It’s been just over two years since Ottewell Terrace opened its door in the east end Edmonton neighbourhood. The building added a whole new set of options for seniors living in the area, adding GEF Seniors Housing’s affordable apartments program that sees rent set at 10 to 15 per cent below market value in the area, and set a new standard for how GEF Seniors Housing approached new capital building projects.
“We were already established in the neighbourhood with Ottewell Place lodge and St. Nicholas apartments,” says GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. “So we knew we wouldn’t encounter any apprehension with affordable housing being built in the area. Rather, what we encountered was a lot of excitement and anticipation for this new building and that drove some really interesting conversations with the community.”
GEF Seniors Housing held community consultation meetings before any ground was broken on the project. This helped to ensure the neighbourhood was on board with the project and that they were kept in the loop throughout the entire process. It was during the community consultation meetings that the idea of integrating a daycare centre into the building came to light.
“I was already aware of all the research that had gone into the benefits of intergenerational programming both for seniors and for children,” Swonek says. “The idea of having easy access to this kind of programming was very appealing for both us and for Primrose Place Family Centre. Since moving in, it’s been a highly successful partnership and brought a lot of value not just to the seniors and the children but to the community as a whole.”
It didn’t take long for the 54 suites in Ottewell Terrace to fill up with seniors excited to call the building their new home. For many of the people who moved into Ottewell Terrace, staying in their community was a big deciding factor for where they were going to live. As neighbourhoods in Edmonton age, so do the people who live in them and Swonek explains that when staying in their own homes is no longer safe or suitable for a good quality of life, affordable housing options need to be readily available in the community.
“A big philosophy we live by is aging in community,” says Swonek. “We’re seeing this kind of demand for affordable seniors housing in a lot of neighbourhoods across Edmonton, especially in older communities like Ottewell. People want to stay in their neighbourhoods, stay close to their friends and family, and keep seeing their same doctors and dentists who know them so well. This easily explains why Ottewell Terrace has become one of our most popular buildings for new applicants.”
With the success of Ottewell Terrace, Swonek is looking forward to implementing everything GEF learned from the whole process to new capital projects such as Sakaw Terrace and the new development in Elmwood. One of the biggest reminders he had from the Ottewell Terrace project is how much value affordable housing adds to a community.
“You offer people an affordable place to call home and it immediately changes their lives,” says Swonek. “I think every neighbourhood in Edmonton could benefit from having some affordable housing options. Research time and time again shows that mixed communities are healthier and happier places to live. Ottewell Terrace is just one example of how an affordable housing project can add so much value to a community.”
November is Housing Month, a reminder of how important an issue housing is for everyone and how many challenges a lot of people face when trying to find somewhere affordable and accessible to call home. Young adults, families, and seniors are all affected by the rising housing costs in Edmonton. Government at all levels have realized that housing is a growing issue for many people and are committing new funds and programs to help address these issues. Despite the growing efforts, many people still struggle with simple necessities that so many take for granted.
“If you spend more than 30 per cent of your gross monthly income on housing, you’re considered below the poverty line,” say GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. GEF Seniors Housing is just one organization participating in Housing Month efforts and activities to promote the need for more affordable housing in Edmonton.
“For many Edmontonians, spending only 30 per cent of their income on housing seems like an impossible dream. We serve low-income seniors and offer them affordable housing options. We know the need in Edmonton is great, so we take part in Housing Month to help make sure no one ever has to worry about where they will call home.”
Housing Month started in Toronto with National Housing Day back in 1998. The City of Toronto called out to other municipalities to join them in recognizing the need for affordable housing options in their cities. The City of Edmonton decided to expand on the idea of National Housing Day into a whole month of events, promotions, and publications to educate and inform what affordable and social housing is, how affordable and social housing programs benefit neighbourhoods, and how individuals and communities can help housing organizations serve the people who need the help most.
