Vancouver schools in crisis

Heritage schools considered for partial or full demolition and replacement, sale, lease, or redevelopment

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      The Vancouver school board is considering what to do with heritage schools across Vancouver. Although decisions on the East Side schools that had been proposed to be closed, sold, or redeveloped have been deferred to next year (after the municipal and possibly provincial elections), there are a number of heritage schools proceeding with upgrade or replacement.

      Lord Kitchener Elementary School at Blenheim Street and West King Edward Avenue is slated for demolition with only a small wood structure retained and moved to a corner of the site. The large heritage brick building will be demolished.

      Kitsilano Secondary School will be demolished except for the front and partial side facades, subject to funding approval.

      Two more elementary schools, Queen Mary and General Gordon, have public open houses this week for input into the VSB "preferred" options.

      General Gordon Elementary School in Kitsilano has an open house Tuesday, June 21, 3 to 7 p.m. There are five concept options that all include demolition of the entire structure with three options keeping part of the facade. Complete demolition will be presented as the VSB "preferred" option at the open house.

      Queen Mary Elementary School in Point Grey has an open house Thursday, June 23, 3 to 7 p.m. There are four concept options, of which three include partial demolition and one of full demolition/replacement. The VSB "preferred" option to be presented at the open house will be retention of the red heritage building with demolition of the rest even though the gym and grey heritage buildings could be seismically upgraded to qualify as "Post Disaster Buildings".

      Queen Mary Elementary School buildings proposed for partial or complete demolition.

      Bruce Macdonald, published historian, former teacher and civil engineer, is a fifth-generation resident of Vancouver. He recounts that his father was in the first class of Queen Mary Elementary School when it was built in 1914. He went on to high school at Prince of Wales until he was transferred to Lord Byng Secondary School when it was built. Upon graduation he went on to the University of British Columbia. This is a path that has been repeated by many generations of Vancouver residents since.

      Macdonald describes how well Vancouver's neighbourhoods were designed, to locate schools centrally, within walking distance for most children. The student populations would expand and contract based on demographic changes, but the schools were to remain consistent to serve the neighbourhood as the mother institution.

      These schools were built to last hundreds of years if maintained properly. Similar examples exist in older communities such as eastern North America or Europe. The history of these buildings has value as a social element of the community. Harvard or Oxford would never demolish their heritage buildings where many famous students have walked through the same doors and studied over hundreds of years as part of the school's traditions.

      Compare that appreciation of cultural heritage with our current short term thinking. The provincial funding model is based on a per student formula that fluctuates based on the student population. The funding is not consistent annually and maintenance must often be sacrificed when budgets are tight due to low enrolment. As long term maintenance is deferred, the buildings get run down.

      Rather than investing in mechanically and seismically updating the buildings on an ongoing basis, our disposable society promotes demolition of our beautiful, functional and sound heritage buildings to replace them with smaller lower quality buildings. Building on the current student population will require future expansion when the population increases. This is designed obsolescence with building life cycles of construction today that are considered to be only 25 to 30 years.

      Skewed evaluation matrix

      The VSB evaluation matrix is skewed towards demolition and new construction. This is not sustainable for a number of reasons:

      ӢNot environmentally sustainable - From an environmental perspective it is not sustainable to ignore the embodied energy of existing buildings and new materials which are not considered as part of the option evaluation matrix.

      ӢNot economically sustainable - The new construction costs are minimised while the renovation costs are exaggerated to favour replacement options.

      ӢNot socially sustainable - Stability of the school system is essential to ensure social and community capacity and ongoing integrity.

      Justification for demolition is based on a number of factors that are myth rather than fact, including seismic safety, learning environments, and staffing levels:

      ӢSeismic safety - For instance, the structural report for Queen Mary Elementary School confirms that the existing buildings could be upgraded to meet seismic requirements to make them very safe. The red building is reinforced concrete post, beam, and slab construction. The brick walls must be tied in and secured with shear walls added. The grey building has reinforced concrete walls that would require some shear walls added. The gym and the grey building could be upgraded to be designated as "Post Disaster Buildings".

      ӢLearning environments - Another justification for demolition is based on the governments' requirement for what is called "21st Century Learning" environments. This is essentially the same as the open plan classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s that proved to be a failure, but with removable partitions that still will not meet acoustical separation requirements.

      However, before we go rebuilding all the schools in this learning model, there should be a review of the schools that have already been redesigned to meet this layout once they have been in operation for a few years to see if it in fact works as intended. It is poor planning to redesign the whole school system based on an experiment that may not actually be successful. Furthermore, if this new version proves to be a better model than the previous try in the 1970s, it can be accommodated within the existing structure of the heritage schools.

      ӢSupervisory capacity - Playgrounds are combined to require less supervisory staff. The Queen Mary grey building is proposed to be demolished to reduce playground supervision from three staff to two staff rather than exploring other supervisory models or hiring adequate staffing levels.

      ӢStudent to teacher ratios - With an open plan area there may be pressure to reduce teaching staff since it may be possible to have classes online with four classroom equivalents in a big open area with assistants replacing teachers for supervision. But increasing student to teacher ratios would ultimately reduce learning capacity and student performance.

