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Infill housing comes with hurdles and rewards

Consultation, political will crucial for success, conference hears

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Oct 06, 2012 06:00 am

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Infill developments don’t always go smoothly.

Just ask Nolan Crouse. The St. Albert mayor addressed about 180 local leaders, developers and administrators this week in Leduc as host of the second-annual Re-Envision Housing Symposium organized by the Capital Region Board, and talked about his city’s experience with Aurora Place.

The city teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to do an infill project on a vacant school site in Akinsdale, said Crouse, who chairs the Capital Region Board. “All hell broke loose,” and some 70 people showed up before council to protest it.

“There was booing and hissing,” he recalled, and they had to have police present to keep order. A few councillors probably lost their seats because of the development.

But the capital region is growing by 25,000 people a year, he said, and it can’t keep sprawling forever. “Everyone deserves a place to live.” Infill projects can reduce sprawl and costs for residents, and he challenged the audience to come up with new ways to bring them about.

Conference-goers spent the day learning about many local infill projects, such as St. Albert’s Tenor condos and Morinville’s Convent Notre-Dame de la Visitation.

Infill is critical if you want to revitalize your downtown, said David Hales, a general manager of planning and infrastructure with Spruce Grove who spoke on that city’s Windsor Estates. “You have to get a density of people and a density of activities in any downtown to actually form a development people care about.”

Spruce Grove had an asbestos-filled school in its downtown that was no longer being used, Hales said. In 2005, the city bought the site, demolished the school and built a medical centre and a 91-unit seniors’ condo complex on it.

The medicentre is now well used, Hale said, and the developer (Qualico) is building another 92 units. “You have an area that was going to be otherwise vacant for a very long time turn into something that’s vital and bringing people into the community.” It also may have inspired a similar infill project across the street.

Infill sites let cities save a bundle on infrastructure, according to Tim McCargar, a City of Edmonton planner who spoke on his city’s Greenview Landing development.

Edmonton had an unused school site that had been vacant for 30 years, he said in an interview, and that had the pipes, roads and bus routes in place to support some 500 students. It also wanted to offer entry-level homes to young families so they could afford to live in town after graduation.

The city teamed up with the Rohit Group of Companies to build 43 entry-level condos on the site. As part of the larger First Place housing project, these homes came with reduced mortgage rates and were specifically built for first-time homebuyers.

A 2011 city survey found that the program helped 49 per cent of its participants afford a home in Edmonton. Most of the buyers were young couples.

It’s also created a walkable neighbourhood, McCargar said. “They can walk out of their townhouses and they will be on the soccer field in under a minute.”

Consultation was a big reason why Greenview avoided the controversy of Aurora Place, McCargar said. The city and Rohit held multiple meetings with residents, giving them input on everything from house placement to door colour.

It helped that many of the locals were seniors who wanted their kids to have a chance to live next to them, said Russell Dauk of Rohit, who spoke alongside McCargar. Some also wanted to draw kids to the region to fend off falling school enrolment.

Infill carries more regulatory and financial risk than green-field development, Dauk said, which is why most developers avoid it. “If Edmonton didn’t say, here’s the land, it’s already assembled, and if they didn’t say the use is certain and the density is certain, we wouldn’t have even bothered.” Councils need to lay this groundwork for developers if they want infill to happen.

They also need to show leadership, he continued. With Greenview, Edmonton city council came into the community with a clear message: this project was going to happen. “Don’t come out and argue whether you think it should happen or not. Come out and discuss how the community should work with the developer to get the best design.” That saved Rohit the challenge of justifying their development and let them focus on designing it.

When it comes to infill, Crouse said, the sooner you can involve the community, the better. “You do have to involve the residents … but you do have to have the political will to do something.” His council stood by Aurora Place, and has 30 homes built on the site as a result.

Visit reenvisionhousing.com for details on the conference.


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