At a recent meeting held at the Vancouver School Board (VSB), a dozen or so people gathered in the main boardroom armed with signs and placards, hoping that their attempts to save General Gordon Elementary School had been successful.
They had not.
General Gordon, located at the corner of West 6th and Bayswater in Kitsilano, celebrated its 100th birthday in June.
It is now the second Vancouver school slated for demolition as part of a province-wide safety initiative. Charles Dickens Elementary suffered the same fate in 2008.
So far, the city has seismically upgraded 32 schools. But another 48 may also be subject to the wrecking ball.
Heritage versus heritage
In 2005, the B.C. Ministry of Education agreed to spend $1.5 billion over a 15-year-period to seismically upgrade over 700 at-risk schools in the province. But according to the VSB, that is not nearly enough to ensure the safety of the schools in the event of an earthquake or other major catastrophe.
“With limited funds from the ministry, there are essentially three options with our most at-risk schools,” said VSB architect Jim Meschino. “We can either replace the school, give them a full upgrade, or a partial upgrade. And in most cases the replacement option is the least expensive one. ”
The schools in the report are graded on two measures. The heritage scale looks at factors related to age, architectural style, prominence, and historical significance to Vancouver.
Schools are also evaluated on a Facility Coalition Index (FCI) that assesses how much deferred maintenance is needed for each structure.
“When all factors were considered, General Gordon was rated with a very high seismic hazard and overall structure in very poor condition,” said Meschino. “It was also considered a ‘Heritage B,’ which is not nearly as significant as those deemed ‘Heritage A.”
A feasibility study titled offered 18 different concept options, which were subsequently whittled down to five. The most expensive option was the full upgrade, at $22 million; the least expensive was the total replacement, at $13.9 million. The partial replacement and heritage retention options fell in the $17-$20 million range.
A new facade
Larry Benge, a residential designer who’s lived in Kitsilano for the past 35 years, was able to get 1,200 community members to sign a petition offering a compromise. It proposed keeping part of a façade of the original 1911 portion of the building left intact.
Benge said he felt like they weren’t really part of the process, but more of an adjunct to it. “We feel like we’re filling in for them a check box … the part where it says ‘consulted with community.’”
On Oct. 16th, the day before the VSB decision came down, about 70 local community residents decided to make one last-ditch attempt to save the school by holding a “Save General Gordon” parade march. Among them was Linda Light, a life-long Kitsilano resident who along with her four siblings attended the school in the 1950s.
“My advice to others schools would be to go to the press, demonstrate, get out there, get the public on your side, make such a noise that they can’t refuse you,” she said after the school board announced the demo plan.
“We played by their rules. We played in good faith and they didn’t act in good faith.”
But not everyone is upset that General Gordon is slated to be replaced. Principal Margaret Davidson said she and her staff believe the new school will not only be more safe but provide a better teaching environment, complete with gardens, outdoor classrooms and easier disability access.
“It’s essentially about being able to support all the different needs of the students,” she said.
Others are tired of the battle itself. “People that should be allies instead are fighting with each other, and essentially over crumbs,” said Donald Gordon, whose two children attend the Kits school.
He recognizes that the VSB was trying to do the right thing, but that the cost was simply too high, leaving it to conclude: “Sorry, it’s gotta go. Bring in the excavators.”
This story has been amended to clarify the final quote by Donald Gordon.