Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Katz wants condos in park

Plan aims to raise cash to fix city's crown jewel

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MAYOR Sam Katz wants to build condominiums in Assiniboine Park to generate the cash needed to repair the park, a proposal that is certain to enrage environmentalists.

Katz is eyeing two underused zoo parking lots just north of Corydon Avenue near the bus loop. Many Winnipeggers know those lots as the location of the city's yard waste and Christmas tree depots.

As many as 280 units could be built on the eight-acre parcel, and lease fees and property taxes could generate more than $1 million per year. That money would be deposited in an endowment fund for the park, which needs at least $200 million for a makeover.

"I've been here for 14 months, and the same problem arises over and over again," said Katz, who frequently walks in the park with his family. "Assiniboine Park could be one of the nicest in North America if we had money to put into it. But there's no money. We can barely maintain that place."

In a move that will surprise many at city hall, Katz and his cabinet will ask city staff next week to study the feasibility of the condo idea.

It's Katz's boldest initiative since he won council's approval to scrap the city's rapid-transit project last fall. It could also prove to be much more controversial.

Assiniboine Park, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last summer, is widely seen as Winnipeg's crown jewel, generating more than a million visits annually.

In the past, attempts to sell off the city's green spaces were often met by public outrage.

But yesterday Katz was quick to take on any naysayers.

"Yes, it's a new way of thinking. Yes, it's shaking things up. But you know what? Maybe that's why I was elected. The status quo isn't working," Katz said.

"If the options are to stand around and do nothing, which is what's happened for the last how many years, or take something new and innovative, then I'm going with new and innovative."

For the last several years, there has been low-level debate at city hall about the park's future. Its major attractions, including the zoo and the conservatory, are crumbling and obsolete. The zoo alone has a capital plan worth about $178 million over the next 25 years, and there are grand plans for the conservatory that include a butterfly and exotic plants pavilion.

Last year, council accepted a draft plan for the entire park that would see the construction of a new conservatory, a domed enclosure for polar bears and other arctic animals, more walking and cycling paths, and new, grander entrances to the park on Portage and Corydon avenues.

The plan also includes improvements to the English Garden and the Leo Mol sculpture garden, better picnic and playground areas and a river pavilion complete with docks.

No price tag has even been put on the plan, but it's estimated to be at least $200 million, making it one of dozens of costly projects the city is under pressure to build.

The plan to develop part of Assiniboine Park left some environmental activists shaking their heads yesterday.

"If they tried to sell off part of our green space, boy, we'd be up in arms," said David Danyluk, co-ordinator of Save Our Seine. "We'd oppose it vigorously."

Katz said he has no interest in developing any other part of Assiniboine Park or any other green spaces in the city. And he said there is nothing natural about two old parking lots.

"If this were green space, I wouldn't even be talking about it," said Katz. "It's concrete."

Cynthia Cohlmeyer, a well-known Winnipeg landscape architect who designed the natural prairie garden at The Forks, agreed.

She biked past the parking lots Thursday night and found them a "dreadful" part of a park that's in desperate need of more funding.

Cohlmeyer said Katz's plan has merit, but she cautioned that there must be a cohesive vision for the park's overhaul and that the condos must be unique, well-designed and buffered from the park by vegetation at the back.

"It seems intelligent to me," she said of Katz's plan. "This is already ruined land. Whatever nature was there is gone."

But she expected the idea to get a rough ride with Winnipeggers, who are often slow to warm to new ideas.

It's not clear how much money the city could get if it sold the land outright, but it likely would be in the millions, which would kick-start the endowment fund.

But Katz says he is leaning toward leasing the land to a developer. That way, the city retains ultimate ownership and the land provides a guaranteed annual revenue to the city.

That money, more than $1 million, could either collect interest or be used to leverage debt. Katz estimates the city could borrow between $12 million and $15 million, repaying the money from the land's annual revenue and possibly leveraging more from the province and Ottawa.

At next week's meeting of Katz's executive policy committee, a last-minute motion will be walked onto the committee agenda asking for city staff to begin researching how a residential development might get built, how much revenue it could generate and how much that money might improve the park.

If the report comes back with a favourable plan, the city will begin a long, convoluted process of opening up the land for development and asking for bids from developers.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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