A naturalist by inclination, I've been forced to do most of my volunteer work in the dry and thankless arena of housing. Thus it was that I felt called to bear personal witness in the case of Scarborough's monarch butterflies versus Habitat for Humanity, which is proposing to build 90 affordable housing units on a patch of green off Manse Road south of Lawrence. On Friday, April 16, city council held up an earlier Scarborough community council decision to kill the affordable housing plan. A working group has now been set up to review the proposal's feasibility and attempt to reach a consensus on what should be done with the site. The housing proposal may still be killed, which is too bad.
Housing is a necessity that a civilized culture should be able to take for granted, although the only affordable housing proposal on the city's immediate agenda is this application, which has been brought forward by a group of dedicated nuns.
A police station and ambulance dispatch centre are planned for the northern third of this patch of green. The city made an exception to its own zoning designation, which is for housing, to clear the way for that project.
Among marshy, flower-strewn hillocks, the housing advocate in me takes note of manicured yards that adjoin the section of this green space where Habitat wants to build houses. If these neighbours love the butterflies so much, why don't they grow native plants instead of acre upon acre of grass? As the field turns into bush, I find myself at a dead-end street and a gathering of city councillors who let me walk the site with them.
I ask area councillor Gay Cowbourne if a more appropriate site can be found for the police station and response centre. Habitat for Humanity would be a much better fit for the northern third of this plot. With native planting encouraged in this and nearby housing developments, some of the meadow life would adjust and survive.
"The neighbourhood needs this police station,"Cowbourne says. "The nearest is at Markham and Sheppard, and it can take 20 minutes to get a car down here," she explains.
But with acres of asphalt poured and sirens blaring at all hours, the entire area could say goodbye to all but the most gregarious of nesting birds. Recalling the vast areas of pavement I passed a few blocks away on Kingston Road, including partially empty strip malls and numerous marginal second-hand car dealerships, I ask Cowbourne if the station might be better suited for one of those sites. "The station's a done deal,"says the councillor. "The sod will be turned in a few weeks."
Councillor Glenn De Baermaeker says he has already offered an alternative site for the housing project in his ward, close to public transit at Ellesmere and McCowan.
South of the proposed police station and response centre, as meadow and marsh give way to woodland, Cowbourne points out returning migrant birds while guiding us to the home of Bruce and Betty Smith. With other neighbours, the Smiths have worked for decades to have the entire area designated as parkland, twice battling proposals to ram an expressway through it. "When one of the nuns told me they had worked on the housing proposal for five years, I had to tell her we had been working on habitat preservation for 33," says Betty Smith.
In the southern section, a mature woodland, hawks and woodpeckers forage in plain sight of Homo suburbia.
After decades of leaving its vital housing and environmental responsibilities to hard-working volunteers, the city could expedite a solution to this conflict. Why not build affordable housing on both the northern end of this meadow and De Baeremaeker's proposed site, leaving the rest to nature? Planners should look to building in underused and degraded asphalt areas before paving over green spaces.
Future inhabitants of Habitat for Humanity homes, their neighbours, activists on both sides and wildlife have all been put at risk this week by the city's affordable housing deficit. Let's put a stop to that nonsense.