Westbank's family-oriented plan could save schools

This week, the Georgia Straight reported a surprising initiative from Westbank that could affect the way the school board looks at the 12 schools under threat of closure in the next year. In an amendment to a re-zoning application for a 30-storey tower in the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood of East Vancouver, the developer says that has notified the school board about the possibility of more students living in the area, who could fill up empty spaces in the schools.

Originally slated to be 45 per cent “family-oriented” two- and three-bedroom units in their planned 265-unit building, Westbank’s Ian Gillespie is now saying that the building will have 65 per cent family-friendly units, making it potentially the condo tower with the highest percentage of these homes in the city. This has major implications for the school district, which is facing the closure of several nearby elementaries and two secondary schools. This has many people hoping that Westbank’s family-oriented plan could save schools on the Eastside of Vancouver where they are the most at risk of closure.

westbank_at_joyceThe school board has earmarked schools with lower than 85 per cent enrollment for closure, and virtually all of these schools are on Vancouver’s Eastside. Urban public schools across the country are under pressure from declining enrollment, and much of this has to do with simple demographic and social trends. People are simply having less children than they were in the mid-century when most of the schools were built. Whereas a typical second-generation Italian family in East Van in the 1960s would have four or five children going to school, now the average is one or two children, and there’s a much higher percentage of childless and empty-nest residents.

Another pressure facing East Van schools is the perceived superiority of Westside schools, so many East Van students commute over, filling up any empty spaces. But populations ebb and flow, and closing schools while the much-smaller Generation X is raising children is short-sighted, especially when the “Echoes”, kids of Boomers, are just getting going. That is, if they can afford to bring up their kids in the neighbourhoods where their parents grew up.

And this is where planning and densification come in. Westbank’s decision to build family-friendly units is a good one, both as a business decision, and as a social benefit to the city as a whole. Stability is good for school districts, as well as communities in general. City planners and developers need to realize that building a good mixture of home types for people of different incomes and ages, with amenities for people at all stages of their life, is what make a stable, healthy, vibrant city, and one where people want to, and are able to, stay and thrive.

Keeping families in the city is just part of the solution, but it’s an important one, and building family-oriented housing is a key element. Many families with kids going to school on the Eastside of Vancouver are certainly going to be hoping this is the beginning of a trend towards more equal educational opportunities for every student, regardless of where they live.

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