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Riverview panel gets an earful

'Some amount of development is going to have to happen'


Plenty of people with plenty to say on the future of the Riverview Hospital grounds have waited a long time to make themselves heard.

On Wednesday, they got their chance at a BC Housing open house.

And attendees didn't hold back on their views for what they want and don't want for the historic, provincial property.

For more than 90 minutes at the Executive Plaza Hotel in Coquitlam, they lined up before a microphone to speak passionately about the need to return the 102-year-old site as a mental health campus.

Many of them had personal stories to share.

One man had a son with schizophrenia who had received treatment at Riverview while it was open.

A healthcare worker remembered the days he and other "dedicated, hard-working staff" helped patients at Riverview and saw transformations in them.

A cardiac technician who suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression talked about what could be her future home.

Several vented their frustrations, as well, angry at the neglect of Riverview's aging buildings, the shift to deinstitutionalized care for mental health patients — without the adequate support programs and services — and the worry about whether the site's world-class collection of trees would survive.

A few even voiced anger at the panel of experts gathered by BC Housing to talk about the revisioning process, which started in February 2014.

The panel warned there will have to be trade-offs to achieve the break-even mandate set by BC Housing.

And because of the constraints of the 244 acres — that is, to build within the existing footprint — there will be economic challenges for land use as well.

Panelist Tsur Somerville, an associate professor and director of the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, and holder of the Real Estate Foundation Professorship in real estate finance at the Sauder School of Business at UBC, laid out the hard numbers.

Just to restore East Lawn, a 361,000 sq. ft. structure built in the 1930s that's listed in very poor condition, would cost at least $25 million, Somerville said.

To recover these costs in terms market housing prospects, that would equal, today, 80 single-family homes at $885,000 each, 450 townhomes at $475,000 apiece or 10 to 12 four-storey buildings with 500-plus condos at $320,000 each.

"We all have a vision of the Riverview lands," Somerville told the 300 people at Wednesday's session, "but many of those require an injection of capital… Some amount of development is going to have to happen."

Somerville said the break-even policy will likely be determined by Premier Christy Clark. "It's much more of a political issue than a pure economic one," he said.

All four members of the panel — which also included clinical psychologist Dr. Julian Somers, Darrell Burnham (CEO of the Coast Foundation Society) and Brent Toderian (former chief planner for the city of Vancouver) — agreed on the opportunity to re-shape Riverview.

But it will take careful planning, Toderian said.

"If we want to advance, we have to have that honest conversation," he said. "The status quo [at Riverview] is a form of failure."

Dr. Somers said he envisions an "intentionally designed" place where people with mental health challenges — an estimated one in five Canadians — could be accommodated to live "along with everyone else" and be offered a series of intensities of care and support. They would "blend in a very visible institution set in an invisible community."

Burnham said most mental health patients live in a
bject poverty and a "whole-person approach" is needed for their recovery, which includes a choice of housing, a job to stay active and wellness treatment to address active or past substance abuse, for example.

Asked about the provincial government's decision to close Riverview in its 100th year, Somers was blunt.

"It was horrendously executed," he said. "[The patients] were essentially discharged to homelessness… It's a black period in psychiatry and mental health."

Still, while some people at the forum said they were open to the idea of having up to 25% of Riverview developed, there were loud applauses when members of the Riverview Horticulture Centre Society spoke against market housing.

Mass development would likely ruin the site's old tree root system and water table, warned Elaine Golds, a member of the city's Riverview Lands advisory committee and the Green Scene columnist for The Tri-City News.

Meanwhile, BC Housing vice president Michael Flanagan said his agency is now working on the final draft vision for Riverview, to be unveiled this fall; a fifth open house is expected.

• To watch the YouTube video of Wednesday's open house or to make comment on the future of Riverview Hospital, visit or email: