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Coleman's Gambit

Riverview and Little Mountain sales a risky bid during a housing crisis.

Monte Paulsen 31 Jul

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor at The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail ([email protected]), and invites you to participate in the online discussion below.

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Where to live while they dig?

Rich Coleman is among most ambitious ministers in Premier Gordon Campbell's cabinet. In his two years as Minister Responsible for Housing, the Fort Langley-Aldergrove MLA has moved more than 1,400 British Columbians onto a new rental assistance program, established homeless outreach teams in 18 communities, purchased 623 rooms of low-income housing in 11 aging residential hotels, and committed millions of dollars toward the construction of many hundreds of new units of social housing intended for the province's elderly, homeless and off-reserve Aboriginal populations. In his spare time he serves as Minister of Forests and Range.

But those accomplishments could pale by comparison to Coleman's plans to redevelop the land beneath Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam and Little Mountain Housing in Vancouver. Both projects would create public-private partnerships -- or P3s -- in which landmark public properties are sold to private developers.

If successful, these P3 deals could return hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers, while at the same time leading to the creation of unique communities that integrate social housing, affordable housing and market-rate housing into environmentally sustainable urban centres. If successful, these are the kinds of deals that could help propel Coleman -- a former RCMP officer and real estate consultant -- into the premier's office.

There are plenty of ways these deals could turn sour, however. Coleman has been taking fire from Coquitlam politicians since his Riverview proposal surfaced late last week. And the optics of demolishing social housing during an affordability crisis could backfire should homelessness become a major media theme during the 2010 Olympics.

"There's no doubt that Rich Coleman wants to be premier," said MLA Diane Thorne, who serves as housing critic for the New Democratic Party. "He's taking a calculated gamble. He could go places with these plans. But he could also fall flat on his face."

From X-files to Yaletown

Coleman floated his idea to redevelop the Riverview lands in a Vancouver Sun article published late last week. He told reporter Miro Cernetig that he'd instructed his staff to explore ways to build more than 7,000 homes on the 98-hectare site; and said that as many as 1,100 of those units could represent social housing or supportive housing for addicts or the mentally ill.

At that size, a redeveloped Riverview community could rival the 9,100-condo Concord Pacific Place on the north shore of Vancouver's False Creek for its self-proclaimed tile as "North America's largest master-planned community."

Coleman was unable to return The Tyee's request for an interview on Monday, but told CKNW radio host Bill Good that: "It's a site that... could set an example internationally and throughout the world for what you can do if you sit down and look at the integration of a site with mental health, addictions and the developmentally disabled." Coleman went on to add, "Frankly, if you're smart about it you actually try and look for a market base that will pay for the institutional side to save the taxpayer money."

The Riverview property itself was purchased by the province in 1904. Back then it was named "Essondale," after the cabinet minister who advocated construction of a new psychiatric hospital, which was a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1913. That original building (now known as West Lawn) features such a classic institutional look that, after it was decommissioned, became a popular location for shooting films and television dramas such as Smallville and X-Files.

In 2002, Riverview began a phased closure of its aging facilities, with patients moving to much smaller facilities located throughout the province. Earlier this year, patients remaining in the North Lawn building were re-located to the Valley View building while awaiting placement.

Little Mountain, big-time condos

The Riverview proposal is strikingly similar to a major deal that Coleman struck with the City of Vancouver late last week.

At Little Mountain, BC Housing will demolish 224 units of aging social housing, then sell the 15-acre property to a private developer. That developer will promise to replace the 224 units as part of a new neighbourhood centre totalling as many as 2,000 condos.

Little Mountain sits on an L-shaped property between 33rd and 37th avenues, just west of Main Street. It was until recently home to about 570 neighbours, living in 176 apartments and 48 row houses. The modest stucco buildings are set apart from one another by large lawns and big trees that lend the family housing project an unusual sense of tranquillity.

BC Housing seeks to build far more units, and at much greater height, than current zoning would allow. Under the terms of its deal with the city, BC Housing has committed to building a "socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable community that will... provide a range of housing options for Vancouver's growing and changing population."

In addition, BC Housing has committed to reinvesting the "net proceeds" from the land sale into the development of social housing. Sources close to the deal suggested that number could run as high as $100 million. Half of those proceeds will be invested in social housing within the City of Vancouver.

