The Caledonia housing project in Fernwood is causing a land use conflict, pitting educational needs against housing.
HOW DID VIC HIGH’S seismic upgrade become subordinate to the Capital Region Housing Corporation’s (CRHC) agenda? In a telephone conversation with the Regional Director of the Ministry of Education’s Capital Management Branch, Damien Crowell, on June 9, 2020, he confirmed that School District 61 had access to government funding to offset the $2.6M shortfall associated with Vic High’s upgrade. Yet the School District chose to lease over two acres of Vic High land for sixty years to the CRHC for the proposed Caledonia project, charging a cut-rate price of $4.1M total. The issue has divided our community in a futile “housing vs education” conflict. For all that, the 1,000 students who will attend the seismically upgraded Vic High are the ones who will pay the price if this questionable deal moves forward.
There are many things wrong here. But for the purposes of this article, I will focus on how the project’s need for more space than originally thought has impacted a long-planned and needed rejuvenation of Vic High’s stadium and track.
In a recent article in the Times-Colonist, “Thanks for the Memories: Saying Goodbye to Vic High’s Old Stadium,” the omission of one word—metric—previously used to describe the Revitalized Stadium plans for a new track, is the mark of a scandalous cover-up that through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, has been laid bare.
Emails starting on August 1, 2017 between former School District 61 Secretary-Treasurer, Mark Walsh, and Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC) Development Manager Paul Kitson regarding the proposed Caledonia Housing Project on Vic High land, reveal that poor planning led to the undisclosed decision to cancel Vic High’s promised metric track—a track that requires a significantly larger footprint than the current yard track.
The western extent of the old track is outlined within the field area of the new track. The western extent of the new metric track would be the brown area (lanes) on the left, plus the white area.
Site plans for Vic High’s Revitalized Stadium were not taken into consideration when the CRHC prepared the September, 2018 Urban Design Brief for the proposed housing. Consequently, the design took shape without reference to the expanded area required for Vic High’s metric track, leading to a land-use conflict that has been hidden from the public.
The issue went unnoticed until late March, 2019, almost two years into negotiations. Only after the CRHC took steps to apply for rezoning did they discover that the Caledonia project would require a setback for a fire lane running between Grant and Gladstone Streets along the whole of the western boundary with Vic High property.
The discovery put the CRHC in a bind because their design left no leeway, an issue that should have sent them back to the drawing board. However, the CRHC resolved to take more land from Vic High, planting their flag, so to speak, on land designated for the education of 1,000 students.
The red area approximates the area of land the housing project would need for a fire lane, but that a metric-size track would need as well.
In an email to Walsh dated March 29, 2019, Kitson wrote the following: “I met the City planner today. They asked us [to] include on our site plan something related to [the] proposed track. It helps them decide on variations to setback requirements. Do you have anything that could help such as: 1. Are seating stands being proposed, what kind and location? 2. How far will the track be moved, if at all? Also, I mentioned that we are proposing a 4.5m easement [later increased to 8 metres] on the Vic High property, which needs your approval?”
In Kitson’s email, “setback” and “easement” seem to be interchangeable terms, an underlying problem that persists. There are legal issues surrounding the use of Vic High grounds to satisfy the CRHC’s rezoning requirements, not least of which is that the land in question was already slated for Vic High’s metric track.
So, what was the School District’s response? On April 4, 2019, Walsh failed to report plans to expand Vic High’s current track: “At this point, we have not incorporated an expanded track in our planning. We will be
meeting with a small group to discuss Vic High next week. Jim Soles is the lead on the technical aspects of the project but at this point has little information on what the final design of the field space would be. I do not anticipate significant seating.”
Little information? The Revitalized Stadium plans were known to the School District since 2012 and confirmed in presentations to its operations committee and board in January, 2018. To suggest that School District staff had “little information on what the final design of the field space would be” in April, 2019, doesn’t hold water.
Moreover, neglecting to reference the Revitalized Stadium plans did not give the School District permission to cancel plans for Vic High’s metric track. Similarly, the CRHC’s assumption that they have the right to take land from Vic High to satisfy rezoning requirements is an infringement on Vic High students.
Nonetheless, the School District offered to “grant” the area required for the setback to the CRHC without financial compensation, despite claims of funding shortages, and at the expense of Vic High’s metric track, without public consultation. Was the School District eager to please the CRHC as they are an apparent “partner” in an undisclosed plan to lease parcels of land belonging to as many as 29 schools in SD61?
Walsh’s email presents another curiosity: What “small group” was scheduled to meet with the School District to “discuss Vic High?” Here’s a not-so-wild guess: the Vic High Alumni Association Executive. Regardless, the Alumni did not have the authority to cancel the metric track either.