GEF Seniors Housing is working with the City of Edmonton and other housing organizations such as Homeward Trust, Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative, and Capital Region Housing Corporation on a campaign to spur discussions around affordable housing in Edmonton, how to bring more affordable housing to different Edmonton communities, and what steps should be taken to help see more affordable housing projects break ground. Housing Month’s campaign also includes the National Housing Day Luncheon, hosted by Homeward Trust, on Wednesday, November 22, 2017, at the Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel.
“The partnerships we have with the other housing organizations for Housing Month is part of what makes this campaign so strong,” says Swonek. “Every one of these groups does amazing work in this city and is committed to seeing more affordable housing options available to Edmontonians who are in need. I’m so proud to be part of a city and a community that takes housing so seriously.”
Housing Month seeks to highlight current affordable housing projects being built around Edmonton, showcase current affordable housing buildings already established in the city, and to exhibit much of the progress made from the support of all levels of governments. Though Housing Month is driven by the City of Edmonton, the Provincial Government and the Federal Government both have worked on major housing strategies that have benefited Edmonton greatly and even started releasing funds already so that housing organizations can begin work on creating new homes.
“I’m optimistic about the future of housing when I see how much all these different organizations and different governmental bodies are all collaborating with this common goal,” says Swonek. “Housing Month displays so much of the progress we’ve made over the years. I’m excited for more communities to become invested in affordable housing and Housing Month is the perfect way to make those connections and build that support.”
For GEF Seniors Housing, the Edmonton Municipal Election started on September 12, 2017, when 25 of the candidates for City Council met with members of the Board of Directors and Seniors Management team over breakfast at McQueen Place. After CEO Raymond Swonek’s presentation provided an overview as to who GEF Seniors Housing is and how the Foundation adds value to communities, the candidates asked engaging questions and expressed their support for the Foundation’s mission.
In the weeks following the breakfast meeting, the candidates took to visiting GEF Seniors Housing’s buildings all throughout the city, totalling well over thirty formal visits through eight Wards. Some of the visits were even formatted as full panel discussions with a range of different candidates all running in the same Ward, sharing their platforms and answering questions.
Through many of the meetings, there was a clear support for addressing several issues faced around seniors and social housing. As the new Edmonton City Council takes shape, GEF Seniors Housing is excited to continue its working relationship with the City of Edmonton and is looking forward to seeing what new opportunities arise from strong collaboration.
Thank you to all the candidates who ran during this election for your visits to GEF Seniors Housing buildings. The conversations brought to light many of the issues seniors face every day and helped spur a lot of creative ideas to help improve the quality of life for seniors in Edmonton.
Congratulations to Mayor Don Iveson on a successful campaign to be re-elected. We’re looking forward to your second term as Edmonton’s Mayor.
Congratulations to all of the incumbent City Councillors taking your seats once again for another four years in office. We’re looking forward to continuing our strong relationships in your communities.
Lastly, congratulations to the new City Councillors: Jon Dziadyk (Ward 3), Aaron Pacquette (Ward 4), Sarah Hamilton (Ward 5), and Tim Cartmell (Ward 9). We’re looking forward to working with you on new projects and helping to make sure no senior ever has to worry about where they will call home.
With new capital projects moving forward such as Sakaw Terrace, Elmwood Terrace, and the redevelopment of Strathcona Place, GEF Seniors Housing knows it has allies in Edmonton’s City Council, sharing a vision of accessible and affordable housing options for everyone.
Doug Kitlar stands on the main floor of the Sakaw Terrace construction site, looking out to the Bobcat skid flattening the wet soil where the first asphalt for the building’s main parking lot will be laid. He explains that this first layer may not last through the end of the construction but is being installed to help with the rest of the construction project by covering up the mud.
“The soil’s been so wet all summer, it’s been hard to move anything,” Kitlar explains. “The asphalt is going to be damaged by the end of the project as we keep moving materials and equipment across it, but it’s going to make our lives a lot easier as we move forward on the project. It will of course have the finished layer laid toward the end of the project.”
