Opinion: Queen Mary heritage school demolition short-sighted
Province’s refusal to consider future school facilities costs more down the road
By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun February 12, 2016
Queen Mary Elementary School in West Point Grey is being reduced in size just as the adjacent Jericho Lands are being planned for substantial growth in population. This same short-sighted approach is about to be played out across Vancouver with about 20 school closures despite projections that the city is expected to grow substantially over the next 30 years. This lack of planning is undermining the next generations’ future.
Queen Mary Elementary School in West Point Grey is being reduced in size just as the adjacent Jericho Lands are being planned for substantial growth in population. This same short sighted approach is about to be played out across Vancouver with about twenty school closures despite planned projections that the city is expected to grow substantially over the next 30 years. This lack of planning is undermining the next generations’ future.
In 2011, the Vancouver School Board undertook a public consultation process to redevelop Queen Mary Elementary School. This was prompted in part by the need for seismic upgrading of the two heritage buildings and partly because the school population at the time was expected to drop because of the opening of a new UBC elementary school.
At the consultation, the school board refused to consider future potential growth of the community with the expected redevelopment of the Jericho Lands. The consultation matrix of comparing various development options was using a baseline comparison of a new school reduced in size by 31 per cent from the existing school.
This was to be achieved by demolishing both the 1914 and 1926 heritage buildings. Fortunately, the 1914 red brick heritage building was retained and seismically upgraded. However, the 1926 Art Deco concrete heritage building has now been demolished along with the 1955 wing, with an overall reduction in size of 21 per cent for the completed facility.
The alternate option that residents were advocating in 2011 was rejected by the school board. It was to retain the full-sized heritage school, upgrade it seismically and repurpose any excess space until future school needs were established. This would have been consistent with the 2010 City Council-approved West Point Grey Community Vision direction that strongly supporting the retention and maintenance of heritage buildings.
The cost comparison to justify demolishing the heritage buildings was based on a new school being substantially smaller than what existed. But as it turns out, the larger-capacity school will in fact be required.
Planning for the federal Jericho Lands redevelopment is now underway. With the expected increase in school capacity requirements from Jericho, the newly upgraded school that is now almost complete is anticipated to be undersized. The school should never have been demolished and rebuilt on a smaller scale.
The 1926 Art Deco building was just demolished last week, to the disappointment of many parents, teachers, students and the community at large. This is actually the most solid and adaptable of the two heritage buildings — reinforced concrete structure, heavy old-growth timber interior, high ceilings, large windows, and the Art Deco design. When the on-site contractor was asked about recycling, he said the demolition sub-contractor had done little recycling so far, and he did not expect the old-growth wood in the Art Deco building to be recycled. The exception would be that the concrete would be smashed on site and used as landfill.
How is this waste of resources consistent with a “green city”? And why aren’t the province and the Vancouver School Board facilities’ planning based on future expansion needs rather than on past or current capacity?
There is a major flaw in how our public school system is funded by the province. To tear down and reduce schools, only to rebuild and expand again within a decade or two is going to cost much more in the long run. Our heritage assets are irreplaceable and retention is the most sustainable affordable option.
Of the potential 20 schools that could be closed based on being under 95-per-cent capacity, some are being recommended by the province to be sold outright or on long-term 60- to 99-year leases for residential development. This would be the most permanent loss that would result in many children no longer being able to walk to a neighbourhood school.
However, even for schools that are at full capacity, parents and teachers have advised that the requirement to meet 95-per-cent capacity is a problem. Although art and music rooms are shared rather than student designated, they are not considered to be common space and are counted as unoccupied. Therefore, any school of 22 classrooms or less, if they have two rooms for art and music, the capacity automatically drops below 95 per cent. So to qualify, any school 22 classes or less in size cannot have designated art and music rooms.
What is needed is that the province fund public school facilities separately from school programming. School facilities should be funded for capital improvements and operating based on planned expansion needs decades into the future. Only school programming should be based on a per-student formula which may vary on a year-to-year basis, whereas buildings still need to be maintained and heated regardless.
The province needs to start looking at the full picture. The public school system is in crisis with an infrastructure and operational funding formula deficit that needs to be addressed. Existing heritage schools should be retained and seismically upgraded in each neighbourhood so every child can walk to school. This should be on the province’s wish list as part of the federal government’s infrastructure program.
This will no doubt be on the voting public’s mind when they go to the provincial polls in 2017. Closing or reducing school facilities or selling school land is not adequately serving a growing city.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday February 13, 2016
Vancouver Sun page D4