ top concerns

      But those aren’t even the biggest problems with the substation plan. The folks who came to Wednesday’s meetings had a lot of concerns about health and safety risks and spent a lot of time discussing those. I don’t know enough about electromagnetic fields to know if they should be as worried as they seem or not, but I do know that five years of jackhammering, excavating, traffic disruption, and the possibility of electrical and other hazardous spills, explosions and fires would be enough to drive me around the bend.

      If this sounds vaguely familiar it’s because B.C. Hydro pitched a similar proposal last year, but that time it was for another substation as well, under Emery Barnes Park. That one is off the table this time. B.C. Hydro walked away after failing to reach an agreement with the folks at city hall for the Emery Barnes Park site.

      Government is the plan’s biggest beneficiary

      Last time the VSB part of the decision would have been made by a government-appointed trustee who would have likely been under pressure or direction from government to go for the deal. Let’s face it, the real beneficiary of this proposal is the government, which would be able to check a much-needed new school off its list and spend the money building one somewhere else it needs to hold on to seats, like Surrey. It’s a good deal for B.C. Hydro, as well, because it’s hoping to get a below-market deal for rights to the VSB site instead of buying privately owned land. I’ll tell you who it’s not a good deal for—West End residents.

      Let’s sum it up: the West End loses a much-loved small school and several trees beside a lovely, peaceful park that’s one of the few public green spaces in their densely populated community. They get five or more years of major construction work and all the disruption, dirt, and noise that brings. They get left with a buried electrical substation they worry will harm their and their children’s health, or maybe catch fire or blow up, as substations have been known to do. They may or may not get a school built on the site that would open in 2030 or later.

      Seriously, what’s not to hate about this deal?

      The good news is that now there are nine elected VSB trustees who will be voting on the decision in June. Many West End residents will be telling them to say “no” to this deal because it’s a terrible one for their community. The trustees would be wise to get legal advice before they vote to ensure they’re not running afoul of their own school-closure policy. Even if they can steer clear of that, they'd be wise to listen carefully to residents lest they run afoul of them as well in the lead-up to the October school-board elections.

      If I was a West End resident opposed to the project, I’d be getting together with my neighbours and asking a lawyer about getting some kind of an injunction that would require the VSB to go through its formal school-closure process before it does any further negotiations with B.C. Hydro.

      There’s a different government in Victoria than there was last time this proposal was in play, which is also a bit of good news. That government includes the West End’s popular and accessible NDP MLA, Spencer Chandra Herbert. My advice to West End residents is to put the pressure on Chandra Herbert and the provincial government, as well as the VSB, and hold them accountable for funding the Coal Harbour school, whether the Hydro proposal goes ahead or not.

      B.C. Hydro’s public-consultation process goes until the end of May. And there’s a public open house on May 17 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Century Plaza Hotel and Spa at 1015 Burrard Street. If you’d like to attend a VSB public-consultation meeting and speak to the trustees, you’re out of luck. They’re only holding two meetings for parents, at Lord Roberts Annex and Lord Roberts main school. They’re leaving the community consultation to B.C. Hydro, which is a pretty appalling conflict of interest, in my opinion.

      If I still chaired the VSB, I’d insist on the VSB hiring its own independent consultants (instead of relying on Hydro’s) and holding our own consultation meetings in the community. The trustees are elected officials and are accountable to their constituents. The least they can offer the West End community is an independent consultation process and a chance to formally address the trustees on a decision that could affect their community’s quality of life for decades.

      Here’s to hoping the trustees do the right thing and pull the plug on the whole lousy substation proposal for once and for all.

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