City choosing tiny park over low income housing, says SJ anti-poverty advocate

A Saint John developer says any contribution toward affordable housing was not discussed with city planning staff in talks over a tiny park alongside his proposed uptown apartment building.

The project, which was recommended for approval in a vote last Tuesday by the city's Planning Advisory Committee, is a high-end apartment building on Wentworth Street in the Central Peninsula.

At seven stories, the building's height would be 11 meters higher than would normally be allowed in the Wentworth Street neighbourhood.

In exchange for recommending approval for the additional height, city planning staff said they encouraged the developer to contribute to something that would benefit the public.

A variety of options

According to a staff report, the options could include a financial contribution toward affordable housing, or money for public art or public parks. 

The agreed solution is what is being called a "pocket park," located beside the 83-unit building.

It would contain seating and public art, likely utilizing features from the former United Church that stood on the site for nearly 140 years.

But in a statement to CBC News, Percy Wilbur remembers only one option.

He said there was no discussion "at all" of a contribution to non-profit housing, and the pocket park was a "compromise" with city staff.

He had originally proposed to put those features in the lobby of his building.

"They [city staff] preferred that I do it outside so that everyone could enjoy it," he said.

Saint John Planning Advisory Committee

The outcome is the same for Saint John anti-poverty advocate Randy Hatfield, who attended the PAC meeting.

He says by backing the pocket park as a 'public benefit', the city is missing a golden opportunity to spur construction of housing for low-income people.

Hatfield, executive director of the Human Development Council, said funding for affordable housing could be used to purchase land for subsidized housing units.

He says non-profit organizations can then leverage additional housing funds from government and other sources.

"In this market a little goes a long way," said Hatfield. "Contributions toward a fund that would allow capitalization of non-profit service providers to acquire and assemble land would make a difference."

According to New Brunswick's Department of Social Development, as of Jan. 1, there were 5,331 people on a waiting list for subsidized housing units across the province.

'Affordable housing is important' 

Jean Bertin, a spokesperson for the department, said the Provincial Housing Strategy and Action Plan targets the creation of 1,262  new affordable housing units over the next 10 years, with 151 to be building in the first three-years of the plan.

The Wentworth Street apartment building is in Coun. David Hickey's Ward.

He agrees with Hatfield that without affordable housing there's a danger lower income people will be pushed out of the area by rising rents and a Central Peninsula vacancy rate that has fallen to 1 percent. 

"I think he's right on," said Hickey. "Putting those developers in a position where they have to contribute to affordable housing, I think is absolutely critical." 

Lisa Caissie, a spokesperson for the city, said the municipality recognizes "affordable housing is important  to foster mixed income neighbourhoods."

She said Saint John is still formalizing a plan for using public benefit funds like those generated by the Tower Contracting project "to explore broader off-site benefits such as affordable housing contributions".

City council is expected to give final approval to the building at a meeting scheduled for Feb. 10.