Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Condo cash on shaky ground

Four councillors who backed it want a new vote after hearing criticism

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Mere days into the summer break at city hall, one-quarter of council is reconsidering a plan to cut $10,000 cheques to condo buyers in the northeast section of downtown.

On Wednesday, council voted 13-3 in favour of a $7.8-million Exchange-Waterfront Neighbourhood Development Program that includes $2.3 million worth of incentives designed to spur condo sales in the Exchange District, Chinatown, the Civic Centre neighbourhood and the western edge of South Point Douglas.

At least four of the elected officials who voted in favour of the incentive now want to amend it or cancel it when a bylaw to enact it is expected to come before council -- setting the stage for a council fight this fall.

Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) said their constituents don't like it, Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi said she wasn't aware property taxes from across downtown will be funnelled into one area and Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith said he only voted for the plan because housing advocate Gerbasi supported it.

All four say council did not properly scrutinize the plan, which was created by CentreVenture and presented to council's downtown, heritage and riverbank committee nine days before a July 17 council vote.

"We should have had a council seminar. We should have gone over this more thoroughly, but I'm not pointing fingers because I didn't do my homework, either," Gerbasi said.

Her colleagues were equally candid. Property chairman Browaty said he should have exercised "a little more due diligence" because his committee was buried in 40 reports in July. Protection chairman Fielding said council needs to engage in "sober second thought" about the condo-buying incentives.

"I think we should put a bullet in it," he said, citing complaints from constituents. "I don't think it's a bad thing when you change your mind."

The $10,000 cheques would be available to anyone who buys a new, unsold and unoccupied Exchange District or Waterfront Drive condo and lives in it for five years. The incentive is part of a broader neighbourhood-development program that also calls for debt-financed spending on new patios, more foot patrols and lighting and incentives to bring retailers such a major grocer to the northeast third of downtown.

CentreVenture is poised to borrow $7.8 million to pay for the development program, with the city guaranteeing the loan. The cash would be recouped from property taxes flowing from new residential developments across downtown -- essentially, condo projects stimulated by a previous city-provincial tax-incentive program.

Downtown, heritage and riverbank committee chairman Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) expressed hope the condo-buying incentive could be fine-tuned during the summer to make it more palatable to council.

"We definitely have time," he said, referring to the recent start of council's six-week summer break. "Nothing can happen immediately."

For example, Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck suggested whittling down the pool of condo-buying incentives to $500,000 from $2.3 million, which would subsidize 50 purchases rather than 230.

The unhappy councillors raise the number of incentive opponents to seven, as three members of council voted against the plan last week.

River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow said developers should lower prices if stock isn't moving, St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes said suburban residents would resent the subsidy and Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt said the city can't afford to devote future property taxes toward the plan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 B1

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