Critics slam B.C. program to renovate flophouses as a costly waste of money

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

If you live in central and eastern Canada you might take your architectural heritage for granted.

Your streets are dotted with stately Victorian homes and fine sandstone public edifices. Cities like Montreal, Quebec City and Charlottetown offer even older examples of lovingly preserved yet modernized buildings.

But in the West, heritage means anything that was put up before, say, the First World War. There was, and in some places remains, a tendency to bulldoze anything that looks the least bit shabby and replace it with a shiny new structure in the name of urban renewal.

Vancouver's skyline has undergone one of the biggest makeovers in recent years as a forest of glass towers has grown up in and around downtown.

It's made preservationists even more determined to try to save the declining number of "heritage" buildings. The historic Pantages Theatre, built in 1907, was demolished last year after efforts to restore the once-beautiful vaudeville venue sputtered out.

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But sometimes the motivation seem wrong-headed, such as plans to renovate the century-old Marble Arch Hotel using taxpayer dollars.

The Marble Arch is a seven-story brick building on the fringe of Vancouver's notorious, drug-ridden Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. It's no tourist hostelry; it's a single-room occupancy hotel, or SRO. Another word for it would be flophouse.

[ Related: $100 million in renovation work begins in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside ]

The Downtown Eastside is dotted with SROs, once home for single working men but now largely decrepit refuges for many of the neighbourhood's benighted residents.

The B.C. government has been buying up SROs for a while as part of a program to renovate them and provide clean, affordable housing in Vancouver's expensive market.

In September, it announced a $100-million program to renovate 13 provincially-owned SRO hotels, including the Marble Arch.

But National Post columnist Brian Hutchinson thinks pouring millions into a dump like the Marble Arch makes absolutely no sense.

Hutchinson says "tens of millions" of tax dollars have already been spent on the building by B.C. Housing for health and safety upgrades, as well as structural problems and earthquake reinforcement.

Additional work was done after a resident accidentally set fire to a couch, triggering the building's sprinkler system that flooded almost 30 rooms.

Now another phase of renovation work is set to begin, he says, to upgrade structural, plumbing and electrical components. That will bring the bill to taxpayers up to about $32 million, says Hutchinson.

And once the work is completed, the Marble Arch still won't be fully modernized. As with the other SROs in the program, the renovations must preserve "their heritage features and the historic character of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside," according to the government's news release.

Hutchinson says that means the tiny bachelor rooms won't have new energy-efficient windows, for instance.

He says the overall SRO upgrading program will cost just over $116 million once it's finished in 2017, improving some 900 hotel rooms.

"That's a staggering $128,888 per room," Hutchinson gasps, adding the cost per square foot is comparable to construction on Vancouver's affluent west side.

The government considers its plan cost-effective, but Hutchinson points out that earlier this year the province opened a 96-unit "supportive housing" building just around the corner from the Marble Arch with a modern layout and built to the highest environmental and energy standards.

It cost $20.3 million, compared with the $32 million spent so far on the Marble Arch.

And what will you get in the end? A CBC News Go Public investigation into the operation of government-owned SROs found little has changed. They remain dirty, insecure, bug infested and riddled with drugs.

"The things I've seen! Needles all over the floor. Blood on the walls.… Overflowing garbage, fecal matter. You come into the place and it just stinks," said former Marble Arch tenant Shawna Taylor.

Janice Abbott, chief executive of Atira, which manages the Marble Arch and other SROs for the province, conceded to CBC News that the buildings were in "abysmal" shape but  said that's partly because renovations weren't completed.

But Prod Laquian, a Vancouver-based urban slum and human settlement expert under contract to the United Nations, said the problem goes deeper than tumbledown SROs. He called the renovation program a "Band-Aid."

"Homelessness cannot be solved by housing," he told Hutchinson. "Just putting a roof over someone's head doesn't address the real issues behind their problem. The issues are drug addiction, disease and mental illness. We need to make these people self-reliant."

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The Downtown Eastside is not a normal, viable community, Laquian added.

"It should be left to private developers. Everything should be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch. My attitude isn't very popular. People hate me for it. But I think I'm right."