By Sarah Payne The Tri-City News
4:12:57PM, Jul 27 2007
A proposal to develop the Riverview Hospital grounds for thousands of housing units — being dubbed by critics as half-baked, arrogant and a travesty — won't go far if Coquitlam has anything to say about it.
But just how much say the city will have has yet to be determined, leaving local politicians skeptical and angry.
Friday, Mayor Maxine Wilson said she was surprised by housing minister Rich Coleman's bombshell that the provincial government wants to develop the 244-acre grounds into 7,000 units or more in a mix of market and social housing, and residences for the mentally ill.
Wilson said she has known for the past four or five months that rethinking services for the mentally ill is a top provincial cabinet priority and that greater use of the Riverview grounds would likely be part of that.
"I was expecting to be informed of a plan for mental health housing," she said. "So this announcement came as a surprise because of the market housing part."
In 2003, Coquitlam's Riverview Hospital Task Force conducted an extensive consultation process that ended in a report unanimously endorsed by city council in February 2005. It laid out a future for Riverview as a "sanctuary" to house the mentally ill in a therapeutic setting.
It called for supported housing in homelike lodges, such as Cottonwood and Connelly, rather than in monolithic institutions long since mothballed.
It also called for preserving Riverview's famed arboretum and gardens. New buildings could be constructed, it stated, but only on the footprint of old ones that can no longer be used – and those buildings must be used to house the mentally ill.
"We are in total opposition to market housing," Wilson stated.
By mid Friday morning, Wilson said she had already been in touch with Coleman, the minister responsible for housing, and will be meeting with him early this week.
Coun. Mae Reid, who chairs the Riverview Committee, said she was "absolutely astounded" to hear the news.
"In anyone's book this is totally unprofessional, not to mention arrogant, to just let the citizens of Coquitlam read about it [in Friday's Vancouver Sun]."
Asked Friday why the government didn't first go to Coquitlam council before releasing the news, Coleman said "it doesn't have to."
Any developer wishing to have land rezoned for development would first explore options before drawing up detailed plans to bring to a city council, he said; it just happens that the provincial government's proposal is still at an early stage and there isn't anything concrete to offer yet.
The provincial government committee looking into Riverview's future — Coleman, Health Minister George Abbott and Citizens' Services Minister Olga Illich — is reviewing a staff report with two options: one that calls for 4,500 units and the other for 6,000 to 7,000 units. Coleman, a former real estate developer, has said the latter possibility "isn't nearly high enough."
"This is a significant piece of property and it would be irresponsible not to take a look at what it could be used for in the future, considering it has 244 acres of land," Coleman said, adding if anything goes forward, the Kwikwetlem First Nations would need to be engaged.
And while the proposal is still new, Riverview's heritage buildings and arboretum have been considered, he said.
"Absolutely. Anything I've seen in discussions over the last 11 years, whether it's us or the former government, those concerns are always brought to the forefront. But nothing says we can't protect the green space and work around it."
Coleman also confirmed the province hopes to have a detailed proposal for community consideration available by the fall.
But Coun. Reid doesn't buy it, saying she doubts the province will give a hoot what Coquitlam council has to say. "I don't believe they even gave us the courtesy of reading our report," she said. "We have never endorsed market housing, ever, on that site and this is our heritage.
"We have beautiful trees on Riverview, they have species there you can't find anywhere else, and they just want to rip them down and build condos — and I'm a realtor," she said, adding Coquitlam has supported economically viable initiatives at Riverview that are in keeping with the hospital's ideals.
"This is such a travesty for our city."
Diane Thorne, NPD MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville and the opposition housing critic, said she started getting calls at 7:30 a.m. Friday after the news broke. "I think it's another example of the [BC] Liberal government running roughshod over communities with no consultation," she said.
"I can't believe this minister is arrogant enough that he would take something as fundamental as housing and homelessness, and float a trial balloon like this. It's a vague plan... and it's making panic in the community."
Port Moody-Westwood MLA (Liberal) Iain Black disagreed, saying in an email that the conversations pertaining to Riverview are still at a conceptual level.
"No plans have been drafted that warrant a public outcry from any group or individual holding a view on what should or should not happen with the Riverview grounds," he wrote. "Indeed, the process lies ahead of us and will give ample opportunity for our community and its elected councillors to be heard.
"I am encouraged that we appear on the verge of putting into the public realm for debate and decision the complex issue of how to address some urgent social and mental health needs within the context of our broader community and the historic site of Riverview Hospital."
The Riverview Horticultural Centre Society couldn't be more displeased. "This is absolutely the worst-case scenario we could have imagined," said Donna Crosby, RHCS president, adding the way Coleman talked about thousands of units made it seem as if he were talking about bare land.
"Our society has and always will support the needs of the mentally ill at Riverview but we are strongly opposed to market housing," she said. "We need to retain what little green space we have in the Lower Mainland and appreciate the ecological, therapeutic and aesthetic value of trees — not only those on Riverview lands but all the trees in our urban environment."
There are more than 1,900 trees on the Riverview grounds, several of which are exotics that can't be found elsewhere, and there are many more native trees not counted.
Mental health advocates had a mixed reaction.
Roderick Louis, who chairs the Patient Empowerment Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for current and former Riverview patients, said Coleman's "half-baked proposal" comes after a process in which the mentally ill and their advocates were excluded.
"Coleman is criticizing the possibility of using what he calls Riverview's 'rat-infested buildings' for the mentally ill while, at the same time, Coleman and company have purchased nearly a dozen [Downtown Eastside] hotels that are rat-infested that will end up housing primarily severely mentally ill adults."
Louis maintains there are several buildings at Riverview, including former nursing school residences, that are in good shape and could be used to house more mentally ill people almost immediately.
"One could infer there's been a deliberate attempt to block the utilization of good structural-condition buildings at Riverview to house mentally ill adults while the B.C. government spits out romantic jargon and stalls until, eventually, once the public is numbed to the existence of the mentally ill homeless and drug addicted in their neighbourhoods, that the sale of the Riverview property can be done without risk of voter backlash."
But Gisela Theurer, the New View Society's director of rehabilitation, said the proposal has potential if it means building a truly integrated community.
"People at Riverview have always been isolated; it's not a place people want to go," she said. "If it were to be a community, with all the amenities of an attractive town centre and stable housing with long-term, continuous support for the mentally ill, it could work."
Those with mental illness and addiction issues have to want to go there, she added, not be forced.
"When they moved people out of Riverview, it was done very poorly," she said. "If they learned from that and get the main players and stakeholders at the table, and truly follow a vision, it can be done well."