Riverview housing plan sparks political backlash

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

Miro Cernetig

The government wants to build a mixture of market and social housing on the grounds of the Riverview mental health hospital. Photograph by : Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

VICTORIA — A major political storm began to blow Friday over the provincial government’s proposal to turn the Riverview lands in Coquitlam into a massive housing development, mixing thousands of condos with social housing for the disabled, poor and mentally ill.

The government is seeking to solve a social housing shortage by trading the site of Riverview psychiatric hospital to private developers in return for a share of the profits to bolster public housing.

But the mayor of Coquitlam, anti-poverty activists and even naturalists who fear for Riverview’s world-class groves of trees immediately lined up in opposition.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan’s was one of the few voices in favour.

“We definitely do not want to see market housing on the site,” said Coquitlam Mayor Maxine Wilson. “I’m hopeful that the government will respect our point of view and retain the integrity of the site.”

Housing Minister Rich Coleman told The Vancouver Sun on Thursday his officials have proposed as many as 7,000 residences be built on the Riverview site, possibly as condominiums or apartments.

But Coleman said he sent them back to the drawing board to see if they can squeeze even more market housing units into the 98-hectare site.

The plan could generate billions of dollars in real estate deals and mean a windfall of millions for the government.

Developers would be required to turn back some of their profits to the government or build social housing.

However, Coleman said no development will happen without extensive public hearings and the approval of the community. That process isn’t likely to begin until fall, after the provincial cabinet approves taking the idea to Coquitlam residents.

But many of the city’s political leaders were outraged that the Liberal government had floated the idea in the media, calling that the equivalent of waking up in the morning and reading that the government wants to bulldoze Vancouver’s Stanley Park to make way for condos.

“It’s like a secret garden,” said Mae Reid, who has served on Coquitlam council for 15 years and fought to preserve Riverview from such development.

“It’s a place of healing. It’s just a magnificent place,” said Reid. “I’m sure developers would love to have an opportunity to have a new development site. But this is not the right place.

“Our city will not stand by and let it happen at Riverview,” she said. “To tear a heritage site apart and put up condos, I don’t think so. And I’m a realtor. … It smells.”

The controversy is likely to get more heated in the days ahead.

Wilson was scheduled to meet with Coleman on Monday and Coquitlam council has put the issue at the top of its agenda.

The New Democratic Party is criticizing the government for ignoring an earlier task force report that spelled out the community consensus that Riverview should be kept under public ownership and undergo no such commercial development.

“I’m stunned by this,” said Diane Thorne, the NDP MLA for Coquitlam.

“What’s wrong with this is the top-down way this has been thrown out there,” Thorne said.

“The sheer arrogance of it is upsetting the community.”

She suggested even public hearings might not be able to stop the plan. “If the Liberals decide this is what they want to do, they’re going to do it regardless of what the community thinks. And I already know what the community thinks. This is not what the majority want.”

The task force report, presented to the provincial government, seeks to retain Riverview as a haven for the mentally ill, preserve its unique architecture and protect one of the last major green spaces in Greater Vancouver.

To make the site economically viable, however, it also suggests museums, research and teaching facilities on mental health and even expanding the unique site’s availability for movie shoots.

Elaine Golds, past president of the Burke Mountain Naturalists, said the Riverview site should be kept under public control to preserve it as “a healthy haven for the mentally ill,” as a showcase for its century-old architecture and as one of North America‘s most magnificent collections of trees.

“The real treasure on the Riverview lands is the collection of specimen trees that are found throughout the grounds,” the naturalists said in a 2004 report. “It was the vision of [B.C.’s first provincial botanist] John Davidson over 90 years ago to have trees from all over the temperate world arrayed in one location for the education and enjoyment of the people of B.C.

“Today, the trees stand in their full glory and we see Davidson’s creation as he must have envisioned it. Gingko trees (Ginkgo Biloba) from China, a fir (Abies pinsapo) from southern Spain, maples (Acer cappadocicum) from the Himalayas, and a sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) from Turkey all thrive on the sunny slopes of the Riverview lands.”

“This proposal would destroy it, it totally shocks us,” said Golds. “This is a provincial treasure. In Europe when you create something like this it tends to get preserved forever. Somehow in North America we rip them down in a few decades. It’s shortsighted.”

Coleman, who expected controversy over his plans, defended the government’s idea Friday. He has argued all B.C. communities need to embrace social housing and get away from the “NIMBYism” — the not-in-my-backyard syndrome — he says has blocked attempts to build social housing in the past.

But it will be difficult to argue that NIMBYism is what has sparked Friday’s outcry in Coquitlam, where community leaders have consistently backed Riverview’s expansion to care for more of the mentally ill.

“The community of Coquitlam has never agreed with the downsizing of Riverview,” said the NDP’s Thorne.

“This is for private developers, it will be a land grab. It’s not NIMBYism against social housing. It is NIMBYism against market housing, though, it’s NIMBYism against destroying the site, which is what will happen if this went through.”

Jean Swanson, a long-time anti-poverty activist in Vancouver‘s Downtown Eastside, also criticized the idea of putting market housing on the Riverview site.

“I think he [Coleman] is using the homeless crisis to justify massive condo development that will make profits for developers but not do much for the next five or 10 years for the homeless,” Swanson said.

“But in the meantime, the government can tell the Olympic press, ‘Look what we’re doing at Riverview.'”

Not everyone was opposed. Sullivan, who has been pushing for greater utilization of Riverview to provide housing for some of the approximately 1,500 mentally ill living on downtown Vancouver‘s streets, praised the Liberal government’s free-market approach. He said it was similar to the Liberals’ strategy to build 910 social housing units in Vancouver by integrating them into market housing.

“It sounds like very much what is planned for Riverview is very similar to what we’re going to see in the city of Vancouver,” said Sullivan.

“I can tell you that everything that minister Coleman is doing in the City of Vancouver is right on,” said Sullivan. “I believe his approach to social housing in the City of Vancouver is absolutely commendable. And both he and the premier should be supported.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2007


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