Changes to Vic High’s Revitalized Stadium project require public consultation. In 2012, the School Board passed a motion in support of the Alumni’s vision and the School District has actively assisted them in their fundraising efforts. The City of Victoria committed to matching funds of up to $250,000 in 2014. In 2015, MLA Carole James outlined the plans, the donations and grants and sang praises for the project in the BC Legislature. By 2018, the public had donated $150,000. Additionally, the Vic High Alumni Association continues to request donations based on the original plan; therefore, the original plan must be delivered.
Here’s the real kicker: After wheedling more land from Vic High, the CRHC produced an image that describes the land (referenced as an “8m easement”) as part of “SD61 Land Remaining After Housing Agreement.” Technically, the land would remain in the hands of SD61 as it’s an easement. However, the document further describes the area as “for educational purposes,” even though the CRHC had already described it as a fire lane and public greenway in their rezoning application. To suggest that this is for educational purposes is disingenuous, especially because it prohibits the construction of Vic High’s promised metric track that is expressly for educational purposes.
Shockingly, the CRHC shared this problematic image with the School District who then shared it with the public at the November 12, 2019 public consultation, two weeks before trustees voted on the land transfers that triggered the proposed lease. Apparently, the CRHC was motivated to do so after a citizens’ group presented data to trustees showing that CRHC plans would put Vic High’s land-to-student ratio below Ministry of Education standards. (By their own admission, the School District did not consider area standards before engaging in negotiations with the CRHC.)
The image suggests that the proposed housing does not encroach upon the area needed for Vic High’s promised sports infrastructure—but it does. By withholding information about the impact of the proposed housing on Vic High’s metric track, the public was denied an opportunity to voice an opinion about the loss of vital infrastructure for Vic High’s students. The CRHC’s confusing image, and the School District’s retention of information, apparently to effect an outcome in favour of the Caledonia project, should nullify the results of the trustees’ vote that has allowed the Caledonia project to proceed.
Transparency issues go right to the core of the proposed Caledonia project. Recall that the rationale for the project rests on the need to offset a funding shortfall of $2.6M for Vic High’s seismic upgrade, and gains its legitimacy from the assertion that the preservation of Vic High’s heritage is more expensive than a new build.
However, the timeline of the negotiations for the proposed lease is out of sync with this claim; on Aug 1, 2017, when negotiations began, the model for Vic High’s seismic upgrade had yet to be determined, and a funding shortfall was impossible to claim. The proposed lease seems to be motivated by the intent to yield general revenue.
Additionally, the Project Definition Report for Vic High’s seismic upgrade doesn’t support the claim of higher “heritage” costs. The difference between “heritage” Option 3 and a new build is less than $1M and the new build option doesn’t include a theatre. However, the most important detail is that as early as 2005, consultants told the School District that a new build wasn’t a viable option, for a number of reasons. In fact, the budget for a new build was developed for the sake of comparison.
Above all, School District records show that the model for Vic High’s seismic upgrade was contingent on “full funding” from the Ministry of Education. According to the Project Definition Report, the cost of Vic High’s upgrade is $77.1M (without the additional cost of the Neighbourhood Learning Centre that receives separate funding). Remarkably, on June 27, 2019, Minister of Education, Rob Fleming, announced exactly $77.1M in funding for Vic High.
So, is there a $2.6M funding shortfall for Vic High’s seismic upgrade that warrants the lease of over two acres of Vic High grounds for 60 years? To date, the School District refuses to respond to FOI requests for the source of the shortfall, claiming that this information jeopardizes the bidding process for construction.
The School District has also stalled on FOI requests for site plans for Vic High’s Neighbourhood Learning Centre. Currently, an investigator from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is investigating this issue.
Even under the best of circumstances, the Caledonia project was scheduled to be completed in 2023. COVID-19 has slowed the process even further. The compounding crisis of mismanagement presents an opportunity to leverage a better plan: redirect the $50M already allocated for the construction of 158 Caledonia units to purchase and renovate existing structures now. This plan would also have the benefit of a lower carbon footprint. The BC government has recently purchased hotels to assist unhoused populations. Let’s apply a similar concept to the affordability crisis by providing housing starting now for families and individuals who are struggling to make ends meet.
Students and their families need both stable, affordable housing and fully resourced public schools to meet the many challenges of our uncertain world. Redirecting the $50M meets both needs and offers immediate relief during a worsening crisis.
Esther Callo is the parent of two Vic High graduates and served on the Vic High Parent Advisory Council for five years. She has a BA (Hons) from UVic and is a passionate advocate of public education. She is part of the citizens' group Vic High Spaces and Ethical Engagement, whose website has a wealth of documentation: https://www.vichighsaee.ca