JOANNAH CONNOLLY

Vancouver-Centre Public School Mess Highlights Years of Ignoring Residents

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In early July, BC Hydro sent out a communication announcing the next step of its project to build an underground substation under Lord Roberts Annex. A BC-owned crown corporation, the utility is commencing a new round of exploratory drilling to help it evaluate the engineering challenges it may face building a 150-foot-deep underground power station in the West End’s only block-sized green space, Nelson Park.

BC Hydro needs a new substation to deliver power to the downtown core and offered a sweetheart deal to the Vancouver School Board that happened to also give the utility a deep discount on the cost of the land they need.

The Ministry of Education has neglected school construction downtown while as it deals with a daunting backlog on a seismic upgrades program. For 30 years, Victoria and VSB have been chronically late in providing school capacity around False Creek and on the downtown Peninsula and Crosstown Elementary’s construction finally came just in time for the 2017 provincial election.

In that funding context, BC Hydro’s offer to pay for a new school was too tasty a morsel to ignore for VSB. The administration ate it up averting their gaze from the uncomfortable details, including that they could have funded another school if their negotiation had been on cue…and that everyone knows Lord Roberts Annex is not likely to ever be rebuilt.

Fast forwarding to July 2019, earnest work is about to start on this very large project. BC Hydro has sent out its latest update announcing a drilling exercise over the summer.

Public school Lord Roberts Annex and Nelson Park are the centre of downtown Vancouver, just behind Saint Paul’s Hospital Photo: Vancouver Courier

We’ll be drilling up to five more boreholes (each approximately 12 cm in diameter) on the Lord Roberts Annex property to gain a full picture of the subsurface conditions. …Workers are scheduled to be at the Lord Roberts Annex property between July 15 and August 16.

BC Hydro West-End Substation update

As many already know, alongside advocacy work for human rights and justice, I am active in public-education policy and helped organize parents around education matters while DPAC Chair. DPAC is mandated by the BC Schools Act to represent Vancouver parents of some 50,000 kids enrolled in Vancouver School Board. Advocacy was one reason Patti Bacchus listed for supporting me in her 2018 Vancouver School Board election picks for School Board:

Morgane Oger (Independent)  Another familiar face at the VSB, Oger is the former chair of the Vancouver DPAC and has deep knowledge of how the school district works and what needs to be improved. Oger has been critical of the current board’s handling of the sale of underground land rights at Lord Roberts Annex to B.C. Hydro, which plans to build an electrical substation. Like my other picks, Oger is a strong advocate for students and would ensure that their interests are put first in board decision-making. Oger is also a fierce defender of the rights of all students to be safe, welcomed, and supported at school and has been a key figure in the fight against those who oppose policies and learning resources that support students, families and staff regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI).

Patti Bacchus: “My election picks for Vancouver School Board“, Georgia Straight

As part of the financial transaction negotiated in secret between the Vancouver Board of Education’s and the utility during the summer of 2018, the sale of the underground portion of the land to the crown corporation, this project will result in bringing a much-needed elementary school to the Coal Harbour waterfront. The decision was presented as a done deal by the Board of Education at its first meeting of the 2018/19 school year.

Once the new Coal Harbour school is completed in 2023, Lord Roberts Annex will be torn down and construction of the industrial facility replacing it is projected to take until 2028. Excess funds left over from the sale after Coal Harbour Elementary is built are earmarked for spending in the neighbourhood.

Daunting logistics for parents

Downtown families with young children who will attend Coal Harbour Elementary face a commute through some of Vancouver’s worst congestion, with two rush-hour round trips during school days in their car on Vancouver’s busiest arterial roads the twice-daily rush hour round-trip to the Thurlow Street waterfront, just West of the Convention Centre and adjacent to the Coal Harbour Float Plane terminal.

Dotted green lines in B.C. Hydro illustration show path of power cables that will connect to an underground substation in Vancouver's West End.

Worst-hit will be parents in Yaletown and the South-West edge end of the West End crossing Pacific Ave, Davie, Nelson, Robson, Georgia, Dunsmuir, Hastings, Seymour, Howe, Granville, Richards, Hornby, and Burrard streets.

There is no school bus for kids in regular programs in Vancouver schools, and kids under 10 must be supervised at all times. This means many Coal Harbour parents will be driving the school run.

