Cape Breton University offers glimpse of Tartan Downs development

RFP calls for design of new neighbourhood with more than 400 housing units, commercial and community space
An undated aerial photo on the Viewpoint Realty website shows the Tartan Downs harness racing track where Cape Breton University is planning residential and commercial development.

Cape Breton University is planning to build a large residential and commercial development on the site of the former Tartan Downs horse racing track in Sydney.

There aren’t many details yet, but the proposed project is being welcomed by an expert in affordable housing.

CBU issued a request for proposals this week looking for an architect for the project.

The university bought the property last fall, citing vague plans for future development.

The RFP document calls for more than 400 housing units to be designed for students, seniors and families with a mix of incomes.

CBU community economic development professor Catherine Leviten-Reid says she wasn’t involved in the project, but the former Tartan Downs site is ideally located for affordable housing.

It is also to include some commercial and community space, but the RFP provides no details on those components.

Catherine Leviten-Reid, a CBU professor in community economic development and an expert on affordable housing, isn’t involved in the proposed development, but she wrote a letter of support for it.

“I support the project because of its location,” she said. “It’s close to a full-service grocery store, it’s close to retail and transit, as well.”

Affordable housing shortage

Leviten-Reid said a study released last year found Cape Breton Regional Municipality needs 50 new affordable housing units a year for the next five years to start to address a longstanding shortage.

The university’s proposed development will begin to help, she said.

“Housing projects can go wrong for certain reasons,” Leviten-Reid said.

“They can be located far from amenities and services. They can also go wrong if they target one subpopulation. This one [doesn’t].”

Other things are needed, as well, such as significant rent subsidies, she said.

In its heyday, Tartan Downs was popular with horse owners, drivers and spectators, but gambling competition and the closure of Cape Breton’s steel plant and coal mines hurt the business.

Affordable housing developments also need to integrate people of varying backgrounds so they can make connections and all need to be involved in governance.

Leviten-Reid said she doesn’t know if tenants will have a say in the development, but CBU is working with a non-profit organization so there is an opportunity for that to happen, she said.

The university is on the highway between Sydney and Glace Bay, not far from New Waterford, but a long bus ride or drive from North Sydney.

Leviten-Reid said the proposed development at Tartan Downs meets many of the needs that studies show make for good affordable housing.

‘Step in right direction’

“It’s not so much in which communities should they be located, but what kinds of supports are available for our tenants in the places where they are being located,” she said.

Tartan Downs, which is surrounded by residential and commercial properties in Sydney, closed in 2006.

The university’s RFP says the proposed development is needed, in part, because of the huge influx of international students enrolled at CBU and it names an organization called the Urban Neighbourhood Development Association as its partner in the project.

No one from the university was available to comment on Wednesday.

In an emailed statement, CBU said the university and others in the community concerned about housing issues are working with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation on a feasibility study at Tartan Downs. They said the project is in its very early days and more information will be provided later this summer.