A controversial plan by the province’s electric utility to build a major underground electrical substation beneath an elementary school in downtown Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood has received the approval of the Trustees of the Vancouver School Board (VSB).
In a meeting on Monday evening, the VSB voted 6-2 in favour of entering into an agreement with BC Hydro that allows a substation to be built on the Lord Roberts Annex site at Nelson Park, located at the intersection of Bute Street and Nelson Street.
Under the agreement, BC Hydro will pay an upfront “fair market price” for the “subsurface parcel” of the school site that will be used for the substation. As well, the electric utility must also temporarily lease the school site for its construction purposes.
VSB stands to gain a substantial financial windfall from the deal, which will go towards funding the cost of constructing not only a new replacement Lord Roberts Annex school on the site but also a new elementary school on a site immediately adjacent to Coal Harbour Community Centre.
This new school in Coal Harbour would be a part of a larger mixed-use development by the City of Vancouver that consists of a daycare, social housing, and other community amenities.
First of all, the new Coal Harbour Elementary School will be completed by 2023 to act as a temporary replacement facility for the students and staff of Lord Roberts Annex until the new West End replacement school is ready.
Substation construction would then occur between 2023 and 2028, and construction of the replacement school on the site at the northwest corner of the site would begin after the substation’s completion.
After the students and staff of Lord Roberts Annex are relocated back to the permanent replacement school in the West End, the new school in Coal Harbour would become much-needed additional school capacity in the downtown Vancouver peninsula. Both new school facilities would be achieved without any cost to VSB.
And as another caveat, as part of its surface restoration work, BC Hydro will be responsible for funding and constructing a playing field and landscaped greenspace at the Lord Roberts Annex site for the new school and the wider community.
“There is a critical need for another school in the West End and this agreement will enable us to move ahead with this project sooner so we can meet the educational needs of current and future families,” said Trustee Lisa Dominato.
Downtown Vancouver’s newest elementary school – Crosstown Elementary – opened last year across from Rogers Arena with space for 500 students, but it is already at capacity due to overwhelming enrolment demand in the area. That school was constructed at a cost of $19.7 million, with $15.4 million provided by the provincial government and the remainder from the VSB and the City of Vancouver.
But Dominato says the VSB cannot depend on provincial funding for the Coal Harbour school project.
“The Minister of Education has been clear that the Province does not intend to fund this project any time soon,” continued Dominato.
Trustee Fraser Ballantyne also added to those comments: “By finding an alternative funding source for these West End schools, it makes a compelling business case for the Ministry of Education to fund other local priorities like King George Secondary, Olympic Village, and ongoing seismic needs within the district.”
The City of Vancouver has already included the mixed-use development with the new school as part of its upcoming capital plan, but the subsurface sale of the Lord Roberts Annex property still requires the approval of the Ministry of Education.
BC Hydro says this substation project is of utmost importance as electrical demand in Vancouver is projected to grow by 75% over the next 30 years. It would also serve as a timely replacement of the 1953-built Dal Grauer substation on Burrrad Street next to Scotiabank Theatre.
While the electric utility normally builds above-ground substation structures, the high cost of land and the lack of space in the downtown Vancouver peninsula is forcing the electric utility to seek underground options. Such a substation takes up about half a city block that could otherwise be used for commercial and residential development.
“Our electricity system in downtown Vancouver is aging, and it’s time to upgrade our system to ensure we can continue to provide safe and reliable power,” reads a statement issued by BC Hydro this evening following the VSB vote.
“We’re pleased the Vancouver School Board has decided to accept our proposal for an underground substation at their Lord Roberts Annex property. We believe our proposal will provide significant benefits to the community, and we look forward to working with the Vancouver School Board, Vancouver Park Board and the City of Vancouver once we move into further stages of consultation, planning and development.”
When BC Hydro first announced its underground substation proposal in January 2017, it was significantly more ambitious, entailing not only the West End school site but also Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown. It called for the staggered construction of two new underground substations on the school and park sites.
However, BC Hydro cancelled the plan shortly after over the City of Vancouver’s demands for the full market price of the value of the land used. The municipal government also felt the process was rushed and there was not enough public consultation.
At this time, only the Lord Roberts Annex substation project is being prioritized as its need over the short term is greatest.
There have also been school parent and public concerns over the health risks of placing a substation in such close proximity to young children, but BC Hydro maintains that the potential hazards can be significantly mitigated by both the substation’s underground placement and a highly protective enclosure design.
Furthermore, a 2017 Stantec study and an independent review by Vancouver Coastal Health concluded there are no significant health and safety issues.