How a city jail became homes with hopeful views

Affordable housing in a former Vancouver remand centre gives hope to its new residents.

Cassandra Wilson got her first glimpse of her new view Wednesday.
An ambitious community project transformed the blight of a bunker-like remand centre in the Downtown Eastside into affordable homes. Cassandra Wilson got her first glimpse of her new view Wednesday. Photo: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.

Cassandra Wilson is thrilled to have a bedroom. A bedroom that is separated from the kitchen and the rest of her new apartment. A bedroom that will allow her to bring her son to live with her.

It will be two long weeks before she makes the move from the transitional housing facility where she currently resides — and where she cannot host her eight-year-old — to her one-bedroom apartment on 250 Powell St. at Gore.

She toured her new home for the first time Wednesday, with a group of journalists in tow, smiling nervously.

Cassandra Wilson. Photo: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud

A former jail

The building where Cassandra is going to live is the former remand centre, a place where people awaiting trial were held. It was built and designed in 1981 by Richard Henriquez and it was closed in 2002. Henriquez's son, Gregory, was in charge of repurposing the facility.

But the process of turning a jail into affordable housing hasn’t been an easy one. 'Three time's a charm' applies to this project, since two previous attempts failed to move forward over a decade ago. The reasons that hindered the building's renovation ranged from lack of funding and coordination between levels of government, to the fact that it's still a working courthouse, to the difficulties of transforming a heavily reinforced structure into a comfortable space.

Finally, three years ago the province and the city of Vancouver reached an agreement with Henriquez Partners Architects, The Bloom Group, and BladeRunners. The massive renovation program began about a year ago.

In March 2014, this reporter toured the building when it was filled with debris. Dozens of bathroom appliances were piled up on the corners, plumbing pipes were exposed, and the steel beds where the inmates used to sleep in were spread throughout the different floors.

Construction workers talked about the difficulties of working in a place designed to prevent people from escaping. When humongous cranes began to remove the concrete pods that contained the prison's 96 double cells it was a landmark moment for all those involved in the project. “This building was a symbol of hopelessness and we turned it into a symbol of hope,” said Marleen Morris, director of the Bloom Group, the non-profit that will manage the tenancy. 

This view balcony is a former concrete pod containing inmates bunks. Photo: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.

For youth at risk

Wilson certainly feels hopeful these days. After what she calls “a few hiccups” in her life, she’s finally settling in. She was able to do so thanks to the help of BladeRunners, a program that trains youth at-risk in the trades, with a particular focus on aboriginal youth. Wilson is from the Tsimshian Nation.

She joined the group 11 years ago, completed safety training and fell in love with the trades. Now Wilson is a certified plumber and, by working on different construction sites and at the Aboriginal shelter in the Downtown Eastside, has saved some money to attend BCIT and become a construction safety officer.

Once she earns that certificate she’ll be able to find a better job that allows her to live more comfortably, since she will have to pay rent now.

At 250 Powell, rents will range between $375 to $850 a month, with 24 units at shelter rate and 72 units at one-third income rate for people earning between $26,000 and $40,000 a year.

Wilson will be living on the third floor, near other members of the BladeRunners program occupying both the second and third floors. A tenant support worker will be on hand, organizing group activities and keeping them updated about available community resources.

Many of these youth also worked in the renovation of the building. Last year, some reported having “the chills” when they first entered the dark, grey, and cold former jail. Now the walls are yellow, green, and blue, with a garden on the first floor and large windows framing expansive city views. For Wilson, it is “a pretty neat experience to see it all coming together.”

Cassandra Wilson in her new home. Photo: Valentina Ruiz Leotaud.

Photo gallery:

The view from one of the units.

The apartments each have a self-contained kitchen while laundry facilities are shared.

Communal areas include fledgling gardens.

There is no trace of the concrete bunker that was the remand centre.


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