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Arlington Drive up in the air despite vote

For a public hearing, Monday's Arlington Drive session had it all. Sizeable crowd? Check. An engaged, and at times emotional public ready to speak its mind? Check.

For a public hearing, Monday's Arlington Drive session had it all. Sizeable crowd? Check. An engaged, and at times emotional public ready to speak its mind? Check. A city council willing to listen and attempt a compromise? Check (though I suspect many Akinsdale residents might disagree).

What the meeting lacked was a clear indication about what will actually be built at 70 Arlington Dr., if anything. Sure, council approved changes to the municipal development plan to allow residential development on the 1.2-hectare site. Council also set some restrictions, requiring at least 28 units and no more than 34, should Habitat for Humanity decided to proceed with an affordable housing development. That's a far cry from the 58 units proposed.

Council also mandated that every unit should have a basement, a sore spot among critics of the development who've compared basementless homes to cargo containers. Members also opened the door to basement suites on site, provided extra parking is available. Other guidelines, like adding a three-metre buffer on either side of the development backing onto homes, were added in response to resident feedback.

This direction sent the public gallery in a tizzy, bitterly disappointed council would support building anything more than 16 units, the number most Akinsdale residents found agreeable during recent round table talks. Many residents left the gallery feeling betrayed and defeated, but this issue is far from settled.

Council won't even consider changing the zoning to direct control until a draft bylaw is prepared, in late August. That means another round of public hearings, more information to sift through (after about 500 e-mails and correspondence) and potentially more delays.

Perhaps the bigger question is what council's tinkering does to the viability of the project. As Apollo president Andy Banack said Monday, lowering the number of units directly affects affordability (an issue that, oddly, was not part of the round tables). Council has almost cut in half the number of units, added costs with basements and shrunk the footprint of the building area. Considering 58 units led to prices in the $200,000 to $250,000 range, one only wonders whether council has set direction for an affordable housing development at 70 Arlington Dr. or just a housing development. Either way it leaves Habitat and Apollo to evaluate whether its partnership is still viable.

Critics of the development would shed few tears if Apollo packs it in. The private company's motives have been questioned since day one despite Banack's insistence his main goals are philanthropic. Several speakers Monday only want a traditional Habitat build, on a similar scale to projects in communities like Spruce Grove (nine units), Stony Plain (12 units) and even the four duplex units built last year in North Ridge.

It's hard to argue with a model where a charity rounds up community volunteers who work together to provide a home for families who might otherwise never get into the market. Finding volunteers might be a cinch, but that won't be the case when it comes to raising dollars for a 28- to 34-unit development. Without a partner, Habitat will be on its own to pay for building costs, and that could be problematic for the very reason that plagues St. Albert's residential tax base — lack of businesses.

Unlike Edmonton or even smaller cities like Fort Saskatchewan, St. Albert doesn't have a strong corporate base to turn to for donations. Raising dollars for the four duplex units in North Ridge (they needed $200,000 per unit) even proved a challenge for Habitat. Raising money for 28 could be impossible.

So if the Apollo partnership does fall through, the project might be headed for an even longer delay than late August, perhaps beyond the Oct. 18 civic election. As much as foot dragging is loathsome, perhaps that's the best course of action. ‘Affordable housing' is a perennial campaign issue, but 70 Arlington Dr. could open up an honest debate beyond candidates' lip service and motherhood and apple pie statements. About the only thing we know for sure about 70 Arlington Dr. is the issue isn't going away.

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