Council compromise far from a ‘win-win’

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The issue that won’t go away, 70 Arlington Dr., is back, but not for the better. The proposed Habitat for Humanity project has gone through several incarnations, from 63 townhouse units to 58, and now 34 duplexes. The latest plan isn’t an improvement, nor is it the best project to meet the city’s affordable housing goals. Is it a compromise? More like compromised.

Habitat for Humanity Edmonton’s plan for the 1.2-hectare site reflects several requests city council outlined in May, most notably cutting the number of units to fall within a range of 28 to 34. Those units are now duplexes, similar to ones Habitat built in North Ridge and even include basements, previously a target of scorn among critics who apparently never lived in an apartment. Council asked for a three-metre buffer between the site and neighbouring homes; this plan ensures at least six metres (19 ft).

This plan doesn’t follow council’s instructions to the letter. First, the site isn’t a true cul-de-sac, it’s a circle, a change made so fire trucks can actually turn around. The plan also doesn’t allow for basement suites, which goes against Habitat’s home ownership model. In terms of curb appeal, this version is an upgrade. The circular design adds — on paper at least — more landscaping facing Arlington Drive and a trail through the centre of the property to Attwood Park. The larger setbacks might not satisfy property owners who’d prefer to back onto an empty field, but are an improvement nonetheless.

Otherwise the plan falls short. Council’s insistence on lowering the density obviously came with the recognition it would have an impact on the financial model. Habitat’s partner, Apollo Developments, a private company, can’t make the numbers work, leaving Habitat, a not-for-profit, to fundraise $6 million on its own.

Despite brave talk from Habitat president and CEO Alfred Nikolai, that’s an extraordinary sum to raise in St. Albert. Not only does the city have a limited corporate base, Habitat will have to battle other not-for-profits at a time of intense competition for fundraising dollars, including a major drive that’s under way for St. Albert’s 150th anniversary.

The unit cap and addition of basements affects more than just Habitat. Each unit will cost $70,000 more than the previous plan, a cost that will have to be absorbed by Habitat families. Cutting the number of units below 34, as many neighbours would prefer, would result in a development that is not affordable, Nikolai said, adding this version is already pushing it.

That affordability equation should not be overlooked since that’s how council started down the Habitat path. The 58-unit proposal wasn’t without flaws but it went a lot further to address the city’s affordable housing needs, estimated at 3,500 units according to a now five-year-old council approved report. Neighbours’ wishes have to be considered as much as possible, when reasonable, but so does the greater good of St. Albert as an inclusive, sustainable city.

In the end it’s the neighbours who will have to deal with the consequences of council’s tinkering. With $6 million to fundraise, don’t expect Habitat to get this project off the ground overnight. Building could be phased over several years as money allows, Nikolai says. That could be 10 units a year, or just two. In the years in between neighbours will have a view of a half-built eyesore.

Given how many months 70 Arlington Dr. has limped and lingered in front of council there’s no guarantee this plan will get that far before the October municipal election. If it does, expect to hear plenty of “compromise won the day” speeches. Hopefully in bending to meeting neighbourhood demands council hasn’t broken the project. That’s certainly not a win-win.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette. Read his Civic Matters blog at www.stalbertgazette.com.

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