Downtown Eastside: Former jail begins transformation

“If the walls could talk.”

So says Graham Fast of Mierau Contractors Ltd. as he toured what used to be the city’s biggest jail and home to some of the most notorious criminals in Vancouver, including the Air India bombing suspects.

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Fast is the site superintendent of an innovative multi-million dollar project to turn the former pre-trial or remand centre at Powell and Gore streets into 96 units of affordable housing. The seven-storey building is not being demolished but modified.

And a big part of that modification requires the removal of 90 so-called pods, which are 11,000-pound concrete bunkers that held up to four cell beds and were built on the sides of the building in a cantilever-style.

“The biggest challenge has been these pods,” said Fast when asked about the difficulty of modifying a building versus demolishing it.

The Courier watched Tuesday as crews, with the help of steel-cutting saws and a crane below on Cordova Street, removed a pod on the sixth floor and lowered it to the street. The pods will be recycled and probably used for building roads, Fast said.

The floors of the building were littered with old pipes, pink insulation, toilets, stacks of steel cell doors and steel cell beds, rubble from demolished walls, bags of asbestos material, an industrial-sized washer and dryer and piles of metal and miscellaneous debris.

So far crews haven’t come across any forgotten or concealed items left behind by the previous tenants. In other words, no drugs, no weapons — or, as Fast said, “no surprises” in the building that connects to the smaller Vancouver jail, the community court and provincial courthouse.

The pre-trial centre opened in the early 1980s and was closed in 2002 by the government because of a declining inmate population, although the number of inmates has since increased and a new centre opened this year in Surrey.

B.C. Housing’s plan, in collaboration with the City of Vancouver and the non-profit Bloom Group, calls for most of the units to be in the 300 square-foot range, along with some bigger suites.

The old gymnasium will be converted into a multi-purpose room, the outdoor exercise area will become a community garden and communal decks will be featured on each floor. Some of the tenants will have spectacular views of the Vancouver Harbour and North Shore mountains.

The Bloom Group, formerly the St. James Community Service Society, will manage the building once the units are built and anticipates women from its shelters and other low-income residents will reside in the complex.

“People who live and work in the community will have preference in terms of the application,” said Lesley Anderson of the Bloom Group.

BladeRunners, an organization that provides job training primarily for young homeless aboriginal people, will occupy 37 of the units. In fact, at least four members of BladeRunners assisting with labour duties and flagging on the project will become tenants.

“If we can have just one kid who has their own self-contained housing, that’s a bonus for us,” said Gary Jobin, senior coordinator of BladeRunners. “Most of our kids are couch surfing, living in shelters or [single-room occupancy] hotels or don’t know where they’re going to sleep. ”

Initial cost estimates put the complex at $13 million but the Courier has learned those costs have increased. The City of Vancouver has committed $2 million and the provincial and federal governments are expected to fund the bulk of the project.

An announcement is expected in March.

The complex is scheduled to open in the spring of 2015.

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