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New Westminster turns down school proposal

Council opposes project in a six to one vote

New Westminster city council rejected an expansion plan for Urban Academy following a marathon public hearing in council chambers Monday night.

After five hours of delegations, council voted six to one against the proposal that would have allowed the school to expand its existing location in Robson Manor by constructing a new building on an adjacent site. As part of the plan to accommodate up to 450 students by 2022, the Urban Academy Society applied for a heritage revitalization agreement for 101 Third St. and 228 Manitoba St. and an amendment to the official community plan.

During the public hearing, supporters spoke of the need for the school expansion, the revitalization of Robson Manor as part of a heritage revitalization agreement and the school’s contributions to the community and the local economy.

Former Mayor Helen Sparkes said she comes from a family of public educators, but recognizes that one-size-fits all education isn’t suitable for all families. She urged council to support the project, saying the project is a good land use for the site, the school provides a valuable service to students and the school contributes to the local economy.

Pamela Findling, whose son is in Grade 5 at Urban Academy, said she is most excited about the school’s willingness to make space available to community groups. Kathy Cherris, a former city councillor and co-founder of the New Westminster Heritage Preservation Society, said she’d prefer to live next to a school than the “unknown” uses that could go on the site in the future.

Opponents cited concerns about the increase in traffic, parking problems, the loss of affordable rental stock (the adjacent site is home to an eight-unit rental apartment), the potential wear and tear of students using Tipperary Park as a play area, safety of students accessing the site and the ability of first responders to access the narrow streets around parts of the site.  Others questioned how a building that’s four-and-a-half times the size of Robson Manor and has a modern design is suitable for a historic neighbourhood and expressed concern it would detract from the historic Robson Manor.

Queen’s Park resident Mari-Lou Shoulak said neighbours weren’t opposed to Urban Academy moving into Robson Manor, but they are concerned about the long-term negative impacts the project would have on the heritage neighbourhoods.

“It’s too large for the site,” said another resident. “It’s also the wrong building for the site.”

Coun. Patrick Johnstone, the lone council member to support the project, said he thought the project was an appropriate use for the site. He noted that it was adjacent to an 11-storey apartment building, fits in in the context of a modern, urban school, and serves as a transition to the dense area below Royal Avenue.

Although some residents expressed concern that the project would be a precedent for developing in the neighbourhood, Johnstone said he didn’t see it as being a threat to Queen’s Park’s heritage character or housing stock.

The remaining members of city council expressed support for Urban Academy, but voted against the plan for a variety of reasons.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he fears the project could have an adverse impact on the oldest heritage precinct in the Pacific Northwest. He said opponents weren’t displaying NIMBYism, but concern that the expansion plan was “too severe” as it was tripling the number of students at the site.

Coun. Bill Harper said he was troubled that a heritage revitalization agreement could be used to build a building that is as “imposing” as the one proposed without providing a lot of community benefit in return.  He fears the project could have a “dramatic impact on the community.

Harper pointed out that the city’s advisory planning commission voted unanimously against the proposal.

Coun. Mary Trentadue said she was concerned about the pressure the project would place on a small parcel of land, rather than the heritage issues.

“I would love to support it. There are so many reasons to support it,” she said.  “I can’t get past the issue of traffic, safety and access of going up to 450 students.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said he supported Urban Academy when it moved into Robson Manor in 2006. While he believes schools are appropriate uses in neighbourhoods, he thinks residents have voiced legitimate concerns about the scale of the project and traffic impacts