Sidney’s current fire hall. The Town plans to sell the property to help offset the cost of the new community safety building. (Steven Heywood/file photo)

EDITORIAL: Density, done right, is no enemy of charm

High land costs mean tough choices for politicians and developers

Another condo proposal is under consideration in Sidney, this time for the old fire hall, and the reaction has been swift and in some ways predictable.

Many comments focus on the height, the density or how it changes Sidney’s small-town charm. But… some food for thought. What exactly makes small-town charm and how can we preserve it while making smart use of land?

Almost everyone acknowledges a housing crisis and cites the high cost of land as a problem.

The Town of Sidney got $9 million for the site instead of the $3 million they predicted, which is great for the Town, but it has downsides. Affordable, purpose-built housing is the exception now, not the rule. Truly affordable units (ones that cost 30 per cent of income, not just a smidge below market rate) are even more scarce and high land costs don’t help.

The proposal is for 85 dwelling units, and some are as small as 355 sq. ft., which should be somewhat attainable, but units can only shrink so much — and it doesn’t reduce the price of land. While the starting prices are not yet known, there is no evidence yet to suggest the building is geared toward people whose budgets are stretched by the roof over their head.

However, density is a smart use of land, and there is a way to create density without losing that “small-town charm,” and that comes from a small-scale feel. After all, plenty of neighbourhoods in the world are tall and dense, but still full of personality. Storefronts could still be small, owned and staffed by local people who know your name. Apartments could be affordable enough for those employees to live above the store. But for those businesses to thrive, the rent has to be affordable so the building, and by extension the Town itself, is for living, not just for visiting. And don’t forget — small, charming storefronts are a reason to visit, too.

Density, if done right, is not the enemy of charm, but high costs are. This requires tough choices. Politicians, property owners and developers need to look hard at what they can do to solve the problem, and it requires courage and empathy, not self-interest, indecision or distraction.

The time for passing the buck is over. A thriving community is not made when half a building is left empty for Airbnbs, while workers and small-business owners are forced out. Provincial policy changes, like higher taxes on significant wealth gains (via the speculation tax, for example) are not unreasonable if the result is a community that can house people from all demographics. Local politicians have the power to encourage buildings that enhance a community’s cohesion like the Cameo proposal, with a new, improved Star Cinema that the Town’s residents clearly enjoy.

But back to the old fire hall. As the proposal goes through Town council, give constructive feedback, consider your own lot in life, and err on the side of generosity. If charm is what people want, then dig deep and make the hard choices required to foster it.

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