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Old elementary school hangs in limbo

Sexsmith includes 1913 heritage building

The fate of the historic Sexsmith elementary school at 7455 Ontario St. remains uncertain after the Vancouver School Board failed to find a compatible organization to lease and upgrade the old building once a replacement school opens.

The new school is under construction on the opposite end of the large property. It's expected to be completed next spring and open in September 2013.

The 1913 heritage building won't be needed at that point. A small wood-framed school building circa 1912 also sits on the property. Both were part of a request for proposals the VSB issued several months ago. The district was seeking a proposal for a civic or institutional use such as a library, community centre, recreation or health centre; a community use such as a daycare, preschool or seniors centre; an arts facility; or an educational use such as a music academy, arts school, dance academy or for post-secondary education. It wasn't looking for proposals from independent schools or related to residential or commercial uses.

But the VSB only received one response from that call for proposals, which was deemed unacceptable because it included commercial elements.

Now the district is considering a second proposal call, expanding the range of potential uses to include office and/or residential use.

An open house is planned for 3: 30 to 6: 30 p.m., Oct. 10. A school board announcement states: "We want to find a party that can upgrade the buildings and that will be a good fit with the school and local community."

Participants at an open house last January indicated they favoured civic, community or educational use if Sexsmith is leased, but there was "much less support" for residential or commercial use for the buildings.

A 2007 VSB study estimated it would cost $13.2 million for a seismic upgrade to school standards, which would retain the exterior character of the heritage building. Upgrading costs may vary depending on the type of use.

Board chair Patti Bacchus said she's not surprised a compatible use wasn't found through the first request for proposals. "Given the expense of upgrading that building, we know it will be a challenge to make a feasible business case-it's somewhat why we're not using that building again. It has tremendous heritage value but [it's] a very expensive building to bring up to safety standards."

Bacchus noted the district's main goal is to save the building, not to generate revenue, and that the VSB's preference is to work out a deal under a lease, so the district can maintain ownership of the land.

"However, we haven't ruled out other proposals," she said. "[Selling] would not be the preference, but it may be difficult-we have to look at if someone can make a business case to make this work on a lease and that depends on many factors."

The district still isn't looking at leasing to an independent school, although a few have enquired.

Bacchus suspects it wouldn't be a compatible use for reasons including crowded conditions it would create given the new Sexsmith school is also on the site. Twitter: @Naoibh