Edmonton council rejects tower developer's new pitch for affordable housing

Edmonton city council is refusing to let a developer off the hook on its commitment to fit affordable housing in a proposed condo building off Whyte Avenue.

'I confess, I feel betrayed by that,' Coun. Ben Henderson says

The 16-storey tower would also include commercial space on the ground floor. (CBC)

Edmonton city council is refusing to let a developer off the hook on its commitment to fit affordable housing in a proposed condo building off Whyte Avenue.

On Wednesday, WestOak CEO Mathew McLash told council his company hasn't been able to pin down a non-profit partner — a requirement under city policy — to help create affordable housing in the 16-storey Mezzo tower on 105th Street and 81st Avenue.

Instead, WestOak asked the city to buy 10 per cent of the tower's suites at 85 per cent of the market price. Alternatively, the company suggested giving the city cash in lieu of fulfilling its pledge to build the affordable units.

Council wasn't happy with the proposal.

"I confess, I feel betrayed by that," Coun. Ben Henderson said of the request. Council voted 11-1 against McLash's pitch.

'I feel discouraged by this'

The seasoned councillors who approved the project in April 2016 all expressed concern with the change Wednesday, while newly elected Ward 3 Coun. Jon Dziadyk was the only councillor who said he approved of the new plan.

"I feel discouraged by this," Coun. Bev Esslinger said.

The original proposal included between 20 and 29 three- to four-bedroom rental apartments in a 210-unit tower. WestOak's revised design included 135 larger units — all one- and two-bedroom condos.

Residents from the area also voiced their dismay at the company for trying to back out of its commitment.

Maureen Duguay with the Strathcona Community League (left) and Kim Clegg with the Queen Alexandra Community League, say it's important to have family housing in the area. (CBC)

Maureen Duguay, president of the Strathcona Community League, said affordable housing for families is the cornerstone of the tower proposal.

"We need families in our communities," she told CBC News after the public hearing Wednesday.

"As all of these highrises go up that are not built for family, or even affordable family housing, it takes the life out of communities."

Kim Clegg with the Queen Alexandra Community League agreed, saying highrises were not helping to develop a family  atmosphere in the neighbourhood.

Controversial almost from the start

The Mezzo tower was originally supposed to be a rental building, not a condo building. City staff called it "creative" and representative of thinking "outside the box."

Opponents feared the height alone would destroy the historic character of the Old Strathcona and Queen Alexandra communities.

Despite concerns, council approved it.

McLash said he understands council's perspective on his request but said economics were making it difficult to follow through on the original project plan.

West Oak president and CEO Mathew McLash asked the city to buy out the affordable housing units in the proposed Mezzo tower off Whyte Avenue. (CBC)

"I will always welcome someone to walk a day in my shoes and experience the challenges of affordable housing," he said.

"If it were easy there wouldn't be an affordable-housing issue in the city."

McLash said the company will double its efforts to find a non-profit to partner with, but added that time is running out to start building before banks withdraw their financing from the project.