One of the new kitchens in a south site residence at Michener Centre. Work to outfit each residence at Michener Centre with its own brand new kitchen wrapped up in 2011.

Michener: The Closing Doors — Part 15 — Michener land has great value, but no plan for it yet

When the last resident moves out of Michener Centre, the land the institution sits on will offer a rare opportunity for large scale urban redevelopment.

When the last resident moves out of Michener Centre, the land the institution sits on will offer a rare opportunity for large scale urban redevelopment.

The province plans to have the buildings emptied this year; families of current residents want their loved ones to live out their lives in place. Whichever side succeeds, substantial land redevelopment is likely years off.

One year after the closure announcement, no decisions have been made about what might become of the 300 acres or 30-odd buildings on the north and south Michener sites.

The south site is bordered by 40th Avenue to the west, Michener Hill to the south and the Red Deer Cemetery to the north. The south site connects by a long road to the north site, which runs east between Clearview and Clearview Ridge, almost to 30th Avenue.

Alberta Infrastructure, the government department that administers the lands, has been meeting with city officials to discuss possibilities, says spokesperson Tracy Larsen.

One assessment recommended a further assessment this spring to look at site conditions and to do environmental assessments, Larsen said. “We’ve hired a consultant that’s investigating uses for the land and doing some studies and assessments; that’s been ongoing and that really needs to be completed before we can make any decisions about how we would use the land,” said Larsen.

Typically, surplus government real estate is first offered to other government departments, Crown corporations, schools and health institutions. Local governments are then given the opportunity to purchase land at appraised market value. Land could also be offered to the federal government before it is marketed to the general public though licensed real estate agents.

If there is an opportunity to redevelop the sites, Guy Pelletier, vice-president of the Red Deer region for Melcor Developments and past chair of the local Urban Development Institute chapter, said there would undoubtedly be a lot of interest. The land is relatively central and could accommodate much more than just new homes.

“It’s a terrific property for a redevelopment opportunity, and a real nice mixed-use redevelopment opportunity, with commercial, municipal uses, perhaps schools, high-density residential, all kinds of stuff for almost an inner city redevelopment opportunity. So I think there would be lots of interest in the industry to participate in that with the city, the province and the private sector,” he said.

There is precedent for the wholesale transformation of former government lands in the province, evidenced by the redevelopments of old, central military bases in Edmonton and Calgary that have been undertaken in the last 15 years.

The old CFB Calgary base was left vacant in 1998, and within five years new high-market homes had been built at the site and old military housing units had been refurbished to be bought as low-cost duplexes. The old base’s 450 acres were divided into three parcels, and a number of the old hangars and other buildings have since been repurposed as schools, offices, film studios, and as a brewery.

The Canada Lands Company, an arms-length federal Crown corporation, bought the former CFB Griesbach in Edmonton in 2001 for $17.5 million and has since developed the 620-acre site incorporating existing military housing units and infrastructure into a mixed-use development.

The province has recently proposed the idea of offering public lands to private and non-profit companies for the development of continuing care facilities and affordable housing for seniors.

In 2007, the province sold 16.6 acres of land on the Michener south site to the David Thompson Health Region for $1 million, which was judged to be fair market value. Extendicare built a continuing care facility on that land — which was to include space for adults with development disabilities but ultimately did not — and other seniors condo and apartment developments are ongoing.

The private continuing care facility replaced two public seniors homes (Red Deer Nursing Home and Valley Park Manor) in Red Deer that closed in 2010 and have been vacant ever since. Alberta Health Services recently determined that modernizing the buildings for future health care uses would be too costly, and now other government departments are being given the option to repurpose them. The province has spent as much as $600,000 on regular maintenance and for utilities at the two facilities while they have been vacant.

Youngstown Home near Oyen, into which Michener residents were moved in 1988 to ease overcrowding at the centre, closed in 2011. Today it is listed for sale by Alberta Infrastructure for $275,000.

Although many of the Michener buildings are 50-plus years old, millions of dollars have been spent on renovations within the last decade. Work to outfit each residence with its own brand-new kitchen wrapped up only in 2011.

Many other buildings have sat empty for years; 18 are not in use and four on the north site have been fully decommissioned and are awaiting demolition. From 2007-09, the old male staff residence on the north site operated as a low-rent transitional housing option for the working homeless, a project that was not renewed when demand lessened for the 40 suites that were set up.

Other buildings, though, are occupied now with leases that extend well into the future. The lease on the Michener Hill Curling Club, built in 1964 with the help of residents, extends another 20 years and Lotsa Tots Childcare has a lease on its south site building until 2018. The city has verbal confirmation on a new three-year lease agreement to operate the Roland Michener Recreation Centre, built in 1977, but the deal has not been formally signed.

Lotsa Tots owner/operator Shireen Sewcharran-Wiebe said she and the parents who have kids in her care love the setting and she would hope to stay as long as possible.

“It’s secure, it’s safe for the children, it’s fantastic as a community venture liaising with the clients and the seniors around. Spatially and how centrally we are located works for us,” said Sewcharran-Wiebe.

A childcare operation has been running on the site since 1985, and since taking over in 2008, Sewcharran-Wiebe and her husband have expanded to a second location in Extendicare Michener Hill. With a sizable wait list of parents wanting to access the service, Sewcharran-Wiebe said if it becomes possible to move into one of the larger Michener buildings, she would welcome the opportunity.

The north and south sites are being looked at separately, said Larsen, with devising a plan for the north the first priority. Based on a 2005 PDD Central proposal, the north site was to be closed by 2008, with new facilities constructed on the south site to accommodate the 50 to 70 residents who would be displaced. That plan, which many families say they would still accept as a compromise, was never realized.

Many of the north site buildings, built in the 1950s and ’60s, contain asbestos, a factor that could make their demolition very expensive.

A 1996 land use development plan for the Michener property suggested that a hotel or conference centre could fit into the north parcel along with residential and commercial development.

In 2007, the city proposed a plan, rejected by the province, that would have seen it get 40 acres of north site land for $1 to develop 40 affordable housing units and other market value residential housing. The plan would have also seen Michener land allocated for an aboriginal housing and cultural centre development and a new curling rink.

Another past plan proposed residential development at Michener specifically designed for people with developmental and physical disabilities, as well as seniors.

Now, while the city continues to meet with Alberta Infrastructure regarding Michener lands, no formal plans are being drawn up. Mayor Tara Veer said the city is taking its cues from the province and there is little it can do at present. She declined to comment on any long-term vision for the sites, saying her biggest concern remains the residents who still call Michener home.

Whatever eventually does become of the land, two buildings on site are protected as municipal historic resources. The first is the iconic 101-year-old main administration building now occupied by Alberta Health Services. The second is the old Gaetz farmhouse adjacent to the Red Deer Cemetery. ReThink Red Deer has proposed making the latter heritage site into an all-season urban farm.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

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