Seismic upgrade debate shakes Vancouver elementary school

School's main building constructed in 1910

L'Ecole Bilingue elementary at 1166 West 14th Ave. is the latest Vancouver school facing a seismic upgrade. But whether the aging building will be reinforced or replaced is still up for debate.

School board and city officials will explain the options at an open house at the school from 3 to 7 p.m., March 29.

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The main building was constructed in 1910 and 1912. A separate gymnasium, built in 1949, is connected by an outside walkway. "The building is a masonry building. It's typical of many buildings we are seismically upgrading," explained Jim Meschino, the VSB's director of facilities. "It's unreinforced so it makes it risky in a seismic event."

Three options are being considered for the West Side school. The first, tagged at $15.2 million, calls for the retention and upgrade of the building with a small addition so that five portables on the school grounds will no longer be needed.

The remaining two options would see the school replaced. In one case, the old school would be knocked down and a new one built at the same location for $12.5 million.

The other option would see a new school built on the east side of the property where the playfield is located. Students could remain in the old building until the new one is built. Project costs would be $13.9 million. The provincial government requires school districts to examine the feasibility of several options before a decision is made.

Maureen Cowin, the facilities planner for the L'Ecole Bilingue project, said the ministry, for example, would expect the VSB to at least look at building a new school on the playfield so that students could remain in the old school during construction, which has been done at school sites in the past. "We've heard loud and clear from the L'Ecole Bilingue parents that they're not interested in that because they want their children away from the construction," she added.

The VSB hasn't talked to all interested parties yet. Meschino noted a meeting will be set up with Heritage Vancouver to go over the possibilities. Concerns about the heritage value of the school haven't come up much yet, although Meschino acknowledged they might arise as consultation continues. Heritage advocates have raised the alarm in past years when the VSB has considered knocking down old schools in favour of new buildings. "It's ultimately up to the board to make a decision on this," Meschino said.

Staff anticipates presenting a report with a recommended option in May or June. Design work could start as early as fall, assuming the provincial government grants funding approval quickly. Tendering and construction could then take place from fall 2013 to spring or summer 2015.

The VSB is considering setting up portables on a more permanent basis at a centrally located site in the city so that students from any school undergoing seismic upgrading could be relocated there during construction projects.

"We are working on that right now. I can't give you the location because it still has to get approved and it's not gone to consultation yet. So we're considering a couple of locations," Meschino said.

Twitter: @Naoibh

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