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Yards project forges on

Supporters unfazed by developer's derelict-buildings flap

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Backers of the largest infill project in Winnipeg's history are unwavering in their support of the redevelopment of the Fort Rouge Yards, despite new revelations about the chief proponent.

Earlier this week, the City of Winnipeg dropped derelict-building proceedings against three apartment blocks owned by B&M Land, one of developer Andrew Marquess's companies.

Another Marquess-owned entity, Gem Equities, plans to build two apartment towers and hundreds of townhouse units on a 7.2-hectare strip of industrial land that runs alongside the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor, at the northwest edge of the Lord Roberts neighbourhood.

If realized, the Fort Rouge Yards redevelopment will fulfil a number of urban-planning objectives, as it would see the creation of scarce rental apartment units on what used to be an industrial brownfield, in close proximity to a transit corridor.

The city and province are also relying on property-tax revenue from the $79-million project to help pay back $90 million worth of government loans taken out to build the $138-million first phase of the rapid-transit corridor.

So desirable is the 900-unit project from an urbanist perspective, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has agreed in principle to provide Gem Equities with $14.7 million worth of loans. City council voted in October to guarantee $10 million of that sum.

This institutional and political support remains in spite of the revelation of the derelict-building proceedings against Marquess, which followed prior revelations of at least 13 non-payment lawsuits against B&M over the past two years.

"It isn't making life easier," said Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who represents the Lord Roberts neighbourhood and has been a staunch supporter of the Fort Rouge Yards redevelopment.

"I am concerned, but I have a project in front of me that makes really good sense for the city. If you step aside from all of this, the project is really positive.

"Council supported the project. We didn't look at the individual, per se."

The Ottawa-based Federation of Canadian Municipalities remains in staunch support of the development, which the organization views as a model for the sort of partnerships it wishes to support in other cities.

"This is a unique, very strong relationship we have in Winnipeg," said national program director Onno Kremers. What is not unique, he said, is public backing of a loan to a private developer. "It's quite a common procedure for us to do that. Winnipeg is not unusual in that respect."

Kremers declined to comment on Marquess's legal and financial troubles, other than to say the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is exercising financial precautions about its role in the Fort Rouge Yards redevelopment.

"We're going through a due-diligence process, just like the city, and I'm sure other creditors," he said.

Since the announcement of the infill plan, a vocal group of Lord Roberts residents has lobbied against the project, arguing the scale of Gem Equities' plan is out of proportion with existing residential homes and will also create traffic and noise problems.

Calgary's Lexington Marketing Group, which handles community relations for Gem Equities, maintains the Fort Rouge project will not be hampered by Marquess's derelict-building woes involving apartment blocks on Portage, Stradbrook and Killarney avenues.

A purchaser has been lined up for the Portage block, said Lexington spokesman Larry Carter.

"It'll all be dealt with, it'll all move forward," he said, adding he does not believe the derelict-building issue will serve as fuel for the opposition group Save Lord Roberts Area.

"There's been virtual silence out of them since September," he said. "It's a very small group. It doesn't matter what city you are in in Canada, there will always be a small group opposed to (developments)."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 A4

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