108-year-old elementary school building at risk of demolition

A 108-year-old school that has become a symbol of Victoria’s South Jubilee neighbourhood could be headed for demolition.

The Greater Victoria School District is considering tearing down historic Bank Street School in order to expand Sundance Elementary next door.

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Kim Morris, secretary-­treasurer, said the school board has yet to discuss the matter, but she confirmed that demolishing the heritage-registered school will be one of the options ­presented.

She said the district could ask B.C.’s Ministry of Education for money to seismically upgrade both the Sundance and Bank Street schools.

“But that’s unlikely to be supported, because the Bank Street upgrade would be so expensive,” she said. “The other option is to expand Sundance and demolish Bank school.”

Morris said the issue will be on the agenda at the operations committee meeting next week and could go to the full board as early as Oct. 26.

But residents and city officials are requesting more time before decisions get made.

The South Jubilee Neighbourhood Association, which features the school in its logo, said it was caught off guard by the proposed demolition and has launched a survey to see what residents think.

Victoria city council, meanwhile, is scrambling to gather its own information before deciding whether to intervene and save the school, which was built in 1912 and designed by architect D.C. Frame, who also designed the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street.

The city’s heritage register describes the building as “an excellent example of a small masonry school in a nearly original state.” It ceased to be a school in 1975, and became home to the Victoria College of Art, whose lease has expired.

“This is a very iconic building in the South Jubilee ­neigh­bour­hood and I think it behooves us to proceed with care,” Coun. Jeremey Loveday said.

John O’Reilly, Victoria’s senior heritage planner, said staff have been meeting with school officials since May to if see they would voluntarily designate the school as a heritage site.

“However, we have not found a resolution and the school district still intends to demolish the building,” he said.

A city report says a school district consultant found that few, if any, upgrades have been made to the school since 1975 and that it would cost $3 million more to preserve the old ­building than to build a new school.

Victoria city councillors, however, are skeptical and have ordered a second opinion of the building’s condition.

“I’ve seen many reports on heritage buildings that paint a very dire picture of the state of the building and the costs of refurbishing,” Coun. Geoff Young said. “So one never quite knows. … It does seem quite possible that some of the costs are pessimistic.”

The city could block demolition by designating the property as an historic site, but that would likely require the city to pay a significant amount in compensation, staff say.

The neighbourhood association’s board, meanwhile, will await the results of its survey before taking an official position. Murray Gudmundson, vice-president of the South Jubilee Neighborhood Association, said his personal feeling is that the building should be saved. He works as a travel agent and one of his clients’ top destinations is Europe because of its history, he said. “It seems ironic to me that people would live in Victoria and choose to demolish our history and then go to Europe to see somebody else’s history.”

But he acknowledged that other board members have different views.

Matt Dell, the association’s president, said he doesn’t want to see efforts to save Bank Street School jeopardize the neighbourhood’s ability to land a small community centre and much-needed child-care and after-school spaces.

“Heritage restoration is important, but community ­facilities are also critical, because we don’t have any in South Jubilee, nor does North Jubilee,” he said. “I’m not convinced that a heritage building is going … to be able to offer those community facilities that we need.”

Whether it would be possible to save the Bank Street School and still attract those other amenities is unclear at this point, Dell said.

“We all know how limited public money is right now, especially in a pandemic,” he said.

“I just don’t want to see a ­derelict building for 10 years while we have a big fight over this issue.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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