I’ve taken two kids through to the age they no longer need supervision and from what I experienced anyone who hopes to schlep young children on transit across the downtown core to Coal Harbour’s Thurlow Street waterfront during rush hour may want to try it today on their own first, maybe carrying a 30-lb dog on their arms for authenticity. Bus changes, snarls, and very long walks with young kids in the November rain with the school project in hand are a trial like few others – let alone on a regular basis. If you have a kid in a stroller, forget it the buses are full and commuters stressed.

In other words, downtown families with children under four today and without kids already enrolled in a school face driving their children to Coal Harbour Elementary by 2023.

A lasting problem

Since Expo-86 wrapped up 32 years ago, our planners and the politicians who guide them have refused to accept that families are moving downtown or that that our public education system needs to be ready for massive demographic shifts in Vancouver – Centre. Yaletown, Olympic Village, Coal Harbour, and Crosstown were built and less than 400 school seats were added to serve tens of thousands of people.

The province refused to build schools, the city refused to tax developers to fund the schools, and the federal government did nothing at all on the basis of jurisdiction. The electeds blamed one another and parents were left in a lurch.

The construction of the new substation will allow BC Hydro to decommission Dal Grauer Substation and sell the land for a very hefty sum

As an engineer, I really do recognize that cities need power infrastructure, just like we need hospitals, schools, and playgrounds.  

The inaction of elected officials who have participated in this Pass The Buck Royale is responsible for the pain parents from Yaletown or Olympic Village will feel every day taking their kids accross the business district to Coal Harbour.

Proposed substation with once-promised new school on site of former Lord Roberts Annex. As of today the new school is no longer promised but allowed for.

I strongly agree Coal Harbour needs a school, just like Olympic Village needs one. I agree with parents they have waited too long and that we need to get something built.

What I don’t agree with is forcing families to drive their kids to schools because predictable situations were allowed to go unaddressed because elected officials and policymakers felt it more expedient not to act.

I don’t agree with misleading current and future parents who move to Vancouver Centre and making them think there is a local school for their children.

I don’t agree with marketing moving downtown as a chance to live in a liveable neighbourhood with high walking scores when it is impossible to walk your children to school.

I don’t agree politicians telling us you and I can live downtown car-free without offering the solutions that work for people at all stages of our lives. I don’t agree with allowing casinos and new developments to be built downtown without making them pay for the schools, the sewers, the affordable housing, and the other infrastructure their projects will require provincial and federal dollars to support.

I don’t agree with municipal government giving building permits to giant businesses who build cities designed for wealthy tourists, all the while forcing people into their cars for 10 years of their lives for hours every day because all levels of government are prioritizing selling condos to speculators over making our neighbourhoods liveable for the people who live there. I don’t agree with our elected officials watching all this happen and doing nothing to ensure Vancouver remains liveable for the people who live here or who move here to make their lives in our city.

I don’t agree with elected officials who do little to deliver on the promises they made to constituents and who sidestep issues by offering no ideas.

As I look forward to the federal election with growing interest, I am mindful that very-long-serving Vancouver-Centre MP Hedy Fry seems to be strategically silent on schools here. I notice she has not spoken out about the lack of public infrastructure for families in Vancouver-Centre. I think Fry should have been speaking up all along, and she should have made it uncomfortable for decision makers to keep on ignoring her constituents. I recognize education is not a federal jurisdiction and know Hedy’s base is not families with children as much as it is wealthy Liberal voters, recent citizens, and the gay men of Vancouver’s West End.

The people who live here in the West End elect representatives to help make the machine work for us all.

Vancouver Centre’s record on schools is dismal.

Private schools outnumber public schools in Vancouver Centre.

Aerial view of the Olympic Village site and downtown core shows the barren site of the long-promised Olympic Village elementary school.
Aerial view of the Olympic Village (foreground), East False Creek, and the downtown core. The undeveloped site of the long-promised Olympic Village elementary school is in the middle of the foreground.
Photo: JOANNAH CONNOLLY

Olympic Village elementary remains an undelivered promise 9 years after the 2010 Olympics that justified itself in part by promising a school.

