Perspectives on Braemar, Argyle Rebuild and What's Next?

If you've chosen to read this, you're probably well aware that District of North Vancouver (DNV) Council voted against first reading of the rezoning and redevelopment of a portion of the Braemar School site. You're also probably aware that I was one of the three Councillors voting against. You may have heard about it in the media, seen it shared on Facebook, or have been involved in the process since the very beginning. Maybe you signed one of the online or paper petitions to say "Yes to Full Argyle Replacement" or "Save Braemar School Land for our Children's Future." Perhaps you sent a letter to Council. I received close to twenty before the decision and ten afterwards. A few hundred words in the newspaper are seldom enough to scratch the surface on an issue and I wanted to offer my perspective below.


Breamer or Argyle?


Background - The Facts:

Starting in 2006, School District 44 (SD44) identified a number of school properties no longer required for educational purposes and held a series of open houses to consult with the community. Approximately 45 acres of surplus properties were identified in the DNV including the Braemar parcel, Keith Lynn, Monteray, Westover, Maplewood, Balmoral, Fromme, Plymouth and Blueridge. Ongoing consultation over the years led to SD44 approving the Surplus Land Retention and Disposition Strategy in 2011, which set a series of guiding principles to shape future retention or disposition of these properties, as well as guide the use of any funds raised. Funds raised from any dispositions would be used to fill the gap for capital projects that are not eligible for full provincial funding. The Keith Lynn school site was sold to the DNV for $5M to be replaced by a road, and the Monteray school site was sold to a developer for $6.3M to be replaced by single family homes. SD44 has dedicated the funds from these sales to a full rebuild of Argyle.

The Provincial government has a funding program for the seismic retrofit of high risk schools. In the DNV, Argyle is currently the top priority for a seismic upgrade, with Handsworth next in line. In 2013, the Province committed $39.1M for the seismic upgrade of Argyle. In discussing the options, SD44 has determined that a full replacement of both Argyle and Handsworth is in the best, long term interest of the educational needs of our children and the financial health of SD44. The Province has declined to fund the difference between a seismic upgrade and a full replacement and indicated that if SD44 wishes to proceed with full replacements, it must pay off its existing debt and then prove it has the money in the bank to fund the rest. Although SD44 has requested to borrow the money required for full replacement, the Province has denied those requests. 

When the first options for Argyle were discussed, the Province was providing funding for Neighbourhood Learning Centres to be integrated into new schools. These centres would provide an additional 15% space in the school for community uses. An example is the pre-school and childcare at Ridgeway. When the Province removed the funding for these facilities, it widened the funding gap as described below.

The difference, or the gap, for the replacement of Argyle depends on which year the estimates were made, which option is selected and how much the Province will decide to kick in. The most recent estimates from October 2015 put the gap for a base full replacement of Argyle at $7.9M. A base full replacement with additional space for a multi-purpose performing arts area requires an additional $10.7M. The preferred replacement option, which also includes classroom space for 100 more students and more recreation space for community use requires an additional $13.7M. SD44 currently has $11.3M in the bank and needs an additional $2.4M to construct the preferred option under the current scenario. The preferred option to replace Handsworth requires an additional $10.4M and SD44 has not yet identified a source of these funds.

Public assembly (PA) lands are lands zoned by the DNV to serve the social needs of the community. These social needs are described in the zoning bylaw and include such uses as schools, colleges, government offices, places of worship, community centres, hospitals, rest homes, casinos and funeral homes. Public assembly lands are not necessarily publicly owned lands. They may be owned by the DNV, other levels of government and their associated agencies, non-profits, charities, private corporations or private individuals. There is no restriction on the ownership of PA lands, it is the use that is restricted. In response to changing community needs, specifically the changing needs of faith groups and SD44, the DNV held public consultations and developed a PA Lands Strategy, approved by DNV Council in May 2013. This strategy sets out the guiding principles for the role of PA lands, as well as their change of use or re-purposing. The reports and video from this meeting are available online. Reviewing the guiding principles of both the DNV Policy and SD44 policy, there is significant alignment.

The Braemar parcel was first proposed for redevelopment in 2007. SD44 went through a public, competitive process and sold the property to Wedgewood Ventures, subject to rezoning. An initial proposal of 6-7 4000 sq. ft. homes was put on hold in 2008. In 2014 a proposal came to DNV Council, went to public hearing and was defeated at second reading by a 4-3 voteCouncillors Hicks, Little, MacKay-Dunn and Muri voted against. 

As for roles and responsibilities, SD44 has complete authority (with the approval of the Province) to sell land it owns. The District, through Council, has complete authority over any proposed change in land use.


Perspectives - Interpretations of the facts:

Should the Province fully fund the costs of education, specifically the replacement and enhancement of outdated schools in at high seismic risk?

I've heard many people say that education is the Province's responsibility, which is true. If a school needs to be replaced the Province should pay for it and in principle, I agree. If government owns something of importance, it should make sure it has the revenue to pay for it in perpetuity. This is one of the fundamental tenets of sustainable asset management for government, which the DNV is a world leader in. On behalf of our citizens, the District owns, operates, maintains and replaces over $2B of assets. We have a program to ensure that we have the revenue to sustain those assets in good condition in perpetuity. Since 2004, Council made the tough, smart decision to add 1% to the tax levy every year to ensure funds are available to maintain and replace our capital assets. Every road, sidewalk, community building, manhole, streetlight, sewer, and park bench: we know where it is, we know how old it is, we know when it needs to be replaced, we know how much it will cost, and we know we will have the money there to replace it when needed. Although it is often difficult to predict the decisions of the Province, it seems very unlikely that their position will change. We can look to the City of Vancouver, where the school board has opposed the sale of school lands and the Province has responded to denying any funding for seismic upgrades until schools are closed. The Province has different principles, different priorities, which lead them to encourage the sale of school lands.


