Let’s see a plan for Riverview before arguing against it

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Objecting parties offer no alternative for growing problem of social housing

Pete McMartin

Coquitlam council is afroth. The tree-huggers are afroth. The anti-poverty activists are afroth, as they ever are, since the poor are always with us, as Jesus said.

He also said, love thy neighbour. In this case, it is proving to be an infinitely more difficult doctrine.

This case is Riverview.

The provincial government, which owns it, would like to transform it from the quasi-green space/arboretum/decaying mental institution into a new, mixed-use community that would integrate social housing for the homeless, the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled among market housing for suburbanites.

The plan is ambitious. It is big.

While there are no concrete drawings, it could entail the construction of more than 10,000 housing units, primarily condominiums and highrises. The sale of the market units, built by private industry, would subsidize the construction of the social housing component, rumoured to be more than 1,000 units.

As far as I have been able to find out, it has no counterpart in North America, either in size or application. The concept, said Housing Minister Rich Coleman, was not taken from any template. It is new territory.

Coleman discussed the still-unformed concept with The Vancouver Sun in an interview last week.

The next day, the subsequent story was greeted in Coquitlam with alarm, since it was the first anybody there had heard of it, including Mayor Maxine Wilson.

She was not impressed. Without seeing so much of a conceptual drawing, since none exist, anyway, she uttered the unlikely battle cry of “No market housing!” — unlikely because that may have been the first time those words had ever been heard in a suburb where the practice of bulldozing down trees and then naming a subdivision after them is sacrosanct. No market housing? There’s very rarely any other kind outside of Vancouver city limits, which has had to shoulder the bulk of Greater Vancouver’s social housing.

But Coquitlam has a proprietary interest in Riverview, and it is a leafy one. It expressed that interest in a 2005 report entitled For the Future of Riverview. It took a two-year task force to come up with its recommendations, which called for the preservation of much of Riverview’s green space and heritage trees, a continued, though limited, presence of mental health facilities, and the development of new enterprises that promote “artistic, educational, cultural, social, heritage, horticultural and passive recreational values.”

An idyllic vision. A bucolic vision. And one, I’m guessing, that would have to be massaged into being by many, many tax dollars.

It was also a vision that suited local naturalists, who joined with Wilson to condemn Coleman’s musings, which, they were sure, meant the destruction of Riverview’s greenery.

Joining this chorus were members of the NDP and the anti-poverty lobby, whose accusations were borne along by the whiff of capitalist conspiracy. Local NDP MLA Diane Thorne claimed it was a land grab for developers, and Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson claimed Coleman was using the housing crisis to justify said development.

In other words, this immediate condemnation of Liberal plans by intersecting self-interests was politics as usual.

Which is perfectly understandable.

And it may even prove to be warranted in the final analysis.

But it was, I thought, a little hasty.

No one, after all, knows exactly what the Liberals’ plans for Riverview entail exactly, maybe not even the Liberals themselves.

Nor did any of the objecting parties offer up any alternative ideas of what to do about the growing population of people needing social housing, a population that now numbers in the thousands and is spread throughout the entire Lower Mainland.

They also ignored the fact that this would not be the first time Riverview has built market housing on what used to be its lands. Riverview used to be just over 400 hectares, and had a resident population approaching 5,000 people. But in the 1980s, 275 hectares of it were sold and subdivided for residential use, while another 25 hectares were set aside as a forest preserve.

What in those 25 years made Riverview sacrosanct from further development, especially in light of its steadily dwindling population? After decades of deinstitutionalization, now only 300 people live on the remaining 100 hectares. This is surely the lowest population density rate in the Lower Mainland.

It is a colossal waste of space, considering the need and the very expensive cost of building social housing in a market like Vancouver‘s.

Meanwhile, the old tactics of demonizing the “market” not only doesn’t help, it shows a sad lack of imagination.

This is not — I repeat, not — an argument for the Liberals’ plan. You cannot make a cogent argument in favour of something you have not seen.

But the same goes for making a cogent argument against it.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007


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