Opinion: Vancouver’s Closing Schools Offer Opportunity for Family Housing

This article originally appeared on
Michael Geller
June 18, 2015

REW.ca’s sister publication Vancouver Courier. To read the original article, click here – and for more local news and comment, go to www.vancourier.com

Last week, two Courier stories caught my attention.

The first addressed the need for more family housing in the city. The second reported on a study commissioned by Education Minister Peter Fassbender concluding that 19 schools could be closed down due to low enrolment.

While I did not initially connect the two stories, my friend Ed Korbin did. Korbin is the founder of Instafund, a 30-year-old Vancouver company that arranges financing for developers. He, like many others, is concerned that families with children are being forced to leave the city since they cannot find suitable, affordable accommodation.

He told me about 1950s developments that clustered family-oriented housing around children’s play facilities. Sadly most, like Dolphin Court in Kerrisdale, have been replaced by highrises or other buildings catering to empty nesters and seniors.

Given the high cost of land, he thought the Vancouver School Board properties might offer a solution. Most should be retained for future educational facilities, but they could also be used to generate long-term income from family-oriented rental housing. He was confident that funding could be arranged to make this happen.

As we looked from our Granville Island restaurant table southward across False Creek, I was reminded of the early planning concepts for our city’s False Creek development and Toronto’s inner-city St. Lawrence development.

From 1975 to 1979, I served as the federal government’s special coordinator for both projects, each of which offers some interesting lessons about integrating schools and residential development.

In Vancouver, then-mayor Art Phillips was concerned that families would not move into the somewhat controversial south shore False Creek neighbourhood unless a school was completed with the first housing. The city therefore commissioned Henriquez and Todd Architects to design a cooperative housing development and adjacent elementary school.

Today, if you walk or cycle along the south shore False Creek waterfront walkway, you will notice that with their orange and red metal roofs, supposedly reminiscent of railway cars, the school and cooperative housing look very much alike.

Over the subsequent years, with its mix of one-third low-income, one-third mid-income and one-third high income households, the South Shore False Creek community has become one of North America’s most highly acclaimed inner-city neighbourhoods.

In Toronto, former mayor David Crombie also wanted to see school facilities incorporated into the first phase of its St. Lawrence project. It too was a comprehensively planned community being built on former industrial lands, offering a mix of uses and market and non-market housing.

At St. Lawrence, it was necessary to accommodate both a public school and separate Catholic school. Since the site for the new community was relatively small, Crombie proposed that the two schools be built side-by-side, and be required to share one gymnasium, something that was unheard of. He also demanded that the playing fields be part of the neighbourhood park system, another innovation.

If that wasn’t enough, he also instructed the planners to design a mid-rise, non-market family housing development above the two schools.

Despite these challenges, the project was built and upon completion was named in honour of Crombie.

While the federal funding that contributed to the success of False Creek and St. Lawrence is no longer available, I believe it would be feasible to redevelop many of the 19 school sites identified by the province’s study with a mix of market and non-market housing catering to families and seniors, while still maintaining room for existing and future educational facilities.

In some cases, the new housing could be built beside the schools, with shared play areas and parks. In others, new housing might be constructed above the schools, as it was in Toronto.

In a few cases it might make sense to sell sites to generate much-needed revenue to fund new educational facilities. However, the majority of sites could be leased for both non-market and market family housing.

Some leases might be pre-paid. Others would provide for payments over time. The result would be some immediate funding, and a long-term income stream.

More importantly, new suitably sized and priced housing would ensure that families with children can remain in the city, and the classrooms will remain full.

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.