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Downtown 'quick fix' panned

Report opposing incentives to turn heritage buildings into condos kept quiet

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A 2008 downtown revitalization strategy commissioned by the city but subsequently kept under wraps advised officials to

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A 2008 downtown revitalization strategy commissioned by the city but subsequently kept under wraps advised officials to "resist the temptation to pursue quick fixes" to increase residential development in the city's core. Photo Store

A downtown revitalization strategy commissioned by the City of Winnipeg but subsequently kept under wraps advised officials to "resist the temptation to pursue quick fixes" to increase residential development in the city's core.

At its final meeting before the summer break, city council approved a plan to cut $10,000 cheques to anyone who buys a condo in the northeastern third of downtown. That plan faces amendment or cancellation in the fall, partly due to a public backlash following council's approval of a broader Exchange-Waterfront Neighbourhood Development Program.

The condo-buying incentive portion of the program is intended to eliminate a glut of unsold condo units built with the help of a city-provincial package of financial incentives called the Downtown Residential Development Grant Program, which was aimed at developers.

In 2008, consulting firm Altus Clayton warned against piecemeal planning in Winnipeg Downtown Revitalization Strategy, which was ordered by council's downtown committee.

'The fact the public service tried to have it kept hidden from public view is unacceptable'

-- Coun. Russ Wyatt

"What is needed is a mix of shorter-term and longer-term strategies to promote housing downtown," wrote Altus Clayton in the 101-page report, which was neither published by the city nor given to council. Some of its recommendations, however, were incorporated into former city housing manager Stan Dueck's 26-page Downtown Residential Development Strategy in 2011.

The 2008 report advised against the use of property-tax incentives to convert heritage buildings into condominiums. Instead, its authors recommended using tax incentives to build new condos and apartment buildings instead, ideally on vacant land.

"If $100,000 of incentives can help create 20 units through new construction versus 10 similar units through the conversion of non-residential space, the former clearly would be more cost effective," the report stated.

The high cost of condo conversions in the East Exchange has left developers with narrow profit margins -- keeping purchase costs above the means of some prospective buyers.

The 2008 Altus Clayton report recommended an emphasis on residential development at The Forks, along Waterfront Drive and the western fringe of South Point Douglas. Plans to develop housing at The Forks restarted this year, while Waterfront Drive and South Point Douglas are included in the focus of the Exchange-Waterfront program council recently approved.

The 2008 report also highlighted the need to bring a supermarket to the area and develop better parking amenities. Most crucially, it warned about creating more new condo units in a housing market where there's a higher demand for rental units -- and not enough market forces pushing people to purchase downtown condos.

"Winnipeg is now in somewhat of a transition stage in which a growing number of households appears to be interested at least in considering living downtown, but they either cannot find suitable accommodation, have unreasonable expectations of what they can expect to pay for a condominium apartment downtown or are unwilling to buy a smaller unit than they could purchase for a similar price elsewhere in the city," the report said.

Ultimately, the consulting firm advised the city to create a single office within its planning, property and development department to co-ordinate downtown residential development. Instead, the city delegated the task to downtown development agency CentreVenture, which spearheaded the Exchange-Waterfront Neighbourhood Development Program.

Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, council's downtown chairman, said he does see the $7.8-million new program as a comprehensive plan for downtown housing. Along with cash incentives for condo buyers, it includes retail incentives, better lighting to improve safety and a parking component.

"I don't see it as a quick fix. At the end of the day, the only contrast I can see with what was written (in 2008) and with what we just approved is we've already implemented some of what was envisioned," he said Thursday. "Since then, there has been quite a bit of development downtown."

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, who voted against the Exchange-Waterfront program, said he would like to see the 2008 Altus Clayton study made available to council immediately. "The fact the public service tried to have it kept hidden from public view is unacceptable," said Wyatt, who ordered the report in 2006 when he was housing chairman. "Public money was spent on this report, therefore this report should be tabled."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Friday, July 26, 2013 at 6:47 AM CDT: adds photo

6:58 AM: Adds photo

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