Kitlar’s role as GEF Seniors Housing’s Director of Facility Management has seen him work on his fair share of new building projects. Sakaw Terrace has seen Kitlar and the rest of the teams with GEF Seniors Housing and Chandos (Sakaw Terrace’s general construction contractor) branch out into trying new approaches while completing the building project. It’s been close to one year since shovels first broke ground on Sakaw Terrace and the project is moving fast.
All four above ground floors and the underground parking garage have all had concrete poured for the flooring to the north wings and central core, making it possible to walk through every floor of the building (with the right safety gear, of course). The structural steel frame is nearing completion, giving the building its familiar shape. The remaining concrete will be poured over the next month.
With progress moving so smoothly on Sakaw Terrace, Kitlar already has his mind on developing show suites. He explains that the main floor will display one lodge room and one apartment room that will first be used for weather and pressure testing, to ensure that no matter the weather outside the inside of the building and the suites will stay dry. Once the suites meet all the demands for weather and pressure testing, they will be an established standard for the finishes in all suites in the building and ultimately become the show suites for prospective tenants.
“In about a month or so, we’ll start putting together the show suites to be pressure tested,” says Kitlar. “If things keep moving as they are now, we should be able to show our future residents and tenants the show suites by spring 2018.”
The next steps for the construction crew that will take the project into the New Year include paving the west side parking lot, finishing the ramp down to the underground parkade, securing the last of the structural steel walls, and installing the last of the roofing.
Standing on Sakaw Terrace’s roof, there is a great view of the city’s south side and of downtown Edmonton’s skyline. The roof is sturdy and secure and the ventilation system vents are already being installed. Kitlar smiles as he looks out to the Edmonton skyline and reminisces about his affinity for going on buildings’ roofs.
“When I first started with GEF Seniors Housing, I went out on to every building’s roof to get to know everything with all the buildings,” Kitlar explains. “I took a photo from each rooftop and displayed them to the managers and had them guess where each photo was taken. With this unique view, no one will have problems guessing any photo taken from here.”
Every year, Sage Edmonton holds a free event to help seniors navigate all the different housing options available to them as their needs and necessities change with aging. The Seniors Housing Forum features presentations from housing organization experts, information sessions from public figures, and a tradeshow displaying the wide array of different supports and services that allows seniors to have an excellent quality of life.
“The Seniors Housing Forum aims to provide a wide range of information and resources for older adults to age well in their existing home, and to better understand the variety of options for seniors’ housing,” says Karen McDonald, Executive Director with Sage Edmonton. “All sessions at the Forum will be closed captioned to ensure they are accessible and participants will also enjoy a free lunch, coffee and tea, and door prizes.”
This year’s Seniors Housing Forum will be held on Saturday, September 23, 2017, at the Central Lions Recreation Centre (11113 113 St., Edmonton) with the tradeshow opening up at 9:00 a.m. and presentations beginning at 10:00 a.m. Presentations at the event include information on financial literacy, new home technologies that help seniors age in their community, and a panel discussion on alternative housing options that will feature GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek.
“GEF Seniors Housing is involved with the Seniors Housing Forum because we believe the event serves a huge need for Edmonton’s senior population,” says Swonek. “There’s a lot of information and choices seniors need to make as they age. The Seniors Housing Forum helps ensure that seniors are getting the best information right from the source and making sure their changing needs are going to be met while maintaining their quality of life.”
The information presented is relevant not just to seniors themselves but also their families, friends, caregivers, and anyone else interested in the ever-evolving landscape of seniors housing options. Last year’s event brought in around 1,200 people to explore the tradeshow and take in the presentations, looking for information on what housing options will best serve their own or their loved ones’ lifestyles.