Twitter account ‘Olympic Village School’ highlights how far the children in their neighbourhood travel to attend school due a lack of school seats in their neighbourhood.

Elsie-Roy elementary was built under capacity and then insufficiently enlarged.   It is so oversubscribed that in-catchment children without siblings in the school catchment have a 1 in 10 chance of being enrolled.

King George Secondary is far too small, far too old, and seismically unsafe. It is being shunned by many downtown parents. If it was doubled in size, it would still be too small to accommodate the flow of students from the local elementary schools.

Lord Roberts Elementary is seismically unsafe and in need of replacement or long-overdue maintenance and seismic retrofit.

Henri Hudson Elementary, desperate for a seismic upgrade, is losing its French Immersion program, the closest one to Vancouver-Centre, which holds the largest number of francophone households in BC according to Elections Canada.

Newly-built Crosstown Elementary sits half-empty because VSB administrators prefer to not use the space rather than provide relief to parents and is the epicentre of parental ire at pass-the-buck tactics about security related to rampant drug use nearby.

False Creek Elementary is in dire need of an upgrade AND is at risk of flooding if sea levels rise (along with recently-built Elsie Roy and Crosstown, also at the edge of False Creek)

…and this summer, K-3 elementary school Lord Roberts Annex, in the heart of the downtown peninsula, is well on its way to being torn down by 2023 with vague promises of replacing it on top of an industrial power station (if parents ever agree to send their young children to school on top of an underground industrial site).

Families in Vancouver Centre are telling me they have had enough with the excuses and that they are tired of empty promises about their schools. News articles tell us of their anger at VSB’s inability to plan for growth, and at the City’s questionable claims that it “didn’t expect young families to move into condo-rich areas like downtown”

Parents tell me they want to see more schools, not fewer. Parents in the neighbourhood and across Vancouver tell me they want schools in their neighbourhoods and within walking or cycling distance of where they live. The website

Parents tell me they are frustrated that they’ll need to buy a car to drive their children to school across the downtown business district every day despite being sold the myth they could live car-free downtown.

Parents are furious their child will need to cross so many dangerous thoroughfares.

Parents feel let down that they are being put back into cars to chauffeur their child to school year after year because city planners and lawmakers did not deliver on their promises.  

I agree with them. Although I do support a school in Coal Harbour for families who live there, the responsibility for building schools lie on the developers who build demand for them, as does the responsibility for building all social infrastructure we rely on. I feel that the decision to remove Lord Roberts Annex with no real plan to replace it when the Olympic Village Elementary, promised for 2010 by the Liberals provincial government, still remains undelivered to this day.

Not doing what’s right

If we are going to live up to our climate commitments and if we are going to teach our children to be responsible citizens, their walking to school in their neighbourhood is an important part of their education. Adding to congestion in our city in an irresponsible way – and that it is doing so because the municipal, the provincial, and federal governments are not stepping up and living up to Canada’s climate commitments.   Many people downtown do not drive and our city encourages a car-free life downtown. Forcing parents to spend nearly a decade driving their child to the Coal Harbour waterfront is a glaring example of irrational governance by city, provincial, and federal planners who are lost in their silos.   When I hear that Hedy Fry has never, not even once, taken a meeting with the MLA for Vancouver-West End while he has been in office, it makes me worry even much more about what our elected officials are doing.  

Our elected officials should get out of their silos. It’s when they work together that great things happen.

If I had been the MP during the Olympics planning, I would have worked with Vancouver Olympics organizer VANOC, the Provincial government, and Municipal decision-makers to push harder for the commitments that were made as part of the Coal Harbour and Olympic Village construction to bear fruit. As the years went by, I would have engaged with MLAs and Vancouver Council to answer to the lack of progress on this file.

If I had been helping steer policy as an elected official, I would have stepped up and spoken up to help get sensible decisions.

As voters, as taxpayers, and as Canadians, we are putting up with too much complacent mediocrity in our elected officials.

You can do better, and this starts with voting in people with a record of getting things done and who are not afraid to speak up on issues that matter to you and affect your life.

This October when you cast your vote, it’s your moment to choose to elect someone who will stand up for you and for what is right. Elect somebody who brings new ideas. Elect someone who answers the phone when you call for help.

To read more about my bid to be elected the NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver – Centre, click here.

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