New Westminster school projects at least a year behind schedule
The school projects are behind schedule.
But how far?
Back in July 2010, the New Westminster School District and the City of New Westminster made a joint announcement regarding a "framework agreement" to clear a key stumbling block in building a new elementary, middle and high school. It centred on the Massey Theatre, which will be replaced to make way for the new NWSS.
The project timeline called for ground-breaking of the new St. Mary's Elementary on Royal Avenue in 2011, and right about now the groundbreaking of the middle school at the John Robson site (Eighth Street and Royal Avenue) would be imminent. Completion of St. Mary's was eyed for 2013, and the middle school for 2015.
But without a single shovel in the ground, that timeline is useless.
So where do we stand today?
The projects are at least a year behind that 2010 schedule. Currently, the school district awaits responses from three design-build firms for St. Mary's, due Oct. 11, and plans to select a winning bid about a month later.
School projects manager Jim Alkins said construction could begin as soon as spring.
"The expectation is that construction would last them through the next year," Alkins said, with first classes starting in September 2014.
As construction on the elementary proceeds, the school district will talk to parents and the general school community about what's wanted at the middle school, so they can put that project to tender with all the necessary detail—everything from the location of the parking and the gym to what kind of community programs will be on site.
If all goes well, the builder would break ground for the middle school in Summer 2014, Alkins said, with the school opening in September 2015.
Which of course brings us to the Great Aggravator in this entire scenario: the high school.
Over the past 20 years, Alkins has built schools all over B.C., including the recently opened replacement of Burnaby Central. Compared to NWSS, Central was a cake walk.
Nowhere has he encountered the complexity that exists on the Mercer site, particularly because of the historic burial ground on the property. A few months ago, a simple need to replace a sewer line to a portable required an application to the provincial government's archaeology branch for a permit. It meant the school district had to notify all the many groups (First Nations, Chinese, Masons, etc) that have an interest in the site for comment.
And that's just for routine maintenance. Soon, Alkins will seek to do more detailed investigations of the site to get a better idea what to expect when excavators start rolling in. Thankfully, he said he's got a good list of contacts among the interested groups, which helps speed up the consultation process.
"We might as well do (the investigations) before construction rather than during construction," Alkins said. "We're trying to do as much of that as we can over the next year… so we're quite comfortable saying we're not at a big risk here of encountering human remains, or waste fuel, or whatever, and we're prepared to go ahead."
But who's to say there won't be some surprises in that dirt?
"On the other hand we may say we need another year doing extensive excavation, and replacing poor quality soil," added Alkins.
And all that work is required in order to just get the Ministry of Education to approve the project to proceed.
If the shovels hit bone—full or partial human remains—the question becomes whether construction must work around that location, or is there a senstive way to deal with it and continue working.
Alkins is confident it will be the latter.
"There are different perspectives but the one that seems to be resonating is that we would create some kind of feature on the site, to retain the remains on the site."
The groups will be asked the best way to commemorate the historic cemetery that was on the Mercer site—a plaque or storyboards, for instance.
"We want to engage with people who have an interest to say what should this look like?" Alkins said.
So, for those impatient to see a new high school built, what does all this maddening complexity mean?
"My sense is NWSS would start to build in 2015," said Alkins—about a year off the original timeline.
Such a large project will take about three years to build, and though portions could open earlier, the full opening would likely be the 2018/19 school year. (Some documents on the school projects website posted two years ago refer a 2016 completion date.)
In other words, if your child is in Grade 3 this year, there's a decent chance of them attending a new high school when they reach Grade 9.
Alkins said these schools will be with us for decades to come, and it's vital—particularly with the issues on the Mercer site—that the project isn't rushed at the expense of doing it right.
In terms of the challenges ahead, Alkins anticipates things will get easier and more focused as things progress. As each school is completed it will mean more time and attention given to a narrowing list of tasks and obstacles standing in the way of final opening day.