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Council nixes idea to build affordable housing over city owned parking lots

Coun. Scott Hamilton's motion was defeated in a 5-4 vote Tuesday with Mayor Liggett and councillors Ermeta, Shwery, Cooper and Devine voting against it
Cambridge Ward 7 councillor Scott Hamilton tabled a motion Tuesday asking council to support the idea and have staff investigate the possibility of utilizing public parking lots for affordable housing.

Council voted down a motion from Coun. Scott Hamilton on Tuesday that was touted by its supporters as a way Cambridge could play a lead role in addressing the housing crisis.

Hamilton pitched the idea of making city-owned parking lots available to non-profit developers for affordable housing projects.

He proposed the city retain ownership by leasing suitable lots to developers for $1 a year over a 50 to 70 year term and building over the lots to retain public parking spaces.

He wanted staff to investigate the feasibility of the idea with the region, and consider a suitable location for a pilot project.

"We're not looking at putting affordable housing on every single parking lot," he said, addressing concerns of some councillors. "The point is to look for possible locations for a potential prototype."

"The reality is, even though lots of parking lots are full, lots of them aren't. There are parking lots in the core which have at least 70 per cent capacity during the day and they drop down to maybe 30 per cent capacity or less at night."

"This is a low-risk shot that I think is very much worth taking," Hamilton said.

The idea of the city supporting the construction of more affordable housing by offering the incentive of virtually free land to developers inspired many to delegate in support of the motion.

"Sending this idea for future studies sends a message that Cambridge is looking for innovative and visionary solutions to tackle this huge challenge," said Amanda Maxwell, a former Cambridge realtor and urban studies grad.

Cambridge Community Church pastor Daniel Fietje delegated on behalf of a group of local pastor's and Christian non-profits called For The City.

He said his group meets regularly to try to come up with ways to better the city and affordable housing is always a hot topic of discussion. After reading about Hamilton's proposal and doing more research on it, Fietje said the group thinks it's something Cambridge should definitely be moving forward with.

"For those who are struggling to find housing, it's a wonderful idea. To bring business to our city is a wonderful idea," he said, adding that many young families are being forced out of Cambridge because they can't afford to live here.

Support for the idea also came from the Downtown Cambridge BIA.

In a letter, executive director Brian Kennedy called the concept "forward thinking" and an "altruistic move that shows our City council's leadership and service to our community."

"While we recognized that parking is important to downtown businesses and their patrons, we also acknowledge that finding new ways to bring people to our core ares is critical to sustaining a healthy urban economy. Preserving parking while building affordable housing units above existing lots may very well be the solution to satisfying both." 

Coun. Sheri Roberts said having staff investigate the idea is a first step in what she feels is a creative option to address the affordable housing crisis.

But the mayor and others didn't buy the idea that public parking would be retained to the degree needed.

Mayor Jan Liggett also doesn't think city planning staff have the time or the resources to investigate the idea, even though planning staff said otherwise.

Coun. Mike Devine said he has strong mixed emotions about the motion and doesn't believe enough parking would be retained. Construction would also be costly in terms of impact to the city and businesses supported by it.

Before calling for the vote, Liggett stated that a no vote from any councillor is not indicative of their opposition to the idea of helping affordable housing providers.

"Every member of this council does support providers of affordable housing," she said. "What we may not agree on is to what extent and what manner of support."

"This is not the best use of any valuable downtown real estate in the public realm," she said. "We either want our downtowns to thrive and flourish to the highest level or we choose a different path."

She disagreed with the Downtown BIA director, said the business sector is important and parking lots have always been an integral need in cores to support businesses. Losing any spaces to the proposed type of development would threaten business growth, she said.

"These are not surplus lands, these are in-use parking lots."

Apparently ignoring or misunderstanding a major goal of the motion; to offer affordable housing options downtown that bring more people in to support those businesses, Liggett suggested churches and YMCAs should use their large parking lots for this type of affordable housing initiative.

She said Calvary United Church or Forward Baptist Church are ideal locations, neither of which are anywhere near a downtown core.

Hamilton's motion was defeated in a 5-4 vote with Liggett, Ermeta, Shwery, Cooper and Devine voting against it.

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Doug Coxson

About the Author: Doug Coxson

Doug has been a reporter and editor for more than 25 years, working mainly in Waterloo region and Guelph.
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