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Classrooms at the mall? City planner suggests unique solution to school crowding in Vancouver

Last Updated Feb 27, 2020 at 4:54 pm PST

FILE: International Village Mall seen from Keefer and Abbott streets in Vancouver. (Google Maps Photo)

Former chief planner suggests converting mall space into classrooms

Vancouver School Board chair says district will 'look at different ways of accommodating all students'

Parents group chair says 'urban portables' are a 'band-aid solution'

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Does a classroom belong among the tanning studios, fashion boutiques and food stalls of a bustling downtown mall?

Vancouver’s former chief planner thinks it might.

Brent Toderian, now a planning consultant, spoke out last week after his son lost the lottery to enroll in kindergarten at Crosstown Elementary School across the street from his family’s home.

The school opened its doors for the first time in 2017, but is already over capacity and turning away local kids.

Toderian said he and his wife were “devastated” when they learned they had missed the cut. He’s now forced to choose between enrolling his son in a nearby private school or commuting out of the neighbourhood.

Could ‘urban portables’ create new class space?

But there’s a third option Toderian said he wished were on the table: Allowing his son to attend Crosstown by expanding its teaching space. The school district could lease space from the International Village Mall across the street from Crosstown and convert it into classrooms, he said.

Toderian said this would be a creative solution for a school without the space to install portable classrooms.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” Toderian admitted. “Yes, there are all sorts of technical questions about how to do that – but if you really wanted to make it work within neighbourhoods, all of those questions are answerable.”

So-called “urban portables” may not be the best option available for crowded schools, but the fact they’re not even on the table shows officials aren’t thinking creatively, he said.

Toderian said the province, city, and school board seem more interested in pointing fingers than solving the problem.

Board will consider all options

Vancouver School Board (VSB) chair Janet Fraser said her board isn’t shy of taking an “out-of-the-box” approach to creating new school space. She cited a 2018 land sale to BC Hydro for an underground substation that raised funds to rebuild Roberts Annex and build a new school in Coal Harbour.

Asked about Toderian’s “urban portable” suggestion, Fraser said the district “would look at different ways of accommodating all students” as enrollment numbers become more clear in the coming months.

“We do have to be thoughtful about the spaces we use to educate students,” she said, citing possible safety and bathroom-access concerns.

“The VSB would love to have every kindergartner applicant be accommodated in their catchment school, but unfortunately we don’t have the physical space in our schools to do that.”

‘More potential downsides than benefits’

Shaun Kalley, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, said Toderian’s idea amounts to a “band-aid solution.”

“While we concur that looking at alternate sites like Tinseltown may offer a hope to alleviate the frustration of parents whose children were not accepted to their catchment school, the suggestion seems to us to have more potential downsides than benefits,” he wrote in an email.

Christine Ly, from the mall’s leasing office, said the management company had “no instructions from the landlord to cast opinion on education policy or leasing policy.”

A City of Vancouver spokesperson said the mall’s current zoning would allow classroom use.

“The zoning would not prohibit the school from leasing additional space in the mall (if the owner is willing to lease to them), but there may be other provincial regulations around facility design, access to daylight and outdoors, etc. that may affect this approach,” Nancy Eng said.

A ministry of education spokesperson said “it’s up to local school boards to set their catchments and to determine how to efficiently distribute students so they have the best educational experience possible.”