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All this fuss for 700 people?

Census data disappoint downtown advocates

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Downtown's population grew by only 700 people despite grants and incentives, the 2011 census shows, but experts are hoping those data are too old to be reliable.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Downtown's population grew by only 700 people despite grants and incentives, the 2011 census shows, but experts are hoping those data are too old to be reliable. Photo Store

Despite millions in grants, a slew of building projects and significant hoopla, there are only 700 more people living downtown than a decade ago.

That's according to new data from the 2011 census, and it's a disappointment for urban advocates.

"I actually hoped there would be more people in the downtown," said Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies. "We really kind of threw everything at it."

According to Statistics Canada, 16,673 people lived in the five census tracts covering downtown in 2011. That's up 4.5 per cent over 2006.

The East Exchange and Waterfront Drive had the heftiest population increase, at 55 per cent. Oddly, the West Exchange and the dense Centennial neighbourhoods saw a small drop in population, baffling since roughly 100 new condo units opened in the West Exchange in the five years prior to the census.

Governments, particularly the city and province, have poured millions into downtown redevelopment in recent years, including more than $9 million to create Waterfront Drive and $10 million in tax credits to encourage multi-family, mixed-use buildings downtown. That residential incentive program was tweaked in 2010 with the addition of another $40 million just before Statistics Canada launched its census.

Those are significant dollars, but University of Manitoba city planning head Richard Milgrom said much more has been spent on suburban infrastructure during that time, and the housing starts in far-flung neighbourhoods reflect that.

"I can tell you we've poured a hell of a lot more into not downtown," said Milgrom. "We don't really have a 'downtown first' policy anymore, not that anyone really followed it."

The number of units built downtown in recent years -- including roughly 550 between census periods -- is still comparatively small, and Winnipeg often fails to build housing where people already live, such as along Assiniboine Avenue and around Central Park, which would bolster a sense of community, increase services such as grocery stores and build momentum.

Compounding the slow progress is the size of Winnipeg's downtown, which is huge compared to many Canadian cities.

"When we build a little bit of housing, it's a drop in a very large lake," said Milgrom.

Several downtown advocates, including Milgrom, Distasio and staff at CentreVenture noted the census is too old to include several larger housing projects that have opened in the last couple of years, including the new Red River College student residence in the old Union Bank building and the Avenue Building on Portage Avenue.

And, there are several hundred more units planned or under construction in nine separate towers, though some are not yet fully financed.

Distasio said the city ought to set a new target for the coming years -- 20,000 downtown residents.

Downtown experts expressed some caution about the census figures given the significant criticism of Statistics Canada's 2011 enumeration of Canadians, including the new long-form national household survey, which was voluntary.

The mandatory short-form census counted population, including homeless people, and the NHS also measured the number of people in private households, which could offer a detailed picture of new condo and apartment dwellers downtown. But the NHS data are questionable, suggesting, for example, that only 40 more people live in the East Exchange and Waterfront Drive.

There are no data at all for the census tract covering the West Exchange and the Centennial neighbourhood because not enough people filled out the long-form survey.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 B1

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