Dozens of Vancouver’s historic schools could be demolished under current plans to institute the provincial seismic mitigation program.
Gearing up for the 2005 election, Premier Campbell promised $1.5 billion, over 15 years, for 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.
Although we welcome life-safety initiatives and especially seismic upgrading of heritage buildings, this program wields a double-edged sword. While promoting seismic safety, it doesn’t distinguish between heritage and non-heritage buildings. Also the School Board is throwing into the mix costs unrelated to seismic upgrading. This means that, in virtually every case, it is more expensive to retain the heritage school than tear it down and rebuild a new school.
Under current funding formulas, the new school is likely much smaller than the existing building and is usually of tilt-slab construction — of course it’s cheaper to demolish the heritage building. This is a lose-lose situation.
Concerns from community groups and HVS prompted the VSB to undertake a heritage assessment of all schools with heritage status or potential.
Although we have participated in this process, and commend the City and the VSB for this comprehensive evaluation, this study in itself will not save any buildings.
Dickens School (demolished 9/2008), which has been featured in several HVS Top10 lists, is just the thin edge of the wedge.
Currently at risk are – hold your breath – Kitsilano, Strathcona, Secord, Carleton, Gordon, Kitchener, Nelson, Queen Mary and Begbie.
To quote the VSB: “Almost all of these schools will likely have partial or full replacement as part of their seismic upgrading.”
Why? There is insufficient funding for the significant costs of structurally upgrading existing schools.
This raises bluntly the questions 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?
It is now abundantly clear that, unless provincial contributions are increased or the program modified, only a small percentage of our historic schools will make the cut — so get ready for the wrecking ball in your neighbourhood.
Update October 29, 2008: Charles Dickens school has now been fully demolished (1912-2008). See our 2005 Top Ten listing for this school here.
Update March 2016: Already this year, three schools have been demolished, classed as being ‘surplus’; J.W. Sexsmith, Sir James Douglas, and the Queen Mary Annex (1927).