      Flawed process

      School facilities have been under pressure to be redeveloped. For example, Queen Elizabeth Elementary School was proposed to be sold to developers for residential rezoning to raise funds to build a new school for UBC. But before the last civic election this controversial proposal was reversed to keep Queen Elizabeth open.

      The process of manufactured consent to demolish all of the heritage structures is still being implemented in the current evaluation of school options. The Queen Mary Advisory Committee only was allowed to have one community representative. QMAC is dominated by teacher and consultant groups that do not have the same long term interests in the school as a neighbourhood resource. Recommendations from this committee reflect those short term interests.

      Last fall, council passed the West Point Grey Community Vision. The following survey question was approved—82/85 percent support.

      Despite the strong support for this WPG Community Vision Direction to retain existing public buildings, the VSB has proposed options to demolish part or all of the heritage buildings. To be consistent with the Vision direction, all the existing buildings should be retained and upgraded.

      The community representative on QMAC requested detailed consultant information prior to the community making informed comments to the committee. However, QMAC resisted disclosing this information. The community resorted to requesting it through freedom of information. The VSB has said that they will not release the FOI results before the maximum 30 day limit is reached in early July, well past the June 23 open house.

      On Friday, June 17, fellow alumni of General Gordon Elementary School including Dal Richards, Jimmy Pattison, and Jeff Wall were celebrating the school's 100th anniversary. That evening at 5:35 p.m., 25 minutes before the reunion, the residents and parents were informed by the consultants that the VSB has determined the "preferred" option would be complete demolition of the heritage school including the facade. This caught off guard the people on the committee that had been working with the VSB in good faith. How ironic that they got the word of the school's demise on its 100 year anniversary and that the VSB held back that information until minutes before the reunion, with only two business days before the community open house.

      Underlying influence and objectives

      Chronic provincial underfunding of the school system has lead to the VSB resorting to creative financing schemes that would encumber future school facility requirements. An October 2010 Vancouver Courier article quotes VSB representatives as proposing public-private-partnership (P3) models using commercial and residential development to pay for school upgrades.

      The article states (emphasis added):

      Vancouver school district superintendent Steve Cardwell speculated about creating medium-rise buildings that house schools and community spaces, such as daycare or affordable housing...

      "The school district is, in a sense, land rich and cash poor. One would never want to give up the ownership of land, but what if we could work with the community and work with developers to create mid-rise buildings that would have schools and community services, and perhaps underground parking and affordable housing, as part of that structure," Cardwell said.

      Partnerships with other organizations are not new to the VSB. It owns Kingsgate Mall, which operates on a long-term lease with the Beedie Group, while its main office on Broadway was built at no cost to the district in exchange for a long-term lease with the Bentall Corporation. "We don't lose the space and we own the building at the end of the day. We could do the same with our schools," Cardwell said. Rules prohibit the VSB from selling its land and it can't lease lands for more than 10 years without ministerial approval, so the provincial government would have to be involved in any talks."

      What is being proposed are public-private-partnerships with large developers for a long term (60-90 year) lease, including a large scale market commercial/residential development to pay for rebuilding of the schools, amenities and housing. What the article fails to spell out is that no developer is going to do this for free. They will need a substantial market strata component of approximately 10:1 market to non-market units. This will create very large scale developments with the effect of privatizing the school sites throughout the city.

      The article also states that "School board Chair Patti Bacchus agrees such options need to be explored..."

      Although the VSB denies such models are planned for the proposed school upgrades, demolition of heritage assets makes the sites more vulnerable to these kinds of schemes. Schools are increasingly under threat of ideological privatization and economic influences that are not in the public interest.


      Full retention of our heritage buildings should be the objective. With upgraded safety and maintenance, our heritage schools can fulfill our ongoing responsibility to present and future generations of students and to the community at large.

      General Gordon Elementary School in Kitsilano has an open house Tuesday, June 21, 3 to 7 p.m., in the school gym (2896 West 6th Avenue).
      Ӣ Community preferred Option #1 - Retain facade. (Would prefer retaining the structure but that is not a current option.)
      Ӣ VSB preferred Option # 5 - Complete demolition and replacement.

      Queen Mary Elementary School in Point Grey has an open house Thursday, June 23, 3 to 7 p.m., in the school gym (2000 Trimble Street at West 6th Avenue).
      Ӣ Community preferred Option #1 - Retain and upgrade heritage buildings. (Community proposed alternative Option #1B should be given full design/costing consideration.)
      Ӣ VSB preferred Option #3 - Demolish all buildings except for red building.

      Elizabeth Murphy is a freelance writer on civic land use issues.



      B Macdonald

      Jun 22, 2011 at 2:21pm

      Thanks for going to the trouble of laying this all out. It certainly seems there is suddenly a big push to tear down the well-built schools that have served us well for 100 years, just in time to feed the P3 pubic-private partnership model. But is that the best value for our money? Heritage does have value, but it seems to be mostly ignored in the rush to build expensive new buildings with far shorter life spans.

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      K. Hill

      Jun 28, 2011 at 9:13am

      These buildings are so important to Vancouver's history and culture, we will all work hard to make sure they remain standing! We need the foundations of our past upon which to build our future.