“I always love presenting at the Seniors Housing Forum,” says Swonek. “Last year, presented on new housing models and introduce many of the new concepts we’re building into Sakaw Terrace to an audience that was interested and engaged. I always look forward to the seniors Housing Forum and am excited I was once again asked to present.”
Registration for the Seniors Housing Forum is now open and anyone interested is encouraged to contact Sage Edmonton directly at 780-809-8604 to register.
A new bench was placed outside of Cathedral Close on June 29, 2017, and while this isn’t normally something to pay special attention to, this bench represents something more than simply somewhere to stop for a quick rest. As part of the City of Edmonton’s Hello, How Are You? campaign to address urban isolation and mental health, the Buddy Benches were developed by the City Lab as an open invitation to make a connection.
Edmonton Transportation Service (ETS) donated 20 brand new benches to be used as Buddy Benches all over Edmonton as a means to try and address social isolation. The idea is that people can stop and sit on the bench as a signal that they’re looking for someone to talk to. Anyone else can then join the person on the bench, ask how they are, and start a conversation. Most Buddy Benches are painted bright colours with the hashtag #SayHelloYeg to signal that this bench is meant for connections.
“When the bench was being installed, a lot of the tenants were asking what it was about and after I explained the Buddy Bench program they really loved the idea,” says Colleen Simpson, Assistant Manager with Cathedral Close. “We have a couple of our own benches and a gazebo on our property, but the Buddy Bench is allowing more connection with the community, which is important for a lot of people.”
Areas being targeted for Buddy Benches include high density neighbourhoods with lots of pedestrian traffic and close to seniors residential buildings. Seniors are increasingly a population at risk for social isolation and more organizations are taking steps to try and address the isolation issues and help prevent any of the adverse health effects that follow social isolation.
“In the short time the Buddy Bench has been in front of Cathedral Close, I’ve already seen a few seniors sit on it, and these are seniors I don’t recognize,” says Simpson. “People from the community are already trying to make more connections and I’m really excited to see some of the interactions happen.”
Jim Murland came back to Edmonton in 1948 after serving in the Second World War and he found his first home in the McKernan neighbourhood in the city’s south east. After he settled in his new home, one of the first jobs he had was adding stucco to the outer brick wall on Knox Metropolitan United Church in the Garneau neighbourhood. Now at 98 years of age Murland lives at Knox-Met Manor, an apartment building currently being managed by GEF Seniors Housing that was originally built in 1984 in part from help from Knox Metropolitan Church.
The church closed its doors in 2016 with plans to tear down the original building for a new condo development. For Murland, some of his memories of the church that first opened its doors in 1928 stem to one of the most distinctive design features on the building. “I remember attending sermons at the church and always looking up at the stained glass window,” says Murland.
Knox-Met Manor was one of the recipients of a section of the stained glass window because of its close ties to the church. Of the more than 80 tenants living in Knox-Met Manor, many share Murland’s enthusiasm about receiving the window.
Joyce Dahl has been living at Knox-Met Manor since 2000 and was the building’s tenant representative to the church group. She explains that preserving the role that the church played in the development of the property and the connection between the church and the Manor is one to be celebrated. The church played a significant role not just in the history of the Garneau neighbourhood but for Edmonton as a whole.
One piece of history is the role Knox Metropolitan United Church played in the Edmonton chapter of Amnesty International. Before she moved into Knox-Met Manor, Florence Miller was a member of Amnesty International and would take the bus from her north side Edmonton home to the Garneau neighbourhood for meetings. She recollects the different events the Edmonton chapter of Amnesty International played in welcoming new communities to the city from all around the world and the work done to help ensure that these new groups knew they were welcome.
“Even now, there’s still a lot of diversity in [Knox-Met Manor],” Miller says. “We have neighbours from Egypt, Pakistan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, all over. I want to make sure this piece the church’s stained glass window has a place in our building to commemorate the history of Edmonton being a welcoming city.”
