Last October, during the waning days of the 2010 mayoral race, Sam Katz called downtown Winnipeg's plethora of empty lots an eyesore and a public safety hazard as he pledged to extend a moratorium on new surface parking in the city's core.
Less than a year later, city hall quietly approved the demolition of the 89-year-old Orpheum building on Fort Street to make way for a new surface parking lot to serve clients of Yoga Public, the Fort Garry Hotel's new four-studio yoga centre. Heavy equipment brought down the vacant building two weeks ago. In spite of the demolition, the mayor said he remains committed to reducing the number of vacant tracts downtown, as promised during his re-election campaign.
New incentives for developers who build on surface lots should come to council in early 2012, said Katz, who called the demolition of the Orpheum "a very unique scenario" because the new surface lot was required to support a $2.5-million redevelopment of the former Carleton Club, an even larger vacant building.
"We're replacing a vacant building downtown with a multimillion-dollar investment," Katz said Wednesday in an interview, referring to Yoga Public, which bills itself as the largest yoga centre in Canada. "This will not be a stand-alone surface lot. It's the expansion of an existing lot to ensure the viability of a new business."
For the past six years, Fort Garry Hotel managing partner Ida Albo has been trying to convert the 36-year-old Carleton Club into a yoga studio to serve both clients of the hotel and the Winnipeg yoga market. Those renovations are underway and Yoga Public is slated to open on Dec. 5.
Albo said she was only able to arrange financing for the studio after securing surface parking for Yoga Public.
"We would have preferred to develop the (Orpheum) building, but it wasn't an option," she said. "In our case, it was a condition of financing. We wouldn't have been able to develop a chronically vacant building if we couldn't supply parking."
The new surface lot at the former Orpheum site sits next to an existing surface parking lot immediately north of Yoga Public.
Once paved, the new lot will be enclosed by decorative fencing with brick columns and will also be illuminated at night, Katz said.
The Orpheum originally served as a billiard hall before being converted into a theatre and eventually a restaurant. It has been vacant for the past decade, said Barry Thorgrimson, Winnipeg's acting property director.
Thorgrimson approved the demolition of the building in September through an administrative order. No public hearing was required.
"What we're trying to do is achieve a proper balance in planning," he said. "Here we had a vacant building that had a history associated with drugs and crime. Visually, it was a blight and there was an open parking lot next door to it with no development standards at all.
"Meanwhile, the Carleton Club was vacant and a developer came forward willing to invest a substantial amount of money to create a new business."
Thorgrimson said he does not believe Winnipeg will ever get rid of downtown surface lots, but his department plans to bring forward new incentives as promised by Katz last year.
Under the mayor's proposed program, any downtown surface lot that is developed upward will enjoy a five-year freeze on property taxes -- and then see the higher assessment resulting from the improvements kick in over the following three years. During this year's provincial election, the NDP government made a surface-lot pledge of its own. In September, Premier Greg Selinger promised to build condos and apartments on four government-owned surface parking lots in downtown Winnipeg.