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Cutting the grass, BC Housing says, shows it means business about Riverview's future
The grounds at Riverview Hospital are now being kept up as a goodwill gesture by the government agency tasked to look at the future of the Coquitlam institution.
On Wednesday, Michael Flanigan, vice-president of development services and asset strategies at BC Housing, told the city's Riverview Lands Advisory Committee his organization has hired crews to cut the grass in effort to build trust with council and the community.
At Monday's council-in-committee, BC Housing was told Riverview has become a site of "demolition by neglect" by the provincial government, which owns the 244-acre property.
And last month, an 80-year-old volunteer from the Riverview Preservation Society had to cut the grass before the annual Treefest celebration on the hospital grounds.
Flanigan told the Riverview committee today the "earnest endeavour" of mowing the lawns is a sign BC Housing is "taking this responsibility very, very seriously" to create a road map for Riverview's future.
The groundskeeping "is a sign that you listened," Mayor Richard Stewart told Flanigan.
This week, BC Housing launched its so-called "visioning process" to guide the next steps for the 101-year-old former mental health hospital that was closed last year.
Members of the city's Riverview committee asked pointed questions to Flanigan about the upcoming public consultation, which he said would take until the spring — a time estimation that questioned by some members, including committee chair Coun. Craig Hodge and Elaine Golds, who represents the Coquitlam River Watershed Society.
Golds suggested the outreach process not be rushed as Riverview is a "complex site."
"I think you are being really ambitious by wrapping this up by the spring," she said, noting the potential input BC Housing will receive locally, regionally and provincially.
Consultant Gary Pooni said, "The timing isn't an issue for us. It's more about ensuring that we have taken enough time to ensure the executive process is maintained."
BC Housing has a triple-bottom-line checklist — that is, committing to the social, environmental and economic aspects of lands that Mayor Stewart called "extremely precious to Coquitlam."
Flanigan's presentation was largely a repeat from Monday, when BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay spoke to council-in-committee and vowed the agency's intent is to be an "open book."
The promise for transparency — especially given past approaches by the provincial government on Riverview, most notably on last year's Heritage Conservation Plan that was conducted over the summer — is being praised by council and the Tri-Cities' Chamber of Commerce.
Still, despite the good intentions, Hodge said there is anxiety in Coquitlam about what the long-term vision is for Riverview — and how the province will play a role, given Premier Christy Clark's recent statement that the hospital will not reopen, not even in a modern form.
Both city council and the Chamber of Commerce want to see Riverview returned as a mental health and wellness hub but both are also open to economic development happening on the site.
BC Housing has said it needs to make the redevelopment and possible repurposing of the heritage buildings worth the investment and has called for any work to "break even."
Flanigan suggested the film industry or retail businesses may be economic drivers.
He also reiterated Ramsay's statement that Riverview is not a "cash cow" and is not part of the province's surplus lands for disposal to help balance its books.
Golds said the St. Ann's Academy in Victoria — a national historic site — could be a good model as BC Housing moves forward for restoration at Riverview. Purchased by the provincial government in 1974, it sat empty for 20 years (during which time it was condemned by the city) before the province invested $16 million for new government offices and public use.
Golds, a prominent Tri-City environmentalist, said many people want keep Riverview in public hands. "We don't see it used as a residential area for private houses at all," she said. "It needs to remain as a public site."
Another committee member, Anna Tremere, who used to work at Riverview, also urged BC Housing to pay special attention to the hospital cemetery, where the bodies of thousands of patients lie in rest. It is a basic site, nearly forgotten, she said, adding, "There's nothing that honours the lives of the people who are there." Flanigan responded: "We will fix that."
As for the current groups at Riverview that are on month-to-month leases due to uncertainty about the site's future, Flanigan said BC Housing has spoken with tenants and they will likely remain there for the next three to five years. A protocol agreement has also been signed with the neighbouring Kwikwetlem First Nation at Colony Farm.
Meanwhile, BC Housing now plans to draft a terms of reference for its visioning process and prepare a schedule for public consultation meetings.