Vancouver City Council approved the Little Mountain deal despite objections from residents, community members and housing activists. Council approval followed curtailed public testimony -- only three of 18 citizens signed up to speak were willing to cross the CUPE picket lines -- and Non-Partisan Association councillors were impatient at the end of a marathon all-day council session. NPA councillor Kim Capri rolled her eyes as Vision Vancouver councillor put question after detailed question to BC Housing regional director Dale McMann. Knowing his party had the votes to carry the deal, Mayor Sam Sullivan repeatedly muttered off-mic, "Let's vote. Let's just vote already." Afterward, Capri hailed "this process" as "a model for future sites."

Bad deal for Vancouver?

About a dozen activists opposed to the Little Mountain redevelopment protested outside city hall, while chatting with city workers on the picket lines.

Opponents of Coleman's deal complain foremost that BC Housing is relocating residents prematurely. They agency has already persuaded the tenants of 65 apartments to vacate voluntarily, and reports that another 31 units will be empty at the end of August. Noting that construction may not begin until 2010, opponents question why it is necessary to vacate the buildings now.

Resident Ingrid Steenhuisen, who chairs the housing subcommittee of the Riley Park/South Cambie CityPlan Community Visions program, argued that BC Housing's plan is backward. Rather than relocating residents and then consulting the public, Steenhuisen said BC Housing and the city should consult residents and the community first, approve a plan second, and then relocate only after the project is fully permitted.

"It will be at least five years before there are new buildings on the site, and probably longer for the social housing. So the existing tenants will have new lives, and won't be able to benefit from the new place," said Jean Swanson of the Carnegie Community Action Project.

The second most oft-voiced criticism of the Little Mountain plan revolved around the deal Mayor Sullivan cut with Minister Coleman. Activists and politicians have asked why Sullivan allowed half the value of the property to leave the city, and why only 224 replacement units will be built. If the total condo count runs as high as projected, that could represent as little as 11 per cent of the total project. Vancouver requires private developers to commit to 20 per cent social housing.

"The deal Mayor Sullivan signed was sub-standard," said Vision Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie. "The NPA has been a willing partner in allowing 50 per cent of the value of the Little Mountain site to leave our city."

"As we move forward to rezoning this property, it is Vision Vancouver's intention to advocate for more affordable housing and more moderate income housing at this site," Louie added.

Diane Thorne, who served as a city councillor in Coquitlam before becoming an MLA, agreed. "Why not take the opportunity at Little Mountain to triple the number of social housing units?" Thorne asked. "It's the one place Coleman wouldn't have to face NIMBYism."

The first of many

Riverview and Little Mountain may be the first of many such P3s to come in BC.

The provincial housing strategy, Housing Matters BC, calls for obsolete buildings built on under-utilized land to be redeveloped. Built in the 1950s, Little Mountain is oldest public housing development in British Columbia. It is one of at least 57 social housing properties transferred from the Government of Canada to the Province of British Columbia, under a deal intended to streamline administration and allow BC Housing to provide one-stop shopping for housing services.

Housing activists are critical of both deals.

"This provincial government is using homelessness and poverty as an excuse to set up deals that are going to deliver massive profits to developers," Swanson said. "This whole exercise at Little Mountain and Riverview are schemes so Coleman can tell the media 'See, we're building social housing' when in fact all he is really doing is helping out his developer friends."

Swanson said there are now more than 2,000 people homeless in Vancouver alone. As many as 9,000 Vancouverites are reportedly waiting for social housing.

"Look, if Minister Coleman really wanted to help the thousands of homeless in British Columbia, he'd take the $250 million he's got socked away in a bank account and build housing," Swanson said. "Homeless Canadians are getting sick and dying, while Minister Coleman sits on their money. It's a crime. He is responsible for their suffering."

Opposition critic Thorne agreed.

"These are nothing but lucrative development deals with bits and pieces of social housing thrown in to make them more palatable to the taxpayers," Thorne said. "Rich Coleman is selling off government property as if it were his own. It's a good deal for the developers. But pretty soon, taxpayers won't have any government land left in British Columbia."

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