Disposal of school land leads to confusion
Before its demolition last summer, the Victoria High School stadium had been a beloved local hang-out spot. Neighbours would play catch with their dogs on the field or jog circles around the ring. The bleachers were west-facing, meaning they caught the afternoon sun, so they were a popular place for picnic dinners from nearby food trucks.
But the stadium was nowhere near perfect. Graffiti adorned the crumbling concrete. Beer cans and paper napkins littered seats, and the field had patches of grass missing. Created as a memorial to the school’s alumni who died in World War II, the stadium was a local landmark — albeit a grimy one.
Over a decade before renovations to the school began in August 2020, there had been a plan in the works to renovate the memorial stadium. The Vic High Alumni Association had been working to fund their vision, which featured an all-weather artificial turf, new lighting, a fieldhouse, and an eight-lane metric track.
But after 13 years of hard work, their hopes for a competition stadium were crushed. The school board leased the land — raising questions about public consultation and the value of so-called “unneeded land” in the district.
A new beginning for Vic High
The Vic High School Stadium Revitalization Project was started by the school’s Alumni Association in 2007. They believed that their school deserved a full-sized stadium, similar to those at Oak Bay Secondary and Royal Bay Secondary.
The Alumni Association got to work fundraising for the estimated $7 million project. They organized golf tournaments, sponsored events, and auditorium seat sales. They took direct donations from alumni and community members in support of the project. They even brought the project to the city council, who promised a matching contribution of $250 000 in 2015. In early 2018, they celebrated reaching the goal to trigger city funding. With the city’s contribution, donations, and funds from the Bays United Soccer Club, they had just over $500 000.
However, the Alumni Association’s stadium project wasn’t the only upgrade being planned for Vic High. A few months after the Alumni Association met their benchmark to receive city funding, the Greater Victoria School District (GVSD) began public consultations on renovations to the Vic High building itself. As the oldest public secondary school in western Canada, many felt it was long overdue for an update.
In May 2018, the GVSD offered three options to the public: tear down the current building and build a new one for an estimated $50-60 million; conduct a seismic upgrade on the current building for an estimated $60-70 million; or preserve the building’s vintage facade and renovate the interior, potentially costing upwards of $100 million. There was overwhelming support from the public to preserve the building’s heritage, including from the Alumni Association. Upon hearing this, the school board voted unanimously for a $73.3 million project that would save historic elements of the former school building, including marble, granite and terracotta exterior features, and art glass in the lobby. The motion was then sent to the Ministry of Education.
The total project budget came out to $79.7 million. The ministry contributed $77.1 million in funding, leaving a shortfall of $2.6 million. GVSD is paying for the shortfall through leasing land, effectively discontinuing any hope of the Alumni Association’s project going forward.
“Land is the district’s largest asset”
The GVSD had been facing funding problems for years. In 2017, former secretary-treasurer Mark Walsh wrote a private letter to the Board of Education in which he explained that socio-economic inequity within the district had caused fundraising difficulties, and the provincial Annual Facilities Grant was not enough to bring Victoria’s educational facilities up to par.
His letter outlined a “School Rejuvenation Strategy” which recommended using parts of the school district land to raise funds, through both leases and permanent disposals. The report stated that “land is the district’s largest asset,” and listed Victoria High along with 28 other schools, including Reynolds Secondary, Campus View Elementary, and Central Middle School, that “may have potential unneeded land.” The letter mentioned BC Housing as a potential partner, given their recent influx in government financial support and Victoria’s affordable housing crisis.
The GVSD announced their approval of a 60-year lease of “surplus” Vic High land to the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) in November 2019 after another series of public consultations. In their press release, they claimed this was necessary to offset the $2.6 million shortfall caused by saving the building’s historic elements.
“We came up with an innovative solution with our partners that allows us to pay for our share of the upgrade, increase capacity for 200 more students, and add additional amenities. It also benefits the community by allowing our partners to build much-needed affordable housing,” said GVSD Board Chair Jordan Watters in a press release. “This arrangement demonstrates that when local governments work together to solve problems, the community benefits.”
But for the Alumni Association’s stadium revitalization project, the land deal was the beginning of the end. When the lease was first announced, the Alumni Association believed the two projects could coexist — but this would not be the case.
Although the decision to lease the land in 2019 was a result of the 2018 decision to move forward with seismic upgrades, the Alumni Association were not made aware of this ramification at that time.
