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Habitat board faces tough decision, says spokesman

A controversial affordable housing project proposed for Akinsdale could proceed with 24 units but the issue will go through another public hearing several months from now before anything is decided.

A controversial affordable housing project proposed for Akinsdale could proceed with 24 units but the issue will go through another public hearing several months from now before anything is decided.

City council voted Monday night to rezone the land at 70 Arlington Dr. to direct control, opening the door for residential development. But council stopped short of approving a proposed development permit that would have allowed the construction of 30 duplex housing units.

Instead, council directed city administration to work with Habitat for Humanity Edmonton on a plan to develop 24 units.

Afterward, Habitat president and CEO Alfred Nikolai wondered whether a project of that scale would be feasible for his organization.

“If you keep reducing it to a certain level, they're not affordable any more,” he said. “It's not up to me, but our board's got a really difficult decision to make right now. In fact, if we can't build affordable houses on that property, we won't be building any houses.”

He said council was in a difficult position, given the stiff criticism it's faced from Akinsdale residents, and made a political decision.

“Now it's our turn to analyze whether we can do that or not,” he said. “It could absolutely be a non-starter.”

Several Akinsdale residents said they would have preferred to see less than 20 units, but 24 represented progress.

“It does give more respect to what the neighbours asked for. It does not really address anything. It's a compromise,” said resident Sheena Hughes. “They're moving in the right direction.”

When Habitat originally shared its concept at an open house last fall, it wanted to build 63 units on the site. The organization reduced the number to 58 based on public feedback. In May city council directed administration to pursue a development ranging from 28 to 34 units.

Prior to Monday's meeting, Habitat had a proposal for 34 units but downsized it to 30 units at the request of city administration.

Council's decision came after a series of amendments that fluctuated from 30 units to 24 to 18. In the end, council settled on 24 units, as proposed by Coun. Roger Lemieux.

“It has to be affordable and it has to work financially,” said Lemieux. “I felt that 24 units was fair and it's affordable.”

Coun. Lorie Garritty was the main proponent of keeping it at 30 units. He was disappointed that council further delayed the development and reduced the number of units, fearing that both factors could jeopardize the project.

“The risk is we don't end up with anything,” he said.

Coun. James Burrows pushed for 18 units.

“I think that's clearly what we've heard from Arlington residents,” he said. “It's the compromise that I think council, the public at large and Arlington residents are looking for.”

The land at 70 Arlington Dr. has been at the centre of heated debate for months. The land is owned by the St. Albert Protestant school board, which no longer needs the site for a school. The board struck a deal to sell the property to Habitat for Humanity Edmonton in 2008 but the sale requires that city council rezone it to allow for residential.

The city itself is providing Habitat with the $840,000 to purchase the land. Monday's decision means the Protestant school board will own a piece of rezoned land should Habitat back out of the sale.

On Monday, the public gallery in council chambers was full, as it has been for previous hearings on the issue.

Council's decision came after hearing more than two-dozen complaints from the gallery. Many were Akinsdale residents who complained that council had ignored their concerns and input.

In particular, several accused council of ignoring the results of a design charette held in May that sought public input into the size and scope of the project. That process determined widespread support for a development of 12 to 16 units, yet council proceeded to pursue a project with 28 to 34 units, leading to resident complaints.

“Please listen to the people who actually gave you the opportunity to govern,” said Dale Carter.

Amber Emmons said the whole proposal has been a nightmare.

“Never would I have guessed that living in St. Albert would be a nightmare, but it has been a nightmare, one that you and the developer have created for our neighbourhood,” she said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse countered the opinion that council hasn't listened.

“How did we go from 63 [units] to 58 to 34 to 24 and be accused of not listening?” he said.

St. Albert is “starving” for housing options and this council has remained committed to providing that, he said.

“What is the headline here? The headline is the continued resolve of this council to providing affordable housing options for this community and we have done that time and time again, including last night,” Crouse said.

The issue won't come back to council until late 2010 at the earliest. By then, a newly elected council will be in place, with at least two new faces, raising the potential for the project to be changed or shelved.

Crouse wasn't concerned.

“That is the democratic process,” he said. “Councils can make change.”

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