Gail Brown is part of a group of tenants at Knox-Met Manor who wants to see the donated piece of stained glass find a permanent place displayed in the building. Though only living in Knox-Met Manor for the past two years and having no direct connection to the church, Brown still feels a responsibility to preserve this piece of the community’s history.
“I’m in very strong support of public art that shows the history of our city,” says Brown. “The church is empty now but it helped build this place that so many people call home. We have a piece of the architecture and it’s something amazing that needs to be respected, preserved and its history maintained.”
Lorna Etwell points out that the seventh floor of Knox-Met Manor is a perfect spot to mount the stained glass. It’s a shared space where tenants go to do their laundry, read a book, hop on an exercise bike, do a puzzle, or meet in the sun room that overlooks the Garneau neighbourhood and right to the spot where the empty Knox Metropolitan United Church stands for the time being. She recalled that after some discussion it was determined that the brick wall next to the book case was the best location to proudly display the piece of community history.
“It’s an honour to have received this gift from the church,” says Etwell. “We want to do right by making sure it has a place where is can be appreciated.”
Sakaw Terrace as an idea was first conceived by Raymond Swonek when the City of Edmonton offered GEF Seniors Housing a surplus school site in the Mill Woods area. After seeing the plot of land being offered for a new affordable seniors housing development, he immediately pictured a building unlike anything GEF had ever attempted before.
“Mill Woods was really lacking affordable seniors housing,” says Swonek. “There was a huge need for lodge rooms and apartments catered to seniors with a low- to moderate-income. With there being such a huge need in this neighbourhood, I knew I had to go big – bigger than anything we had ever built before.”
Ambitions ran high for Sakaw Terrace. As the project development team began fleshing out the details that would make up this new seniors complex, Swonek started seeing something even better than he initially imagined. The designers and architects made space for 70 lodge rooms and 88 apartments, two outdoor courtyards, a communal greenhouse, a theatre room, a salon, and underground and above ground parking. Swonek explains that deciding what to include in this new building wasn’t a decision solely made by any one group.
“For any new building project, we always go out to the community and make sure they’re involved with as much of the process as they want to be,” says Swonek. “The community talked a lot about how much they like their green space, so between the courtyards and the greenhouse, we made sure to include as much green space as we possibly could.”
GEF began appearing at farmer’s markets and other community events to help keep up the momentum for Sakaw Terrace, only to be met by lines of people hoping to get on the waiting list early. With excitement running high in the Mill Woods community for Sakaw Terrace, the project team knew it needed to deliver something special and started looking to its environmental impact assessments for more inspiration.
“We decided to own more of the environmental stewardship around a project like [Sakaw Terrace],” Swonek says. “It’s important that what we build is sustainable and that we reduce our carbon footprint without compromising on our principle to provide great housing options for seniors.”
The team looked at sustainability in two ways, with the first being environmental. Sakaw Terrace was built with a combined heat and power unity (CHP), which better uses natural gas utilities by using the power and hear generated more efficiently. Estimates show that the CHP will reduce carbon gas emissions by 530 tons a year.
The other side of Sakaw Terrace’s sustainability is the financial side, which is helped by the CHP offering a savings of around $80,000 that GEF can reallocate to operations and services for seniors. But Swonek explains that they wanted to take financial sustainability a step further with a housing model he typically only sees in Europe.
“Sakaw Terrace is the first building in Alberta to offer a mixed-income model for housing in Western Canada,” Swonek says. “Thirty per cent of the suites in Sakaw Terrace are going to be offered to any senior, regardless of income, at a market value. We can then use the profits from the market value suites to keep funding the operations at Sakaw Terrace, making it a completely self-sustaining building.”
Though the financial side of sustainability is appealing to GEF Seniors Housing (especially being a not-for-profit), Swonek’s more proud of the communal aspects of these innovations.
