Skip to main content

Two historic schools are facing demolition because renovating them for earthquake safety is too expensive, and a founding director of a local heritage group says they may be the first of many.

Donald Luxton of Heritage Vancouver wants the Vancouver School Board and the B.C. government to agree to consider the value of intricately detailed buildings as landmarks and community icons when they decide whether each one is worth saving.

"Our biggest fear is that we will see schools picked off one by one on a cost basis, and no one will say that we're losing something important here," he said yesterday.

The B.C. government has earmarked $254-million to bring 80 schools up to earthquake safety standards, as part of its $1.5-billion commitment to upgrade all at-risk B.C. schools in 15 years.

Some schools will be renovated, but for others the cost of renovation is higher than the cost of building a new one.

Charles Dickens Elementary School, built in 1912, and Sexsmith Elementary, built in 1913, will likely be replaced with new buildings.

A provincial study done last summer identified 19 other schools where renovating all or part of the existing structure was at least 70 per cent as expensive as replacing the building.

Among them is Strathcona Elementary School, the oldest primary school in the city.

The $9-million to build a new Charles Dickens Elementary is projected to be $2-million less than the cost of renovating it.

"I'm pretty fearful we're going to lose Dickens, and I'm hoping that's the one that's going to wake everybody up," Mr. Luxton said.

"This is a huge amount of money that's going to be spent, it's a huge opportunity as well. The school board understands the importance of what they have, they just haven't developed any policy about it."

Les King, the school board's director of facilities, said only a handful of the 19 schools identified were likely to be replaced.

"Our plan is to keep the schools we have. Our plan is to upgrade the existing buildings," he said.

"But it's difficult economically to make a case to upgrade a building if that cost exceeds the replacement value."

The only way to make Sexsmith Elementary safe would be to construct a stabilizing cage around the building -- a horrendously expensive and ugly option, Mr. King said.

He said the province has begun to consider heritage value when assessing whether to save buildings, but has not concluded how this would affect policy.

"We need to develop some mechanism to put some value on the heritage of the building so when you do the comparison, it's not just dollars to dollars."

The buildings would be replaced with smaller schools that are as well or better suited to educating the students inside, Mr. King said.

The school board is also exploring environmentally friendly options such as a living roof on the new Charles Dickens site, he said.

A group of parents troubled by the decision to demolish Charles Dickens Elementary is hoping that the a permit application process will derail the board's move.

The detailing on the front of the building, the large hallways that were used as study spaces in the school's award-winning Team Teaching program, and the character of the exterior are all worth saving, Ed Levinson said.

"Such a building could never be built today," Mr. Levinson said. "There's a maniacal drive for efficiency, and you pay a price for that."