Aging Church Creates Space For 16 Large Immigrant Families In North Glenora

It’s a wish come true that Hsar Keelar never had the audacity to dream of — a spacious, sun-filled rental unit in a quiet neighbourhood large enough for a family of seven plus grandparents.

But that’s exactly the gift she’s been given. 

“The unit is amazing; I’ve never dreamed of living in this kind of house,” Keelar, a refugee who fled war in Burma (Myanmar) in 2005, said Monday.

She’s one of the first tenants to move into a housing project in North Glenora that’s remarkable on several counts: it’s the largest net-zero multi-family housing project in Canada, it’s a social housing project with enough community support to go unopposed at City Hall for rezoning, and it helped save the neighbourhood elementary school by already adding 33 new students.

The grand opening is scheduled for Feb. 2.

North Glenora Townhomes is a partnership with the Westmount Presbyterian Church, which used to have a sprawling old cinderblock church its dwindling congregation could no longer afford to heat. 

They partnered with the Right at Home Housing Society to demolish the facility, then build a much smaller church and daycare beside 16 three- and five-bedroom stacked townhouses.

“We’re really proud of it,” said Ryan Young, president of the North Glenora Community League.

 Hsar Keelar and husband, Pran Htoo, with three of their five children: Anna, John and Soesaytaw. They live in North Glenora in a five-bedroom unit with her parents. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA

Hsar Keelar and husband, Pran Htoo, with three of their five children: Anna, John and Soesaytaw. They live in North Glenora in a five-bedroom unit with her parents. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA

Winning neighbours’ trust

His community was worried about traffic and density in the heart of a predominantly single-family neighbourhood. But Right at Home Housing officials built trust — its executive director met face-to-face with neighbours and invited them to join the housing provider’s board. The society reduced the number of units from 19 to 16, modified their traffic plan and redesigned the project to keep a stand-alone church building on the street corner at the request of the community. 

Now neighbours are confident the society will stay involved, managing the project responsibly for the long term. The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers will place tenants in the facility and run job training and other services. 

It saved Coronation School, Young said, which was at risk of closing through Edmonton Public’s consolidation efforts.

Now every townhouse unit is full of children.

“I can’t wait for our sports and soccer teams in the summer,” Young said. “It’s going to be great.”

Running like a mini Blatchford

To achieve net-zero status, the building operates like a mini-Blatchford — a smaller-scale version of the geothermal and district energy system planned for the former City Centre Airport land.

“It’s a very efficient way to generate renewable energy,” said Peter Amerongen, a partner with homebuilder Habitat Studio.

They drilled 33 holes, 75 metres deep under the parking lot to heat both the church/daycare and the townhomes. Solar panels on the roof provide the electricity to each unit and to pump the water flowing through underground pipes.

The water is heated to 6 C underground, then a heat pump in each unit concentrates the heat energy to warm a room. The building is tied into the grid so it can sell excess energy during the summer and draw energy in the winter. It has no natural gas connection.

He estimates going net-zero cost five to 10 per cent more than a traditional build for the $5.6-million project.

 Maryan Ali says moving into the North Glenora town homes has been life-changing. She’s raising four children on her own. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Maryan Ali says moving into the North Glenora town homes has been life-changing. She’s raising four children on her own. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA NETWORK

‘It’s really changed our lives’

Tenants started moving in December and are already creating networks to support each other, said Maryan Ali, a single mother from Somalia raising four children.

Her neighbour has seven children, so they help each other get everyone to and from different schools. It’s such an improvement over her last unit — a rental on busy 82 Street just off 118 Avenue. 

North Glenora feels safe and quiet. The community league brought treats when they moved in and the school gave each family a Christmas gift basket. 

“Everything here is so beautiful and peaceful,” she said Monday. “We’re doing a lot more activities on foot as a family. It’s really changed our lives.”