Much debated Casa Mia gets green light for seniors care facility

A revamped proposal for the once-controversial plan to convert Casa Mia into a seniors care facility won unanimous support at a public hearing at city hall earlier this week.

Council’s Nov. 14 decision to approve the rezoning application comes five years after the Care Group first pitched a proposal for the sprawling property. The approved application will see the mansion retained and an addition built to create a 90-bed facility — Vancouver Coastal Health will fund 58 of the beds, while the remaining 32 will be private-pay.

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The Care Group, which owns and operates seven facilities, including Point Grey Private Hospital, bought the Casa Mia property at 1920 Southwest Marine Drive in 2011. Designed by architect Ross Anthony Lort, the Spanish Revival-style house was built in 1932 for George Reifel, a liquor magnate and rumrunner during the Prohibition era. The 20,700-square-foot mansion includes a ballroom where Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed.

But the Care Group’s plan to turn it into a seniors care facility initially attracted opposition.

Over the years, critics raised myriad concerns about the redevelopment project, including that it was too dense, that it would attract too much traffic to an already busy street, that it wasn’t close enough to transit and that it conflicted with the existing community plan.

 

A shot of the interior of Casa Mia.
A shot of the interior of Casa Mia. Photo courtesy Vancouver Hertiage Foundation

 

An early concept envisioned a 92-bed facility, but that was scaled back to 62 beds in a rezoning application that was expected to go to public hearing in March of 2014.

The Southlands Community Association filed an application in B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction to force the City of Vancouver to delay the public hearing for the rezoning.

However, an agreement on heritage conservation was never completed, and the city unexpectedly cancelled the public hearing the evening before it was scheduled to take place. That rezoning application was later withdrawn.

Then, last April, a revised rezoning application was submitted for a 90-bed facility, with more than 60 per cent of the beds being subsidized through Vancouver Coastal Health.

Feedback at a subsequent open house was generally positive, with supporters citing the need for seniors care facilities in South Vancouver, the importance of the majority of the beds being publicly funded and the fact an important heritage building in the city would be preserved.

 

A rendering of the Casa Mia seniors home.
A rendering of the Casa Mia seniors home.

 

John Chapman, a rezoning planner for Vancouver South division, outlined the project at Tuesday's public hearing before the vote was held.

Chapman said the project presented an opportunity to gain 90 new beds for seniors, who require 24-hour nursing care, in an area of the city underserved by seniors facilities, as well as ensuring a class A heritage building was preserved.

Interior details being retained include:

  • the large central staircase
  • extensive cast plaster work
  • period bathroom fixtures
  • children’s nursery painted by Walt Disney company illustrators, including a scene of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

However, due to privacy and safety concerns, the general public — other than family, friends and staff, won’t have access to the building to see these features. (A Care Group representative later noted that more people will have access to the building than if it remained in private hands.)

 

Paintings by Walt Disney company illustrators appear inside Casa Mia. Photo Courtesy of Heritage Van
Paintings by Walt Disney company illustrators appear inside Casa Mia. Photo Courtesy Vancouver Heritage Foundation

 

A significant amount of the historic exterior and massing will also be retained, while the rear landscape and the rear yard will be entirely preserved, according to Chapman.

He noted concerns had been raised about increased traffic, pedestrian safety, transit, the stability of the escarpment at the back of the house during construction, as well as the community plan.

Chapman said there is bus stop for the No. 16 bus nearby, while improvements have been made to Southwest Marine Drive, for cyclists and pedestrians, over the past two years. City staff expect only a minor increase in traffic related to the facility. The new wing, Chapman added, is being built in the front yard, away from the escarpment, so adverse effects are not anticipated.

The Urban Design Panel, the city's Seniors’ Advisory Committee and the Vancouver Heritage Commission endorsed the project.

 

A bathroom fixture in Casa Mia.
A bathroom fixture in Casa Mia. Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Foundation

 

Several speakers spoke during the hearing, most in favour.

“People in long-term care deserve to age in their community, in a residential setting. And, if it happens to be in a gorgeous heritage home, well, even better. They deserve that too,” said Gavin McIntosh, a spokesman for the Care Group.

Colleen McGuinness, chair of the Seniors’ Advisory Committee, endorsed the project and said the proposal had been much improved since first imagined in 2012.

“Councillor [Tim] Stevenson, I can report to you that the seniors are happy,” she said.

That said, McGuinness cited a few remaining issues, including the fact that the nearby bus stop is still far for some less-mobile people and that there’s not enough parking for the disabled.

A critic said, while there is a need for more seniors’ beds in southwest Vancouver, the proposed facility is not in the right location. He pointed out there will only be 24 parking spots for the 92-bed home. He contrasted that to the St. Vincent’s Langara complex care facility, which has 197 residents and more than 110 parking spots, as well as plenty of off-street parking.

“People will have to park off site,” he said, which he maintains will create safety issues.

Speaking on behalf of B.C. Care Providers Association, Mike Klassen (who also writes a column for the Courier) called the project “imaginative and innovative.”

“Given that our population is aging rapidly, and the seniors’ population is expected to double to over 20 per cent of the overall population by 2036, it places even more emphasis on making new housing available that supports our seniors,” he said.

Before the vote, councillor Heather Deal and Mayor Gregor Robertson remarked on the project’s long road to public hearing.

“As we all know, in 2013, this was looking very, very controversial and the changes that were made in response to that controversy have been significant and meaningful and have been hard,” Deal said. “I’m extremely pleased to be able to support this tonight and hopefully see this magnificent home retained and used for a really important use in our city.”

Robertson echoed those points.

“It’s come a long way from challenging circumstances some years ago. Even at that time, we could all agree that we desperately need more housing and facilities to support seniors in Vancouver, and that challenge is only going to grow as the city ages,” he said.

“…I appreciate the concerns raised by speakers and staff, with respect to the transportation and traffic issues. There’s obviously more work to do on that front to improve the situation there. But I think a ton of work has been done. We’ve got something that will really serve the city and, most importantly, the families and the seniors who so desperately need this support.”

noconnor@vancourier.com

@naoibh

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