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City councillors cool to bylaw changes

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An empty lot on Boyd Avenue.

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Compared to planning issues like football stadiums, rapid transit, or major development proposals downtown, the business of zoning variances, floor-area ratios, and minimum parking requirements are often something of a snoozefest.

But behind the jargon and day-to-day un-sexiness of zoning and neighbourhood planning, there is a war being fought at City Hall between planners and councillors. This is a war over the direction the city will take in the coming decades.

The current battle came earlier this week, when planners made recommendations to council’s property and development committee on changes to the zoning bylaw that will better align it with the city’s long-term planning document, Our Winnipeg. Councillors on this committee were cool to the idea.

In its general and sometimes flowery language, Our Winnipeg calls for more dense and walkable neighbourhoods, including the conservation of existing ones. This is for the lofty purpose of gradually creating a city that is more socially inclusive, economically dynamic, environmentally responsible, and fiscally sustainable.

The city’s zoning bylaw, however, continues to apply a very low-density and suburban standard to new development. Large lots, separated uses and a boundless supply of parking lots are the rule, while slightly more pedestrian-scaled developments are the exception. Development that meets the goals of Our Winnipeg (such as building a house on a vacant lot in an older neighbourhood) is often non-conforming in the eyes of the zoning bylaw. This means the builder must go before one or more council committees to make their case.

If these committees approve the development, it can go ahead. If it doesn’t, the builder can appeal or head back to the drawing board.

Often, development that does not conform to the zoning bylaw is approved in the end, but not without a lengthy process and less predictability. This not only makes modest infill development more costly and time-consuming, but also ties planners up with writing the same old reports for council committees. The proposed zoning alignments will streamline the process a little more.

Councillors may argue that is just an attempt by planners to get out of continually writing administrative reports for council committees, and do the more glamourous work they envisioned as idealistic university students. Maybe so, but planners are well aware of their marginal place within the city’s political and administrative structure. The proposed alignments are simply small changes that intend to create a bit more continuity between Winnipeg’s official plan and its official zoning bylaw.  

More than that, there is a growing need to readily allow for affordable housing and other development in neighbourhoods that need it, and to more efficiently respond to neighbourhoods with infill development pressures (Corydon, River Heights, or Old St. Boniface).

Writing fewer reports for every small development that comes along, planners at the city could develop more secondary plans for neighbourhoods. Official plans that fall under Our Winnipeg but reflect the uniqueness and demands of a particular neighbourhood, secondary plans are a more consistent way to conserve a neighbourhood’s character than relying on the whim of the local councillor.

That some councillors seem wary of the proposed zoning alignments suggests they are neither pro-developer or pro-resident, but simply interested in holding on to their parochial power rather than focus on bigger, tougher issues facing the city.

This can’t go on forever. More and more, the City of Winnipeg is forced trudge cap-in-hand to the legislature to pay for the most basic infrastructure improvements. Many older suburban neighbourhoods continue to lose population and face emerging social and infrastructure challenges, while much of the inner city and North End have the same problems they have for decades. Zoning alignments will help free up both planners and the market to help meet these challenges.

Our Winnipeg, it should be remembered, was not dreamed up by activist planners hell-bent on turning your neighbourhood into Manhattan, but involved a lengthy public consultation process. So, too, were the zoning alignments that are currently being recommended.

In the current reactionary planning system, decisions are often shaped by citizens’ fears of change, and councillors’ fears of losing power and the next election. This system is inconsistent, inefficient, and ineffective. While far from ideal, Our Winnipeg was at least shaped by citizens’ desires and many of the practical long-term realities Winnipeg faces.

If even the modest alignments proposed for the zoning bylaw cannot pass through Council, then Our Winnipeg becomes a dead letter, and the city will have no effective way to act on both its hopes and its needs for the future.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

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