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Letter could have unintended consequences

Over the past few months there have been plenty of decent arguments for and against a proposed Habitat for Humanity project in Akinsdale. And then there’s the letter written by Chris and Karleena Perry.

Over the past few months there have been plenty of decent arguments for and against a proposed Habitat for Humanity project in Akinsdale. And then there’s the letter written by Chris and Karleena Perry.

The now infamous letter has sparked outrage here at home and across the country after St. Albert was portrayed as an elitist suburb where low-income families aren’t welcome. Yet for all its short-sighted, distasteful bigotry, the letter could prove a turning point for the 70 Arlington Dr. debate, and future discussion about what we want our community to become.

The contents of the letter itself add little to the discussion, with statements like: “What we want is for St. Albert to remain as it is with very few low-income households, a place for families that work hard to live here.”

The Perrys go on to suggest status and acceptance are one and the same, especially in St. Albert schools. “Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates.”

Each point is meant to curry favour against Habitat for Humanity Edmonton’s proposed 58-unit development with Apollo Developments. Yet by providing such ugly opposing arguments, the letter could have unintended consequences.

I’m certainly not on the side of Arlington opponents, but the Perrys’ letter has not helped their cause. If anything the intense backlash has spurred previously silent or casual observers to support the project. In fact, donations for Habitat have poured in from across the city, region and country, said CEO Alfred Nikolai.

The letter also amps up the pressure on city council when it comes time to make a final verdict later this spring. The 500-odd public submissions council received for Arlington Drive will seem like nothing when stacked against the kind of local and regional scrutiny that’s headed our way. Imagine the mud that would be slung at St. Albert if councillors dare reject or drastically scale back the project, no matter how well reasoned their arguments. ‘Elitist city’ will seem like a compliment.

Lost in the local and national outrage have been some legitimate concerns about the 70 Arlington Dr. proposal, like loss of green space and the actual development being built within seven metres of property on either side.

Of course it’s possible the Perrys’ letter could have some positive consequences too, as we evaluate the type of community we are and what we want to become. Like it or not, St. Albert does have an elitist reputation, and however unpopular, the Perrys’ views are doubtless shared by a segment of the population attracted by labels like “privilege has its place.” Most just have the good sense never to make it public.

And while council observes the letter flap from a distance, city hall is not blameless for policies that have reinforced our elite rep. The city’s top planning document puts heavy emphasis on building low-density homes. (For years the standard was 80 per cent low-density to 20 per cent multi-family until it was lowered to 70-20 in 2006). Just five years ago, zoning rules were stacked in favour of building mostly big homes on large lots. Promoting what sells has come at the expense of the type of inclusive neighbourhoods on which St. Albert was founded like Mission and Grandin.

While the Perrys want to keep St. Albert a palace, the community has to decide if we want to head in another direction and provide a broader range of housing choices. Arlington Drive is only part of a debate that will continue with proposals like smart growth, which calls for more density and mixed land uses. Hopefully that community introspection will continue long after the wrath over the Perrys’ letter subsides.

Bryan Alary is an editor at the Gazette.

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