Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Wanted: New ideas for Vancouver’s old schools

Grade six Sexsmith Elementary School student Wells Suen, left, walks with his father Matthew Suen, 11 years old, at the end of the school day in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday January 17, 2013. The school - built in 1911 - is being closed and replaced with a new school under construction nearby as part of the Vancouver School Board's plan to make schools safer in the event of an earthquake.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

For lease or sale: One school. Attractive heritage building that needs only about $10-million to make it earthquake safe. Your ideas welcome. Condos, offices, arts hub? All reasonable offers considered.

It's not the exact wording of the bid document that the Vancouver School Board will be posting in a few weeks. But it's the spirit.

As the board powers through its plan to do seismic upgrades on all its schools by 2020, it has been renovating its many historic schools or building new ones and tearing down the old ones.

Story continues below advertisement

But faced with anguish and criticism from heritage lovers and neighbourhoods, the board has decided to try a new approach with at least one of its historic schools: putting it up for offer to almost anyone with an idea on how to reuse it .

First up: Sexsmith elementary school, a 1911 brick building near the Langara Golf Course in south Vancouver.

"The motive here is not to make money but to find a way not to take a bulldozer to the building," board chair Patti Bacchus said. "We're looking for people to come to us and say, 'Here's what we want to do.' "

The board demolished one historic school already – Mount Pleasant's Dickens elementary in 2008 – to build a new school and has voted to take down two more: General Gordon elementary in Kitsilano and L'Ecole Bilingue in Shaughnessy.

At Sexsmith, because it had a large lot to work on, the board has built a new school on one end of its property and left the historic school standing at the other end.

The board advertised last year for bidders, but restricted the uses to other civic purposes, such as a library or neighbourhood centre; a community use such as a daycare or seniors' club; or an arts group.

Ms. Bacchus said the board got a few offers when the bidding closed in June, but nothing serious. She said many community and arts groups indicated the cost of doing the seismic upgrading was much more than they could afford.

Story continues below advertisement

Now the bidding is going to be reopened, this time to anyone with an idea that might fit into the neighbourhood. If it works, the idea may be extended to other schools in the same situation, such as Douglas elementary nearby. The board has 42 schools on its list for either upgrades or new buildings.

Other cities have seen developers take unused schools and transform them. In Seattle, an old brick school at the summit of Queen Anne hill is now a condo residence.

In New York City, an abandoned public school in the East Village was converted 30 years ago into a theatre.

In Portland, that city's brewpub entrepreneurs, the McMenamin brothers, transformed a 1915 school in the city's northeast quadrant into a hotel, restaurant, movie theatre, and pub. The doors of the Kennedy School, which also includes a pool in the former teachers' lounge along with the old classroom photos still in the hallways, opened in 1997.

Ms. Bacchus said whoever leases or buys the site will need to get community support and city permits for whatever is planned.

"I suspect putting a pub in there would not go down well in the neighbourhood."

Story continues below advertisement

The board is willing to look at additional residential density on site for condo developments, Ms. Bacchus said.

While heritage advocates are grateful for any building that can be saved, they are still dubious about the board's approach.

André Lessard, a spokesman with the Heritage Vancouver Society, said that all boards in the province got money to upgrade their older schools to make them more earthquake-resistant.

But Vancouver, alone among all the districts, has chosen to use that money to build new schools instead of saving the old ones, he said.

He said the board's decision not to put money into Sexsmith means that its salvation now rests with some deep-pocketed business person who will decide to spend the millions to fix it up.

"Who can do that?"

Report an error
About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