Bridge housing in northeast Edmonton met with mixed feelings

·3 min read

A bridge housing project on Exhibition Lands in northeast Edmonton, slated to open before winter, is getting mixed responses from local residents.

About 150 people experiencing homelessness are expected to move into the former jockey dormitory southwest of the racetrack off 79th Street by early November.

Non-profit housing provider Homeward Trust and the City of Edmonton consulted residents in surrounding neighbourhoods about the project.

Steven Townsend, president of the Parkdale-Cromdale Community League, participated in the consultations and said he's cautiously optimistic the project will be successful.

"We want to be part of the solution to combating homelessness in Edmonton for sure," Townsend told CBC News in an interview Friday. "I think the bridge housing is very important."

The former dormitory for visiting jockeys closed in 2018 and has been vacant since.

In June, the city signed a lease with Homeward Trust and spent approximately $600,000 to renovate the space, including a fence to separate the building from the rest of the Exhibition Lands.

A report detailing the results of public engagement said many residents believed in the need for bridge housing, although it did not provide a numerical breakdown of those responses.

But events in the area over the spring have caused some to express trepidation about the project.

"There is some apprehension in the community after the Expo Centre and what was attributed to the Expo Centre as an increase in nuisance problems," Townsend added.

The Expo was a temporary emergency shelter in early spring, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of homeless people used the drop-in daytime shelter.

Reports of disorder emerged, prompting Ward 7 councillor Tony Caterina to chastise city administration for not doing more to control the situation.

The city then put more peace officers and police on patrol.

The city's public engagement on the bridge housing shows some residents are worried similar disorder could happen again.

"Some expressed concern based on their experiences with the Expo Centre in their community. They indicated they felt issues were not dealt with promptly or appropriately," the report said.

Others said they wanted the development to be moved to another community or stopped altogether, the report adds.

The public engagement included responses from 84 people in 27 communities — mostly Highlands, Bellevue, Parkdale, Cromdale and Montrose.

Eastwood, Elmwood Park, Delton and the Alberta Avenue Business Improvement Association also participated.

Good neighbours

A resident in the area, Russell Brandt, told CBC News he supports the bridge housing project and hasn't personally noticed problems.

"Some people might be causing issues but overall isn't it worth it to get people out of the cold and snow?" he said. "It just seems cruel to have people out in the cold when we have empty jockey residents and plenty of other empty places."

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

The report shows a strong push from community members to have a good neighbour agreement — a framework for the operator to use to mitigate problems if they come up.

The agreements include establishing a community contact to address concerns related to behaviour or activities of tenants and staff, and anything that "contravenes positive community relationships and neighbourhood enjoyment," the report said.

Townsend said the community wants to make sure the good neighbour plan is in place to address potential problems, such as litter in Borden Park.

"Trust needs to be built, so over time I guess we will see whether the trust is there or not. It's, in my opinion, too early to say," Townsend said.

Homeward Trust is expected to select an organization to operate the housing project. The operator will create the final version of the good neighbour plan and share it with the community.

Council's community and public services committee is set to review the report Wednesday.