Housing corporation and seniors to meet to discuss Willow Square land development

by Carol Christian

The downtown aging in place facility has become a polarizing issue and much of the contention seems to be around what the seniors say they have been promised in the past.
Joan Furber, president of the Golden Years Society, says she will accept a recent invitation from Bryan Lutes, of Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corp, (WBHDC), to meet and discuss those promises.
“Wood Buffalo Housing has not made any promises that we haven’t kept and we’re going to great lengths to make sure when we make a promise, that we can keep it,” says Lutes.
That discussion will also likely address some concerns WBHDC has about what it calls incorrect information in the introduction of a petition the seniors have started.
WBHDC is the current proponent of the former Willow Square land, looking to build a seniors’ facility that encompasses auxiliary uses including retail and commercial components. WBHDC has maintained utilizing a community campus approach is needed to make the project economically viable on the land valued at an estimated $24 million.
Furber points to a Government of Alberta press release issued in July 2011 that talks about developing the property as an aging in place seniors’ facility and goes as far as identifying construction and occupancy dates. But that December, the government announced it was moving ahead with the continuing care centre in Fort McMurray, but the location was now Parsons Creek.
In 2013, the provincial government banned single-storey residential development in floodways. The former Willow Square lands at the northwest corner of Franklin Ave. and Hospital St., are in the flood zone. A 2011 plan for the facility had called for single-storey pod-style residential units.
Furber also points to former municipal CAO Glen Laubenstein.
“He promised us Willow Square and we could have everything we wanted,” she said. “That was the promise all along.”
When WBHDC presented the community campus concept for the development last month, the seniors launched a petition against it, asking that the promise of a seniors’ only aging in place community be kept. WBHDC has concerns about some of the claims in the information.
For example, Lutes maintains no one has ever said the land is too valuable to use for seniors housing.
“The land is not too valuable for an exclusive seniors aging in place facility; it is too expensive for WBHDC to make the project work as an exclusive aging in place development,” he added.
“I totally get what Bryan’s saying, but there has to be another way,” said Furber.
The seniors have said affordability is their number one priority, notes Lutes, a point which Furber does acknowledge.
“It is,” she says. “We don’t want something we can’t afford to live in.
“We’re doing nothing to encourage seniors to stay here. It’s hard to live here on a pension, but we’re trying to do it. I’ve never worked; it’s not easy to live here on a one pension. I think everybody thinks everybody has had a two income family here forever and ever. And that’s not true.”
Lutes points out WBHDC, which managed the site for a decade, began conversations regarding its redevelopment before it was identified as a potential site for long-term care. WBHDC hasn’t imposed a project plan or an agenda as it’s in the exploratory stages.
Also, WBHDC has been involved in recent residential construction. Siltstone Place in Timberlea has been under construction for nearly two years, but a major fire last year destroyed one nearly completed 90-unit apartment building on this site. The other 85-units are anticipated for spring of 2015.
Lutes clarifies that WBHDC is a housing authority not a seniors’ care provider. He says the corporation’s mandate is to provide affordable housing and related services to senior citizens and low and middle income individuals and families living within the region. ‘Related services’ refers to housing, not medical care. Lutes stresses WBHDC does not, and cannot provide medical services; medical services are well beyond its mandate, experience, expertise and capacity. There are other agencies with this expertise that WBHDC proposes to partner with to provide these services.
That’s fine according to Furber.

“Alberta Health Services can build the medical care; WBHDC can do the seniors’ housing component of it; put it all on one parcel of land and we’re all happy campers,” she said.
“We’re not misunderstanding anything. We totally get it and every time we turn around it’s a play on words.”
Meanwhile, WBHDC has said it is willing to walk away from the development if forced to develop a seniors-only facility citing it’s unfeasible from an economic standpoint.
A viable sustainable plan that makes economic sense that Council can support is what Lutes said would keep WBHDC at the table.