Too big. Not big enough.
The prospect of a large detox and social housing complex being built between Clark and McLean Drives at East First Avenue brought out dozens of supporters and opponents on the first day of a public hearing about a rezoning application for the project Feb. 20 where speakers pushed versions of those arguments.
More than 60 people signed up to speak — 16 have been heard so far, 10 in favour and six against. The hearing continues at 3 p.m. today.
The complex would be built on properties at 1636 Clark Dr. and 1321 to 1395 East First Ave.
The City of Vancouver owns the land and BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health are also involved in the project.
If approved, the complex would include 90 social housing units. B.C. Housing would rent about 50 per cent of the apartments at or below the B.C. Housing Income Limits (HILs) levels, with the remaining would be rented at CMHC private rental market rates for Vancouver.
The complex would also feature a withdrawal centre with 51 in-patient withdrawal management treatment beds, out-patient and home-based withdrawal management services; a sobering centre for people while they withdraw from substances; 20 short-term transitional beds; and an academic teaching, research and learning centre.
“Overall this development will be a significant step in addressing both the housing affordability and addiction challenges facing Vancouver,” Sarah Crowley, a rezoning planner for the City of Vancouver, told council in a presentation at the start of the hearing.
Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver’s chief medical health officer, was among those representing public bodies who spoke strongly in favour of the rezoning application. She, too, argued it will help address challenges surrounding the opioid crisis by helping people get the care they need.
“Mayor and council, your support for the planned withdrawal management centre at Clark and First will help reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorder, which affects so many of our citizens across Vancouver and is contributing to the high rate of overdose deaths,” she said.
Todd Kenneth, who’s been sober for several years and has had to access addiction services over the past 15 to 20 years, urged council to approve the rezoning. He was among several people on both sides of the debate who either suffered addiction problems or had family members who did.
“Detox and withdrawal management services — and a lot of people need to hear this — it was the first time in a lot of years in my life where I received that first gentle, caring, human touch again. And, it was my first introduction to there might be a way out of this lifestyle and a way to proceed through life in a different way. I didn’t know that for a great many years living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside,” he said.
During his addiction, Kenneth said many services were spread out and hard to access, so the continuum of care that would be offered in the proposed complex is important.
Now that he’s clean, he said he’s employed, he pays taxes and is contributing to society. He said many people are waiting for those experiences “to have a shot at life again.”
He now lives in a housing project that some people objected to back in 2012. It’s been open for about a year, and Kenneth said the only complaints they’ve received from the public to date have been about parking.
“Isn’t how we treat our most vulnerable and those people that are most hurting in our society a reflection of who we want to be as a society and as a city?” he said.
“I would just ask council and everybody here opposed and for to just search their hearts. This is something that our city really, really needs.”
Scott de Lange Boom said the complex won’t solve all the problems Vancouver is facing but would bring the city one step closer to addressing them.
“You might hear often tonight that this is too big — it’s out of scale. But, in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the city’s history and an opioid epidemic that has claimed many, many lives, the more important question is can a project of this type be too big?” he said.
Scott Neufeld, who lives in the neighbourhood, is a husband and father, a member of Grandview Church, a writing workshop facilitator at the onsite detox centre in the Downtown Eastside and a PhD student.
He brought a slide show depicting photos of 40 Grandview-Woodlands residents holding signs in support of the complex.
Neufeld said the project is an essential investment for the city.
“We need more of these services and we need them on a large scale,” he said.
“Some speakers tonight have suggested that this proposal is too big, but I take a different view. The scale and the challenges our city is facing from unaffordable housing, homelessness and substance use are enormous and the responses that they require are big. Supporting a large-scale project like this sends a message that the city is taking bold action to address these issues immediately or it could send that message.”
But Neufeld, like others — those both in support and against the project — also argued the social housing component won’t be affordable enough.
He said council needs to advocate for the affordability level to be deepened and he also insisted the city needs to revise “its twisted definition of affordability.”
Opponents of the application were also passionate in their arguments.
Rodney Hynes, a member of the Metlakatla First Nation who lives near the proposed site, said the size and scope of the complex is much too large and would dwarf the buildings around it. Hynes said he supports detox facilities, but he doesn’t see evidence that other, “more appropriate” sites were considered and that there’s seems to be no good reason that the site was chosen other than it would fit the “facility’s gargantuan size.”
Hynes maintains the size doesn’t fit well into the neighbourhood, the design is institutional and he favours a smaller facility sized to fit into a community setting.
He also said there was no attempt to make it “more relatable to the people and buildings around it.”
“It seems to me that the design, size and location of this project were predetermined with community consultation merely being an afterthought and a necessary step required by city bylaws — a mere stepping stone to its eventual completion as planned from the beginning,” he said.
David Chen, a mayoral candidate for ProVancouver in last year’s election campaign, described the proposal as “difficult” because he said it includes both important and troubling components.
He, too, questioned the affordability of the housing units, 50 per cent of which will be at market rates. The typical Vancouverite, he argued, can’t afford those rents and even HILs rates aren’t necessarily affordable.
At current HILs rates, a household earning $41,500 would pay $930 a month for a studio. A household with an income of $43,500 would pay $1,080 for a one-bedroom, while a household earning $58,000 would pay $1,300.
The CMHC market rate for a one-bedroom is $1,730 for the neighbourhood, and $2,500 for a two-bedroom.
Chen also said the proposal doesn’t provide enough parking to address future needs.
Others raised issues ranging from potential traffic problems to criticisms about the mix of uses being considered for the property.
Stephen Bohus, who rents nearby, said the applicants are trying to do too much on one site and that the institutional scale doesn’t fit with the neighbourhood.
Donato Calogero also pushed for a more community-scaled facility and expressed concerns about including a sobering centre in the complex.
Thomas Ferguson shared similar concerns and called combining all the services being considered an “unproven model.”
“It’s a huge medical facility on residential land,” he said.
“I encourage you to bring back a revised proposal that supports social housing and detox that is scaled to our community, and [a] separate sobering [centre],” he said.
Aside from those who spoke for and against the project at the hearing so far, the city has received 151 pieces of correspondence in support of the application, 74 against and one piece categorized as other.