Should the School District sell its lands?

The argument for the sale of school district lands is that some lands have not been used for educational purposes for a long time, are currently not needed for educational purposes and because of demographics, are not going to be needed for educational purposes for the foreseeable future. If you own something that you haven't needed, don't need and won't need, it makes sense to sell it to pay for things you do need or will need. This is one premise behind the Province's Release of Assets for Economic Generation Program, announced in 2013. There is little information online about the program, other than criticism in the media that the Province was selling land across the board to balance the Provincial budget. Please note that the local context is different and SD44 land sales are not used to cover an operating budget shortfall, but are set aside in reserve for capital investment.

The argument against the sale of school lands is that land is finite. Once you sell land, you are unlikely to get it back. If you need it in the future, you will pay dearly for it. Change is constant, the future is uncertain, and land provides the flexibility to meet the changing needs of our community in perpetuity.

In principle I agree with the latter argument. Public land should not be sold. I do think there are opportunities to reallocate public lands, selling them in areas where they provide little benefit to purchase lands in areas where we can provide a greater benefit. 


Should the use of funds raised by changes of land use and development be a factor in Council decisions?

Changes in land use should be considered on whether or not they meet the needs of the community, their context within the OCP and the impacts of that land use change on the local and greater community. How much money a landowner makes a change in land use should not be a consideration on whether or not that change is approved. Neither should how that landowner chooses to spend the proceeds of that land sale. I make this point because the primary argument I've heard in favour of the rezoning is that the proceeds will be directed towards the preferred Argyle replacement. I haven't heard anyone argue that taking lands set aside for the social needs of the community and replacing them with four, four-thousand square foot single family homes is supportive of our land use plan, or that those homes provide a key benefit in our community.


Should public assembly lands be rezoned for uses other than the social needs of the community?

How our lands are used is an ever evolving conversation with our community. Our Official Community Plan is the guide for land use decisions and was the result of an intense dialogue between expert staff, citizens, businesses, community groups and Council over a period of 2-3 years. The future needs of our community were laid out, options and scenarios discussed, and tradeoffs made to come up with a plan that will meet most needs and is acceptable to most people.

The DNV has principles to guide decisions on re-purposing of public assembly lands. However, I do not think the PA Lands Strategy has consent from the citizens of North Vancouver. I do not think Council has obtained a social license from our community to move forward on these decisions. When I reviewed the policy, the reports and video showing Council's discussion, I heard concerns and a need for more work and public consultation. Sixty people attended the workshops during the creation of the policy, primarily from faith groups and SD44. There was no public hearing on this policy and only one person showed up to comment when the policy was introduced. The concerns expressed in 2013 have not been resolved and that further work and public consultation on site specific zoning has not been completed. Which leads us to the next topic . . .


What's Next? 

In comments I received after the decision, some mentioned not going to a public hearing was undemocratic. Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. The Supreme Court has ruled that the scope of a public hearing is restricted to the land use change under question. It is not a place to discuss if school lands should be sold and how the proceeds of those sales might be allocated. It is not a place to discuss how the social needs of our community are balanced by the re-purposing of public lands.

For those of you who know me, I am not one to back away from difficult, divisive conversations or decisions. Those conversations are often where we make the most spectacular breakthroughs. There is a place and a method to have those difficult conversations successfully. A place where we listen and discuss each other's points of view with respect, not suspicion. A place where solutions are the outcome, not animosity. A place where we come together as a community and are not driven apart. I do not think a public hearing for a land use change of a small parcel of land is that place.

All members of Council and the School Board want to ensure our children and the children of generations to come have the best educational opportunities, in the best educational facilities that we can reasonably afford. We all want a new Argyle to meet the needs of a growing town centre. All members of Council and the School Board would prefer to not sell school lands. SD44 is in a very tough situation, of which a good overview can be found in this presentation from 2012. The School Board is still waiting on approval from the Province to proceed with the full rebuild of Argyle and the funding gap is not finalized. Conceptual and detailed design will take 12-18 months, with construction another 18 months. We have another year or two to find this funding and we need to find a way forward together.

I think the first step forward is for DNV Council and staff to work side by side with the School Board and SD44 staff on a comprehensive land use plan for surplus school lands. I think it's important we move forward with the repurposing of PA lands with a long term strategy in place that has the consent of our community. SD44 has deemed ~45 acres of their lands to be surplus. In comparison, that's twice the size of Edgemont Village and almost the same size as Lions Gate Town Centre. We've invested an enormous amount of thought, planning and consultation into the future of those areas and produced reports, implementation plans, and design guidelines. Although SD44's sites are scattered across North Vancouver, I think the same careful consideration is required. A plan that reflects the vision expressed in our Official Community Plan, a plan that has sound foundations in appropriate land use to meet the current and future needs of our community, a plan where we work with the school district on their long term plans and consult with the community to communicate the fiscal realities, needs, opportunities and trade-offs.

School lands are the heart of our neighbourhoods. I am concerned that we're about to embark on open-heart surgery in a piecemeal way, one cut here, one cut there. We should be approaching this with a plan, have it scheduled well in advance and most importantly, have the consent of the patient.

If you've read all 2500 words so far, thank you. Whether or not you agree with the decisions made at Council, we do put a significant amount of time and effort into examining each decision. Sometimes that may not always come across is the four minutes we have to speak. Thank you for getting involved in the process, having the interest and making the time to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. To make democracy work and to make our community the best it can be, we must all be participants, not simply observers. I invite your comments on Facebook and Twitter. I've expressed my perspectives on the issue and look forward to hearing yours.

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