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Highrise apartment clears hurdle

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The developer at the heart of last year’s Upper Fort Garry debate has a chance to build downtown's first highrise apartment building in more than two decades.

City council's downtown development committee has approved the sale of surplus city land on the south side of Assiniboine Avenue to Rubin Spletzer of Crystal Developers.

This morning, councillors approved a $1.8-million deal that will see Spletzer's Heritage Landing Inc. buy a stretch of land that runs along Assiniboine Avenue between Donald Street and Bonnycastle Park.

The land in question includes the former home of Winnipeg's Board of Revision, plus an accessory building, a surface parking lot and a ribbon of green space. The deal would allow Spletzer to build a residential building up to 25 storeys tall with as many as 180 units.

Spletzer says no less than 65 per cent of the units in the building will be rental apartments, while the development will only extend partway down to the Assiniboine River and will preserve the riparian zone. There will be no break in the continuity of the park along the river, Spletzer said.

Conditions on the sale include successful zoning and subdivision applications as well as a $270,000 down payment. But a bigger obstacle may be financing, given the uncertainty in the financial industry.

"We don't know what interest rates and finances will be. We're putting our faith in the future and we hope we can do it," Spletzer said last week. "This has been a long ride. But I'm very happy I was able to assist the Friends of Upper Fort Garry to fulfill their dream, which is a dream for everyone."

In 2007, the city agreed to sell Crystal land at the northeast corner of Assiniboine Avenue and Fort Street so the developer could build an apartment tower. But Spletzer walked away from the plan in 2008 to allow volunteer group the Friends of Upper Fort Garry more time to raise the $10 million they needed to build a heritage park on almost all the land on and around the site of Winnipeg's birthplace.

The Friends took possession of the Upper Fort Garry site on June 1, after satisfying all the conditions of deal struck by the city after Spletzer stepped aside.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said the city did not offer Spletzer anything to walk away from his previous apartment deal. Katz said the city decided to offer the developer the chance to purchase the riverside land at full market value only after he stepped aside - and the western portion of the land, closer to Donald Street, was declared surplus in November 2008.

The last highrise apartments in downtown Winnipeg were built in the late 1980s north of Portage Place and at Fort Garry Place. Winnipeg's apartment vacancy rate dropped in the ensuing decades and now stands at 0.9 per cent, a level realtors and social activists alike describe as a housing crisis.

Normally, the city sells surplus land in a public offering. But property managers are allowed to consider unsolicited offers when a land exchange has taken place.

Spletzer's agreement to walk away from the previous land deal constituted such an exchange, city property managers contend in a report for city councillors.

The deal also requires the city to conduct soil and environmental testing on the surplus land and demolish any structures on the site.

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