This evening I attended the meeting held in the basement of the St. Francis church at Napier and Semlin. Earlier discussions about the church’s desire to build a new school can be found here.
The meeting was to introduce the project to the immediate neighbours of the church. However, the meeting was well known to GWAC members, people who read this blog, and others, so there were perhaps one hundred citizens in the room from a wider range than the limited geographic area expected. I thought that was a good thing.
There were half a dozen well-constructed display panels explaining the site, the demographics of the current student population, and some general aspects of the project. There was a fairly short speech about the project from a member of the church’s building committee from which we learned
- that the budget for the school building is $12million;
- that the church owns the current school site at Victoria & Venables, Wilga garden, and the St. John’s convent site;
- that the current school site will generate more revenue from a sale than the sale of the garden and St. John’s combined;
- one option is to rebuild a school at the current site; his will involve a 2 year relocation of the student body during construction, and the sale of both the gardens and St. John’s to pay for the construction;
- the church’s preferred option is to sell the current school property, using the funds to build a new school on the gardens, demolish St John’s and create a new green space in its place;
- the new school will have roughly the same enrolment as today — 220 students from 160 families;
- they want to bring the children closer to the church as a matter of strengthening the faith and increasing community (my words, but I think I got it right).
And then there were questions from the audience. Someone whispered to me that the Church has no idea of the fight they are getting into; and it is certainly true that the tenor of the questions was negative. However, the church was firm that a new school will be built and the discussion is about how that gets done. From the Q & A we learned:
- that there are no plans to expand the use of the school after school hours beyond the PTA-type meetings that happen today;
- a majority seemed to favour building on the current site, maintaining St. John’s, and selling Wilga gardens to the Parks Board (though the shortfall in revenues this plan creates was not really addressed, except perhaps that the church should only build what it can afford);
- that St. John’s is currently used by a number of community groups and that some consider it t have heritage value;
- that traffic is a major concern, as is any suggestion of changing the traffic-calming regime currently in place;
- that the current proposal is too massive for a residential area;
- that all schools in Vancouver are in residential-zoned areas (I haven’t fact-checked that but it was said, and sounds not unreasonable);
- that the Notre Dame High School project on Renfrew is not an SFA program;
- that many people believe a phased construction program at the current site would allow the school to continue operating throughout;
- that a rezoning will be required for the size of the proposed structure.
I found the meeting to be a good start to the process. It was the kind of meeting that Boffo/Kettle should have had but never did. I’m sure neither “side” came away completely satisfied with what was said and done but at least the conversation has begun and is out in the open. By encouraging on-going dialogue, SFA has a wonderful opportunity to teach developers how this process can be improved.
As for me, my inclination is to support the project as proposed by the church, with conditions:
- the school is no taller than the church;
- the design is actively neighbourhood-friendly;
- the green space at St. John’s is a truly public space outside of school hours;
- creative effort is put into the traffic issues.
Wilga gardens are not publicly accessible in the sense of being a park; having publicly accessible green space at St. John’s would be a good replacement and better than we have today. I have reservations about the heritage value of St. John’s. I believe the traffic issues are solvable given creativity and good will on both sides. I would be happy to see density in the form of, say, a three- or four-storey apartment building at Victoria and Venables; that would be a significantly useful addition to the community’s housing stock.
It was interesting to hear the opposition speakers tonight and I appreciate some of their concerns. However, I think the wider community can benefit from this proposal and so it has to be given consideration even if it disturbs a few time-honoured routines that have become entitlements for some.