City councillors are keeping an open mind about a proposed affordable housing project despite vocal opponents who filled the chamber gallery on Tuesday.
It was a standing-room-only crowd as council gave first reading to rezone a parcel of land for a proposed 58-unit townhouse complex being proposed for 70 Arlington Dr. Council received a report outlining the project, which is a partnership between Habitat For Humanity and Apollo Developments. A public hearing is scheduled for March 15 at 5 p.m.
The issue pits the legitimate concerns of the neighbourhood against the needs of St. Albert as a whole, leaving council with a difficult decision, said Coun. Lorie Garritty.
"This will be one of the more difficult decisions that we have to make just because of the vocal opposition to it from local residents," he said.
"I certainly think it's our responsibility to look at this from a citywide perspective, taking into account the local neighbourhood perspective as well. There's a balance there."
While the controversial issue has prompted an outpouring of negative sentiment in newspaper opinion pages, communication to councillors through letters and emails has been more balanced, Garritty said. He's hoping the upcoming public hearing reflects this.
"I hope that there's more people that come out to speak publicly that are in favour of it. I think it's important to have that balance," Garritty said.
Mayor Nolan Crouse expects the city will have to open up a second room for the public hearing, which allows anyone to register and speak to council.
Crouse has said the city is under pressure to bring in more property tax revenue from its existing footprint, but he wants answers to technical issues like parking and vehicle access before making up his mind about the project. On Thursday he said he's still in listening mode.
"We're getting people on both sides of it. I'm just listening to it all," he said.
During Tuesday's council meeting, five residents spoke against the project and only one in favour. Among the concerns were increased traffic, excess overflow street parking, reduced property values, the loss of green space and the number of units proposed for the three-acre site.
"This is just too large," said resident Christine Grenier. "I am not against Habitat For Humanity. I am against a 58-unit complex that will be placed on that small parcel of land."
Residents say Arlington Drive is already busy and dangerous to cross. They also feel the development would provide too little parking for its residents and visitors, which would lead to excess street parking.
The usual guideline for medium-density developments is two parking stalls per unit plus a visitor stall for every three units. By this standard, a 58-unit complex would have 135 stalls. The Habitat proposal calls for 114 stalls, which would provide 12 stalls for visitors and an average of 1.75 stalls per unit.
Doug Shoults, the lone resident to speak in favour of the project, said, "St. Albert is one large community and we need to grow as a community, with all people from all walks of life."
Coun. Roger Lemieux said about 70 per cent of the emails he's getting are against the proposal.
Lemieux said he won't make up his mind about this proposal until he gets a clearer picture of the facts, particularly around parking and the number of units. While he feels for residents' concerns, he also feels the city needs to make good on its promise to address an affordable housing shortage.
"If we don't look at that soon, then we're kind of going backwards," Lemieux said.
Upcoming election not a factor
Coun. James Burrows said his vote will be decided by the empirical evidence placed before council. However, Burrows threw cold water on the common complaint that the multi-family development will dampen property values.
"I live in the most densified neighbourhood in St. Albert — Grandin," Burrows said. "I bought my house in 1995 for $116,000. It's now worth two times and a half what I bought it for. Some of the objections … are just not correct."
Like the other councillors, Burrows said he'll be undeterred by fear of losing votes during next fall's civic election.
"I make my decisions based on what's the best thing for the City of St. Albert, today and in the future," he said.
He suggested fear of change was at the root of much of the resistance brewing in Akinsdale.
"Nothing stays the same in life. I think it's human nature that people hate change, unfortunately," Burrows said.
The land in question is owned by St. Albert Protestant Schools. The district has a deal to sell the land to Habitat For Humanity for $840,000, pending successful re-zoning. The City of St. Albert has donated the $840,000 to Habitat to buy the land.
The development would include 15 units that Habitat would fill through its application process. This requires that homeowners participate in the building of their home. The remaining 43 units would be sold by Apollo Developments at 20 per cent below market value, with a non-payable second mortgage from Habitat.
All the homes would be built by Apollo to the "lockup" stage, then completed by Habitat volunteers.
History of 70 Arlington Dr.
1986: School district decides not to build school on the site which it acquired in the 1970s;
1987: Board makes inquiries about disposing of site; city declines to buy it;
1995: Effort to build a church meets residential opposition due to increase in traffic and argument that residents had no input into plan;
1996: Site is subdivided;
2000: 0.82 hectares (two acres) are transferred to the city (as a donation) and the remaining 1.21 hectares (three acres) remains the property of the school district.
Council defeats a proposed 30-unit bungalow development by Qualico because residents want the area as recreational space and the ratio of single family to multiple family exceeds what is allowed in the municipal development plan.
2005: Council defeats a proposed 80-unit assisted living facility due to neighbourhood opposition due to increased density, traffic and loss of green space.
Source: City of St. Albert