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How to save a special little yellow school house — the Kitsilano edition

The little-yellow-school-house saga continues for the VSB, which is facing much bigger challenges. This little school house can be saved — it's been done before — but it will be up to a group of determined heritage advocates to make it work.

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Several groups came forward with proposals and staff proceeded to work with one of them on a lease agreement. Fast forward to this February 22 and news that the deal fell through and once again, a staff recommendation for demolition.

This time the decision will be made by a sole, government appointed trustee — Dianne Turner — as the minister of education fired the elected trustees last October.

Seven speakers registered to make their cases at the February 22 VSB facilities and planning committee meeting last week, including several heritage advocates and Kitsilano residents and representatives from the General Gordon Parent Advisory Council (PAC).

The PAC speakers supported demolition, citing the need for additional green play space and potential health and safety risks associated with keeping the building that has fallen into a state of disrepair.

After hearing from the speakers and committee members, including the president of the Vancouver secondary teachers’ association who supported demolition, arguing that school board resources should be prioritized on students instead of “ill-placed nostalgia,” Turner said she wanted to “applaud all members of the community for all the effort they’ve put into saving the school house.”

Instead of making a decision, she directed VSB staff to set up a meeting with the board’s heritage advisory committee before spring break.

A precedent

In 2008 an arsonist set fire to “Carleton Hall,” a little yellow school house on the Carleton elementary school site at Joyce and Kingsway in east Vancouver.

It was used for kindergarten classes but there were several surplus classrooms in the main school so government refused to pay for repairs. But it was also the oldest school building in Vancouver and there was a community outcry over losing it.

The provincial government offered to pay for its demolition and VSB staff asked the board to approve it. But after hearing pleas from the community to save the much-loved building, the board decided to postpone demolition to see if an alternative could be found.

Carleton Hall

The Carleton school house after the 2008 arson and then after Green Thumb’s restoration. Photo on the left from Heritage Vancouver’s Flickr. Photo on the right by Patti Bacchus

Lo and behold along came Green Thumb Theatre with a proposal to fundraise for the building’s restoration and lease it from the VSB for 20 years. As the chair of the VSB at the time, I was thrilled.

It wasn’t easy working through the many wrinkles and bureaucratic bumps involved in setting up the lease and the over-worked VSB facilities staff were less than enthusiastic at first. But the trustees dug in their (our) heels and eventually we had a deal. By all accounts it’s working well and the building has been beautifully restored.

Can this work at General Gordon?

What worked with the Carleton/Green Thumb deal was how organized, focused and business-like the Green Thumb folks were. My advice to the people wanting to save the Gordon school house is to form a society of some kind and take over as much of the project as possible, making it as easy as possible for the VSB.

The VSB reality is that there are far too few staff tasked with too many large and complex projects. They don’t have time to deal with a little old building that isn’t needed for VSB students or programs.

So instead of telling the VSB there are grants available to save the building, work together to secure those grants. The VSB folks don’t have time to chase them down.

With so many architects and other experts offering support, have them navigate the processes and permits that are needed by city hall. Present the VSB with a solution instead of a plea. It worked at Carleton and it could work at General Gordon.

This might not make the General Gordon PAC happy but they got their brand-new, seismically safe, spectacular new school and should be willing to accept this small compromise. It isn’t just parents who pay taxes — we all do and everyone deserves a say. 

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