Already front and centre in 2005 are the implications of seismic upgrading for Vancouver’s heritage schools. Charles Dickens Elementary School, on the 2004 Top Ten list, is under serious threat and a final decision to replace it is imminent.
The reason: seismic and other upgrades apparently cost more than a new school and the ‘bottom line’ trumps heritage.
Constructed in 1912, and similar in design to Henry Hudson (built the year before and a ‘B’ on the Heritage Register), Dickens Elementary’s brick walls, pitched roof and decorative Renaissance-style pilasters are emblematic of the history of our city and its neighbourhoods.
Unfortunately Dickens – and 69 other Vancouver schools – have been designated at high risk in earthquakes and must be upgraded or replaced. Last November – gearing up for the 2005 provincial election – Premier Campbell promised $1.5 billion, over the next 15 years, to seismic upgrades of the province’s schools. The Vancouver School Board (VSB) quickly requested about $365 million to fast-track the upgrades for completion in ten years (after all, Seattle did it).
But recent public meetings make it abundantly clear that the VSB has no interest whatsoever in entertaining other options for Dickens School. As the bottom line drives VSB decisions, Dickens is just the beginning – so get ready for the wrecking ball in your neighbourhood.
The larger issue is this: How many of our historic schools must be demolished in order to ensure seismic safety?
That the fate of Dickens could set a precedent for the loss of landmark schools across the city raises bluntly the question of our commitment to heritage: do we value our public heritage buildings, and how much are we willing to invest to save them for future generations?
With an election approaching, perhaps its time to ask School Board Trustees where they stand.
Update October 29, 2008: Charles Dickens school has now been fully demolished (1912-2008). During demolition, many of the original banded stonework and brick detailings that had been covered up for decades, was revealed, and also demolished.