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County pumps brakes on $80M housing hub in Orillia

‘We could buy more units of housing for this kind of money,’ says Ramara mayor
2020-06-23 ODCVI JO-001
Preliminary conceptual design for the Orillia affordable-housing hub project, which will be located on the former ODCVI site. Supplied image

County councillors got a first look at designs for an affordable-housing hub to be built on the former Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OCDVI) site on Tuesday.

During County of Simcoe council’s committee-of-the-whole meeting this week, staff provided councillors with preliminary designs for the $80-million project, which has an estimated completion date of spring 2023. However, after seeing the plans, councillors expressed skepticism about the cost.

“So, it’s 130 units at a cost of $80 million? That translates to more than $600,000 per unit,” said Ramara Township Mayor Basil Clarke. “As much as it’s a beautiful-looking project, I can’t get behind that, not when I know that downtown they’re building luxury condominiums starting at $370,000.”

“We could buy more units of housing for this kind of money. I hope I’m wrong,” he added.

General manager of social services Greg Bishop said the project also included a commercial component that accounted for a large chunk of the cost. Staff also said each residential unit would cost roughly $260,000 to build when taking out the commercial spaces, but that doesn’t include the cost of the land. With the cost of the land included, the cost per unit is closer to $400,000.

“There is significant commercial space in this that will also come with revenue,” said Bishop.

According to the presentation, the development will create a total of 130 units.

The housing component will include one-bedroom (at approximately $770 per month), two-bedroom ($890 per month) and three-bedroom units ($1,100 per month), as well as studio (bachelor) units ($590 per month) for targeted vulnerable populations.

Also on the site will be a commercial portion that will include Ontario Works, the VON Adult Day Program, Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions, an EarlyON Child and Family Centre, a housing office and partner agencies. There will also be shared spaces such as green spaces and a community kitchen.

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman asked what the estimated contribution required from the City of Barrie for the project would be.

General manager of corporate performance Trevor Wilcox said $23.6 million would be coming from the cities of Barrie and Orillia. Barrie would be paying approximately $18 million of that, while Orillia would shoulder about $6 million.

“For me to sell an $18-million commitment of this nature, I’m going to need a lot more information to go to Barrie council and our residents,” said Lehman. “I’m hugely supportive of the idea and the design, but I do have the same questions that Basil did.”

Lehman asked, of the $80-million cost, how much would be attributable to the residential component.

Bishop said the residential component would cost approximately $60 million, with the commercial portion costing $20 million.

“I desperately want to support this project, for a variety of reasons,” said Lehman. “However, I have big issues with the price tag here. I’d like to get to a point where I can go back to Barrie council with this during a difficult fiscal time. To go back with this ask, I think we’re going to have to make a very strong case.”

Lehman referred to the $20-million ask for the commercial spaces.

“It’s the commercial component ... That’s the piece I’m questioning,” said Lehman. “I feel like I don’t have enough information to support what’s being put on the floor.”

Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke spoke about the need for such a project in Orillia.

“We are urban hubs. We’re where people go not only for commercial, but for services,” said Clarke. “The location is terrific with the YMCA and transit. I do understand some of the questions and concerns that have arisen.”

Bradford Mayor Rob Keffer raised concerns about whether the large price tag for this project would affect other affordable-housing projects county-wide.

“We’re all in favour of affordable housing, but we’re all very concerned about the cost per unit,” he said.

He asked about where the revenue was coming from for the project, and mused whether this project alone would deplete the reserves to the point there wouldn’t be funding for affordable housing in other areas, such as Bradford.

“We’re working on one as well and, hopefully, some of the development-charge money would be available for those projects as well,” he said. “We shouldn’t be using a social-housing reserve for a commercial space.”

Orillia Coun. Pat Hehn asked about how the cafeteria would work for the residents, specifically seniors.

“Approximately two-thirds of the units would be targeted to seniors and members of vulnerable populations,” said Arfona Zwiers, director of social housing. “The meal plan and community kitchen and café will not be earmarked for one community group. The community consultation (indicated) the community and stakeholder agencies wanted to see a vibrant hub, multi-generational, multiple agencies making use of the space.”

Council voted to refer the project back to staff to provide a more fulsome picture of the project. It will come back before committee of the whole at a yet-to-be-determined date.

Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 12 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features.
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