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Vancouver struggles with demand for space in downtown schools

Jay Tan with his wife Sonia Hsiao, their son Trevor Tan, 8, and daughter Audrey Tan, 4, at David Lam Park adjacent to Elsie Roy Elementary School in the Yaletown neighbourhood of Vancouver on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents

Jay Tan is one of those "classic cases" who encountered many difficulties trying to get his child enrolled in a school in the downtown core, the densest neighbourhood in Vancouver.

Mr. Tan, a father of two, said his eldest son couldn't get into their catchment school located across the street from their apartment in Yaletown – a neighbourhood heavy with residential high-rises – because "[the school] was too full."

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So Mr. Tan now drives about 10 minutes every day to drop his son, who is eight, at Shaughnessy Elementary School, located outside the city core. While living downtown saves him time getting to work, he said he has to spend it sending his children to school.

"I don't know if I have actually achieved what I want to do living in downtown," said Mr. Tan. "It's like giving up one for the other one."

As the City of Vancouver works to solve its crushing affordability crisis by building higher, with condo towers becoming homes for everyone from single professionals to couples with children, the infrastructure needed to accommodate the corresponding influx of people is struggling to keep up.

Larry Beasley, former chief planner for the city, said developing downtown for families with children was a primary objective for the city starting in the 1980s. Vancouver has been successful at getting people to live downtown, but he acknowledged the city is behind in delivering schools.

The issue has been a constant headache for Mr. Tan's family. First, he found it hard to get his child into preschool, and then kindergarten.

"The day my child was born, I submitted paperwork. I was told by a lot of parents that you need to do that," Mr. Tan said.

The year his son was supposed to go to kindergarten the school's capacity was for about 40 children, but 80 had applied. Priority spots were given to children with siblings in the area school, leaving only eight available spots. "The chances were very slim," he said.

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And, once shut out like this, the situation can get even worse. For parents sending their children to a school outside their catchment, there's no guarantee of getting their choice. That's especially true for families living downtown.

Chad Sichello, an entrepreneur and a father of two, moved out of Yaletown with his family three years ago because there was only one school available for his son: Lord Strathcona Elementary, located on the Downtown Eastside, in an area that concerned the couple.

"Literally, there [were] needles and condoms down in the yard," he said.

The family could not get into Elsie Roy Elementary, so Mr. Sichello and his wife had to give up their apartment in Yaletown where they had lived for five years.

"I really liked Yaletown. I didn't want to move," said Keiko Iijima, Mr. Sichello's wife.

In the last 13 years, only two schools – Elsie Roy Elementary and Crosstown Elementary – were built downtown. The city also owns two school sites located in Coal Harbour and Southeast False Creek, another neighbourhood where high residential towers are concentrated.

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Mr. Beasley said the two sites have been there for a long time and he urged the Vancouver School Board and the provincial government to build schools on them as soon as possible.

"What's really need now is the Coal Harbour school," Mr. Beasley said. "The school board needs to pay attention to that and give it a high priority because we promised families; we enticed them to come live in downtown. We promised them that there would be enough facilities and, of course, schools are the top facility."

The Vancouver School Board has submitted a five-year capital plan to the province that included requests to build elementary schools on the two sites and is hoping for approval and funding by next March.

B.C.'s Ministry of Education said it considers all school districts' needs when establishing its provincial priorities for the 2018-19 budget, and new schools will be part of the consideration.

But making space for the schools also presents challenges.

Vancouver urban planner Andy Yan said people will need to change their idea of what a school looks like. For example, he said, compacting some of the facilities into smaller places and combining them with other facilities can make space more efficient.

Mr. Yan said the West End Community Centre is a good example of how to support families in a high-density neighbourhood. "It's a community centre, a library, a high school and a skating rink. All four of them are actually there and they're maximizing the usage of that space."

Mr. Yan said some schools in Manhattan, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are multistoried with playgrounds on the roof. Roofs, he said, are spaces that have been "historically underutilized" by schools.

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