According to Watters, the public was not consulted on the land lease or its impacts to the stadium project in 2018 because the school district needed to first determine a broad approach to the seismic upgrade.
“The renovation options (seismic options) needed to occur before any consultation could go forward with respect to land disposal in order to know if funds were required,”said Watters.
The people still wanted their track
The land leased to the CRHC sits beside the proposed site of the Alumni Association’s stadium. Though it does not directly overlap with the planned stadium footprint, the housing development requires an eight-metre easement. The easement forces the new school parking lot on top of where the memorial stadium would have been.
The GVSD approved the eight-metre easement in May 2019, in-camera. At the time, they believed the alumni had abandoned plans for the track due to lack of funds. The $500 000 the alumni had collected was not nearly enough for the envisioned $7 million project.
The GVSD held a public consultation on the potential land disposal in June 2019. They knew the land lease would force a reduction of the memorial stadium, but they made no mention of this to the community.
They did not share this information with the Alumni Association either during the fall of 2019. Emails between Alumni Association leaders show that though they understood that an eight-lane track was not favoured by city government, they still believed it was a possibility down the line if they could raise enough money. With the land lease in the works, the track could no longer fit.
After the lease was approved in November 2019, the public were given a survey about the amenities they wanted at Vic High. The Board of Education said the lease would provide an extra $1.5-1.9 million for amenities. A competitive track was listed among the options, despite the fact that the GVSD already assumed the funds were lacking. In the survey report, a “new track and field (turf, lighting, etc.)” was the third most desired amenity, after improvements to the theatre and gymnasium. The people still wanted their track.
“The track etc. has been kicked around for eight-plus years now. Take some leadership and get it done. Facilities like this are commonplace in the U.S. and elsewhere in B.C.,” one respondent wrote.
In the GVSD’s list of recommendations from the survey, they came out against the track and field, despite the high level of community support. They claimed this was due to “high cost and concern from the community about the turf field’s impact on the local environment” — though they knew the track was already unattainable due to the land deal. Instead, they supported other revisions to the memorial stadium such as upgraded bleachers, a new storage facility, and additional lighting.
“The option would require all of the amenity funding and more,” the report reads. “It limits
the District’s ability to provide other amenities to students and the community, as set out in these recommendations.”
In an email to the Martlet, Watters again emphasized that the track was not recommended due to its cost.
“There was no funding for the eight-lane track and stadium project as envisioned by alumni; however, [the Alumni Association] supports the current direction for improving fields and adding sports amenities,” said Watters.
From an eight-lane track to a two-lane walking ring
Since 2017, it is clear that the GVSD was interested in leasing school land. In a city with a dire need for affordable housing, the development of new homes is widely supported. The Alumni Association may have already had a plan in motion for the land, but ultimately, the decision belonged to the GVSD and the city council. They opted for the lease, even though it created consequences for the track.
The Alumni Association announced a direction for the Vic High Stadium Revitalization Project in October 2020. After talks with the GVSD, the proposed eight-lane track had been reduced to a two-lane walking ring. They were led to believe the track reduction was because of their inability to raise enough money — when they stopped taking donations, they had accumulated just over $500 000. These funds will now be put towards the current plan, which features the walking ring, a fieldhouse, outdoor lighting, and a newly-announced turf sports field.
“For over a decade, the Vic High School Alumni Association has worked hard to create a comprehensive vision and fundraise to enhance the outdoor sports facilities at Vic High,” Donna Lomas, the Victoria High School Alumni Association’s chair said in a press release. “Amongst other amenities, the inclusion of an all-season turf field with lights will greatly benefit athletic programs and school events at Vic High.”
This March, city council members were asked to approve a package of variances on the Vic High renovations, including one which requested lowering the number of parking stalls needed at Vic High. The new blueprint had the parking lot over top of the original stadium plan.
Community members pleaded with them to vote it down. Some argued that an eight-lane track could have been possible in the future, if only they had the space. But the city council’s hands were tied — they could only approve the amount of stalls, not the lot placement. The variances passed unanimously.
“I’m certainly not in a good mood about the outcome,” said councillor Geoff Young in closing statements.
“We have three public bodies with a couple of adjoining pieces of land — the school board, the CRD housing, and City of Victoria, (us, in other words) — who have gotten together and produced an outcome where we have said that our highschool, Victoria High School, is going to have second-rate sports facilities.”
Renovations are scheduled to be finished in September 2023.
The Alumni Association declined to comment in time for publication.