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Renderings for the proposed detox facility at First Avenue and Clark Drive. The facility will offer sobering and addicition services, with housing on the floors above the clinic.City of Vancouver

British Columbia’s largest facility to help people go through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol is proposed for a Vancouver site at the corner of First Avenue and Clark Drive. But the facility, which will also offer housing on the floors above the clinic, has stirred controversy among the renters and homeowners who live adjacent to the site.

The facility will combine a 55,000-square-foot clinic for severely intoxicated people requiring up to 24-hour care, and another clinic for people undergoing detox for longer-term care. The facility will help those with alcohol and drug addictions, including those suffering from fentanyl addiction. The project will include 97 units of rental housing for low-to-moderate incomes, above the clinic floors. The plan is for 10 storeys on the busy six-lane Clark Drive side and six storeys on McLean Drive. The site will total of 131,234-sq.-ft, or about the size of two football fields. The city-owned land includes 11 lots that are zoned residential and industrial. Seventeen renters will be displaced as a result of the project, but will be offered first right of refusal in the new social-housing units. The proposal will go before a hearing some time in the fall, for approval to rezone the properties for mixed use. The facility, which will cost taxpayers $81-million, will also include a 3,000-sq.-ft social-enterprise space to be run by a non-profit.

Some residents have charged that the proposal lacks transparency, and that their questions about the project are not being answered. They say that the project partners – the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing – have held open houses and other meetings with the community, but have so far only given vague information lacking in specifics. Despite the scale of the project, they know of no study that has been done on the impact such a large withdrawal management facility could have on a residential neighbourhood. They say they have not been told how many staff will work there, or how much parking will be required, or what if any alternative sites were studied beforehand. Residents are concerned that once inebriated individuals recover, they will remain within the area and contribute to its continuing social problems. Others worry that drug dealers might be attracted to the site.

“We can’t figure out why this decision was made, and under what premeditated circumstance? That’s the majority of the frustration,” says resident Robyn Gerry, a recent master of business administration graduate from the University of B.C.

“I have no doubt they are trying to shove this through before the election,” she adds. “This is an unprecedented development, and it seems as though there has not been adequate research. I can tell you, the community is beyond furious.

“Everyone realizes there is a need for housing – I certainly do. And if there’s a need for a detox centre, I’m more than happy to support it, if that’s the best and highest use of $81-million, at that location. We are just asking them to justify it.”

A BC Housing spokesperson said that “analysis and studies are ongoing” on the project. A City of Vancouver spokesperson said the site was chosen because of its proximity to downtown, access to services and transit. It was the only site chosen, “given the size and location of what is needed.” The city also said it fit with the recent Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, which had identified the need for facilities for addiction and harm reduction.

Combining detox with a sobering centre and low-to-moderate-income housing is an experimental model, without a known precedent. In Victoria, an Island Health spokesperson said the city’s detox and sobering centres are in separate facilities. Its Sobering and Assessment Centre on Pandora Avenue allows clients to stay for up to 23 hours per visit, and they are required to be offsite for six hours between stays. Many of the clients are regulars to the centre.

In Vancouver, residents who live around First Avenue and Clark Drive have formed a group, Community First, to gather information about the project and provide feedback. Their biggest concerns are that the scale of the building and lack of research on the potential impact of the mix of withdrawal services in a dense residential area.

Some residents say they wonder if they are becoming the go-to neighbourhood for social services. Up the street toward Commercial, there is a new homeless shelter. Within a three-block radius, Community First member Michael Coderre has counted 500 units of existing social housing.

“We were never against social housing or even the addiction services – I can’t emphasize that enough,” says Mr. Coderre, who lives a block away from the site, and runs a business in the area. “It’s the scope of this project. And also, is it right to be combining those things together? Nobody seems to know.”

Jaco Zwanenburg lives a block away from the site and works as an acute-care nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital. He routinely works with people with mental illness and addictions, although he is not an addictions specialist.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with affordable housing – absolutely not. I don’t have a problem even with a detox centre, because we have to manage addictions way better than we are right now. It’s the sheer size and combination that strikes me as odd,” he says.

