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It's been a rocky road to Arlington Drive

Partnering with Habitat for Humanity was supposed to be an easier way for the city to get its feet wet on the affordable housing front. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Partnering with Habitat for Humanity was supposed to be an easier way for the city to get its feet wet on the affordable housing front. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

The controversy surrounding the affordable housing project on 70 Arlington Dr. will come to a head Monday when council reviews Habitat/Apollo Developments’ proposal to build 58 townhouse units on the vacant site. It’s been an emotional issue, especially for Akinsdale residents who have been vocal with concerns about losing green space, densities, declining property values and an influx of crime.

The strong reaction has led to accusations residents are NIMBYs with a prejudice against low-income families. There’s no denying there’s plenty of NIMBYism going around because, well, people don’t want the project in their backyard. It’s true the low-income prejudice has been visible in some letters to the editor and online comments, but it’s unfair to paint the entire neighbourhood with such a broad brush.

The people of Akinsdale are reacting as most do when faced with a significant change in their neighbourhood. They don’t like it and are willing to fight tooth and nail to stop it.

Nothing fills the public gallery like a contentious re-zoning. Some of the most widely attended — and at times raucous — council meetings in recent memory have been about infill developments like Arlington Drive. The one that draws the most parallels is the affordable housing development on Grandin Road that was proposed and defeated just before the 2007 election.

Unlike Arlington Drive, the 0.9-hectare site near Grandin Pond was actually zoned as park. It was considered a potential location for affordable housing before the idea led to a groundswell of anger from the surrounding community, much like Arlington Drive. Eventually the former affordable housing advisory board recommended finding alternate sites, fearing the controversy could taint public opinion against future affordable housing projects.

The council of the day agreed, but also asked to look at other options like the Badger parcel, 32 hectares of unserviced city land west of Wal-Mart (a motion put forward by then Coun. Nolan Crouse). The idea has since stalled, along with overall planning for the area.

Enter Habitat for Humanity. They emerged as a potential partner in early 2008 after council dedicated some $1 million in provincial grants toward land purchases for affordable housing (potential sites were kept confidential at that point). “I really like the idea of neighbour helping neighbour, what that adds to the community,” chimed Coun. Lorie Garritty at the time. A partnership with Habitat was viewed as ideal because the organization has enjoyed broad community support from local volunteers.

That was the theory. It worked for the North Ridge duplexes, not so much in Akinsdale. It’s been a long, acrimonious road and it’s hard to predict what will happen when council takes a final vote, which probably won’t happen on Monday. No councillor has gone out on a limb to support the project, though several like Garritty and Roger Lemieux have recognized a delicate balance between neighbourhood concerns versus St. Albert’s overall affordable housing needs.

Back in 2008 when details about the Arlington project first emerged Crouse said public opinion would sway his vote. “If we had significant opposition then we wouldn’t approve it and the city would maintain those funds for another project,” he said. More recently he was non-committal: “We’re getting people on both sides of it. I’m just listening to it all.”

Arlington Drive puts council in an unusual position through its relationship with Habitat. The city, technically, is not the proponent even though it was council that decided to partner with Habitat. A vote against Arlington Drive would be a vote against council’s own affordable housing plan, forcing the city to look yet again for other options or risk losing provincial dollars.

Council has to consider what message that sends to the community, and what happens next. If not here, where? Do we go back to Badger, pushing back affordable housing plans for another four, five or seven years? Do we throw our hands in the air and continue to allow Morinville and Edmonton to serve as St. Albert’s de facto affordable housing options for younger families? Families can’t afford to live here and the numbers show in our demographics. Thirty years ago 33 per cent of St. Albertans were school-aged children; today that number is 20 per cent. It’s gotten to the point that no new schools are contemplated for the annexed lands — an area that could house up to 50,000 new residents — because we already have an oversupply of school sites.

There are other factors to consider like new Capital Region Board rules that will force St. Albert to densify, making infill projects like Arlington Drive a necessity. Council also has to take into account what the development means for traffic, parking and, yes, even property taxes.

With so much at stake there are no easy partnerships, no quick wins. The only certainty about Monday is that emotions will run high.