“What our efforts amount to is making Sakaw Terrace more accessible to the 20,000 seniors currently living in the Mill Woods area,” Swonek says. “As people age, they want to stay in their communities. They want to be close to their families, friends, and the services they’re comfortable with. At the end of the day, the people have to come first. This is going to be someone’s home, and that needs to stay front of mind before anything else.”
On the afternoon of July 31, 2012, GEF Seniors Housing faced one of its worst building fires in over 50 years it has been an organization. The Canora Gardens building’s second floor caught fire after a new tenant moving in put a cardboard box on a hot stove element. One tenant lost their life in the fire due to smoke inhalation. GEF Seniors Housing’s Director of Facility Management Doug Kitlar explains that getting the call about a building fire is always unpredictable.
“It’s policy that whoever on the team is closest to the building when the fire call comes in has to go directly to the site to begin assessing the situation,” Kitlar explains. “Ed Campion, one of our project managers, made it to the site before I did. The whole drive over, I was looking over the horizon of buildings and I could see the black smoke billowing out and all I could think was that we were in trouble.”
The suite where the fire started and the suites next to it had extensive fire damage and the smoke damage all along the second floor was clearly visible. Kitlar says that while working with the adjusters, there was ample concern for the water damage to the floors below the fire and more smoke damage in the walls above the fire. Canora Gardens’ original construction had plenty of fire protection between the suites, but no smoke protection (as is the standard for modern buildings). Kitlar knew that the smoke damage went far beyond what they could see on the second floor.
“We opened up a couple of walls and we could clearly see the extent of the smoke damage,” says Kitlar. “It was a tragic situation for the whole building and the people living in it. The building was going to need a lot of work for the renovations but I knew with the right kind of renovation plan, we could turn this into an opportunity for something extremely positive.”
GEF Seniors Housing first worked to relocate the tenants from all 98 suites to other sites before beginning what started out as a $6 million renovation project. Plans were put into place to improve the fire and smoke protection, redesign the suites to better suit the needs of seniors, and even install a new sprinkler system. More challenges arose with the building project, including discovering a large amount of asbestos where parts of the sprinkler system would need to be installed and issues with the building envelope that caused major leaks including through the windows. The project quickly ballooned to $12 million.
“We were lucky to have a lot of support from the Government of Alberta throughout the whole project,” says Kitlar. “They supported a full redesign from the beginning. They knew this redesign would add another 40 years of life in this building and that was important for everyone involved.”
The Canora Gardens project has taken more than five years to complete with an opening date slated for January 2018. Kitlar points out that some rebuilds in the past have taken less time, but the Canora Gardens projects presented a few unique challenges (like the asbestos issue and the building envelope issue), which pushed the team at GEF Seniors Housing to go deeper into the building and work more to breathe new life into it.
“Once Canora Gardens is done, it will be like a whole new building,” says GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. “I’ve been really proud of the team who not only have been rebuilding Canora Gardens but modernizing it as well.”
Throughout the Canora Gardens rebuild site, signs of bringing the building out of its original 1977 construction date and into 2017’s higher standards to residential buildings is evident all over. The building will feature better lighting, new interior finishes, improved common area spaces, a sprinkler system, and new energy efficient mechanical systems. For Kitlar, he’s proud of the mechanical and structural upgrades to the building, but there’s one facet that he’s especially excited about.
“We redesigned each of the suites so they function better for seniors,” says Kitlar. “We moved a few walls, flipped some floor plans, and were able to make the suites more conducive to the unique facets of seniors living without losing any suites. I am especially proud that we were able to keep the seniors who will live in the building so front of mind during this whole process.”
Swonek echoes Kitlar’s excitement about the redesign of the suites. His frequent visits to the sites have shown him how far along the building has come and how well this building is going to function as an independent seniors living complex once it’s completed.
“I visit the build site often because I’m a very visual person and I like to see the process being made,” says Swonek. “Canora Gardens is going to be so much of a safer building for the seniors living in it and I know it’s going to set a standard for seniors building renovation projects happening all across Edmonton.”