“I’m trained in the Netherlands, and they try to divide detox and sobering clinics … You keep those who are motivated to quit away from people who are still drinking.”

As well, he questions whether people, especially families, will want to rent apartments above a large withdrawal-treatment facility, even if the entrances are separate.

“It feels like they want to push it through before the election,” he says. “It feels political, that Vancouver city wants to score points.”

The plan includes closing the Vancouver Detox Centre at 377 E. 2nd Ave., which is another city-owned property. The city says it has not yet determined any future uses for that site.

Also closing are the detox beds at the downtown eastside Salvation Army Harbour Light, which means that the total number of detox beds at the new facility will not increase. Instead, the plan is to centralize detox and sobering centre beds within the First and Clark facility, says Smadar Levinson, manager of withdrawal services for Vancouver Coastal Health.

She confirms that it’s a one-of-a-kind project.

“There is no other withdrawal management in the city that has housing on top of it,” she says.

“We are just moving to get all the beds together, because it improves accessibility. It improves our ability to have more medical oversight, and more shared services if all the beds are at the same location.”

People voluntarily entering the detox program would stay for five to seven days, in order to go through medical treatment to withdraw from alcohol and/or drugs. The plan calls for 51 beds for detoxification, and 20 beds to provide people with short-term housing as they stabilize. There are another 20 beds proposed for the sobering centre, which would be the only such centre in the city, Ms. Levinson says. Those who are severely intoxicated by alcohol or incapacitated because of drugs would normally arrive accompanied by police, but they could also walk in. A sobering centre, she says, is much safer than putting a person into a jail cell, because there are medical staff to monitor them.

Ms. Levinson says clients usually stay for about eight hours, and unless they want to go into further treatment, staff would help them arrange a ride or give them bus fare.

“In terms of concerns that people will hang around after they finish sobering, that’s not our experience right now. They don’t stay around,” Ms. Levinson says. “They move to their next destination.”

The development partners have compared the project to one in Portland, Ore., that is also being built in a residential area. The Blackburn Building will serve 3,000 people a year who are in recovery and who need mental-health services. However, its 34 units of permanent housing and 90 low-income, single-room-occupancy apartments are to serve “the most vulnerable populations, focusing on substance use disorder programs,” according to a spokesperson for the Portland non-profit Central City Concern. Also, the Blackburn Building will not include a sobering centre or detox centre. Those facilities are located elsewhere.

Ms. Levinson was not aware of any neighbourhood-impact study that had been done, but she said the 30-year-old Vancouver Detox Centre at East 2nd Ave. does not disrupt nearby Emily Carr University of Art and Design students or condo residents. That facility has 26 detox beds and 10 sobering beds, and, she says, is stretched beyond capacity.

“We do the best we can with what we have, and still provide great service and a really needed service,” Ms. Levinson says. “With that being said, it’s going to be so great to have more space, for clients to have more privacy. And more group rooms, and more exam rooms.”

David Chen, a mayoral candidate who lives in nearby Strathcona, has been attending the open houses for the project. He expects those who oppose it will be called NIMBYs, but he says it’s not fair to shut people down instead of hearing them out, especially for those living in close proximity.

“Because this is untested, we really don’t know what it is going to do,” he says. “Sure, there could be elements that will surprise us. That’s why everybody is closely watching this – the community has fears. And there are legitimate concerns.”

Resident Lori Jamison, who lives around the corner from the site, welcomes affordable housing, but is also wary of what seems more like a social experiment than a carefully considered plan.

“This is not NIMBYism – we happily co-exist with a whole range of socio-economic levels in this neighbourhood,” Ms. Jamison says. “But I don’t know what a sobering centre would entail.

“I do believe we need more affordable housing. No-one would argue that,” she adds. “I just think it’s a dangerous experiment, and I’m not sure any research has gone into it.”

With files from Wendy Stueck