Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Growing pains: The debate over Winnipeg residential development

Developers say more outlying land needed; city says denser developments, rather than sprawl, the answer

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A water filled ditch and farmers field could be replaced by low-density residential housing along Fairmont Road and Wilkes Avenue. The proposed Ridgewood South residential areais  located south of Charleswood and north of Wilkes Avenue.


A water filled ditch and farmers field could be replaced by low-density residential housing along Fairmont Road and Wilkes Avenue. The proposed Ridgewood South residential areais located south of Charleswood and north of Wilkes Avenue. Photo Store

When property developers and employers look at Winnipeg's rising home prices, low rental-apartment vacancy and modest but consistent population growth, they come to a single, inescapable conclusion: This city needs more room and needs it now.

When politicians and public servants look at Winnipeg's rising operating costs, low revenue growth and mounting infrastructure deficit, they come to a single, inescapable conclusion: The city can't afford to continue spreading out.

According to official population projections, 180,000 more people will move into the city over the next two decades. Those new Winnipeggers will require a place to live.

But if the vast majority of them move into single-family homes -- the dominant mode of residential dwelling in 20th-century Winnipeg -- the city will effectively go broke.

When the cost of building new roads, bridges, sewers and water pipes is added to the burden of maintaining existing infrastructure, the city's budget begins to implode. But without more people, tax revenues also flatline, creating the same result -- without the growth.

So the task at hand for the city is to balance off the demand for more development with the need to create more density, which is simply more people living in any given portion of the city. And that means doing what may sound unthinkable to hard-core urbanists: Winnipeg is opening up vast new tracts of land under the premise developers understand these new suburbs must be denser than the city's existing suburbs.

"We've recognized we have to loosen our belts a little," said Braden Smith, Winnipeg's new chief city planner. Originally from Trail, B.C., the 38-year-old father of four moved here in January from Tofino, B.C., where he served as both planning boss and chief administrative officer.

Before he arrived in Winnipeg, Smith was aware of the city's arts and cultural scene, indie-rock band the Weakerthans and art magazine Border Crossings.

He was less aware of Winnipeg's tendency to view any new development with suspicion -- an attitude engendered by decades of slow growth -- as well as the deep mistrust that mars the relationship between developers, politicians and residents.

"The suspicion, that's something I encountered right away. We need to build relationships and change that," he said.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to let developers know where the goalposts are, as laid out by the city's long-term planning blueprint, Our Winnipeg. For starters, new residential areas are supposed to sport a mix of single-family homes and residential apartments. Redevelopment sites in older neighbourhoods must sport a mix of commercial and residential development. New neighbourhoods must be walkable, at least to the extent that you can get to one from another without getting killed by traffic.

And although it's not written in the document, the city should not be afraid to let people know these aims are not negotiable.

"Everyone needs to know what they are," Smith said. "Not just the developers. The public and other stakeholders, too."

Although language in Our Winnipeg demanding density is relatively squishy, developers appear to be playing ball. Qualico, the largest individual landowner in the proposed new suburb known as Ridgewood South, has put together a plan for a vast, 325-hectare precinct that calls for a mix of residential homes and multi-family dwellings, featuring trail connectivity in every area of the new burb.

The precinct plan, developed by Landmark Planning & Design, is hardly utopian. It just calls for single-family homes on slightly smaller lots than are found in Winnipeg suburbs built in the late 20th century.

The end result should be a denser version of the conventional suburb, said Donovan Toews, a Landmark planner who's spent the past two years working on Ridgewood South.

"This is not sprawl to me, because it's planned, it's dense and it's contiguous," said Toews, promising an improvement over older areas of Charleswood, where many residential lots are immense and unconnected by foot or bike. "Charleswood is the best example of sprawl you can find."

Toews, who was also an architect of the plan for Waverley West, has facilitated no less than 50 meetings between Ridgewood South landowners, nearby Charleswood residents and community activists over the past two years. The city has taken a back seat in this process, as the planning of new areas -- dubbed precincts in -- is now primarily in the hands of private-sector planning consultants.

All the city does now is ensure these consultants fully engage the community. When that doesn't happen, disputes can bring development to a standstill.

For example, a precinct plan for a new area called Northwoods in Transcona has been delayed by opposition to residential homes, raised by heavy industry in the neighbouring RM of Springfield.

This is the Bizarro-world version of the usual development-resistance dynamic in Winnipeg, where people living in single-family homes are usually the ones to object to a new development, most often an apartment building.

In recent years, this sort of "not in my back yard" sentiment has receded, said Mike Moore, president of Manitoba Home Builders.

"Winnipeg still has a much higher percentage of single-family detached (homes) than other Canadian cities, but the multi-family (sector) has been coming along fairly well," he said.

For example, the number of new apartment and condo units completed during the first four months of 2013 in Winnipeg exceeded detached homes, 766 units to 680, Moore said. The ratio usually works out to 50-50 over the course of a year, he said.

Multi-family housing should also emerge in the centre of Waverley West once that area develops further, added Toews, who describes the vast new suburb as better-planned than Winnipeggers realize.

"People described Waverley West as evil when it was approved. Once it's built out, you'll see all the neighbourhoods are connected," he said, describing Waverley West as the first large area of Winnipeg to be planned as a whole, instead of a series of disconnected subdivisions.

"This can be done on a precinct-wide scale now," he said.

Just not directly by the city. For better or for worse, Winnipeg's future is now in the hands of private-sector planning consultants, under the interested but increasingly detached eyes of the city itself.


What's coming next?

City planners have earmarked 18 areas on the fringes of the city, totalling more than 5,400 hectares, for new residential development in the coming decades. Which land opens up first will depend on the initiative of the landowners -- and the ability of the city to extend roads, sewers, water mains and drainage pipes into these areas.

Waterford Green: In 2012, the city approved the development of 700 new homes, multi-family housing and a public fountain in what used to be known as Precinct C, which sits on 73 hectares northwest of the Maples.

Ridgewood South: Public hearings are planned for June into the development of the former Precinct Q, a 325-hectare triangle of land on the southern fringe of Charleswood. At first, developer Qualico plans to build 700 homes on the west side of the precinct, near the Perimeter Highway. The development of several other pieces depends on the extension of city roads and drainage pipes.

Northwoods (Precinct I): Since 2007, developer North Grassie Properties has been trying to put together a plan to build 700 homes on 192 hectares of vacant land on the northeast corner of Transcona. A precinct plan is underway but has not come forward to council, partly because of opposition from industrial landowners in both Winnipeg and the RM of Springfield.

Precincts M, N, O and P: Once Ridgewood South is serviced by roads and sewers, a far more massive rectangle of agricultural land in southwest Winnipeg could open up.

Precincts A, B, D, E, F and G: A massive swath of north Winnipeg, encompassing almost all the remaining vacant land from Brookside Boulevard to Main Street, has been earmarked for industrial and residential development.

Kilcona Park (Precinct H): Planning for this narrow band of land north of Kilcona Park will be difficult, as there are 129 owners on 110 hectares of property.

Precinct J: This 200-hectare dogleg of land is primed for residential development once adjacent Sage Creek is completely built out.

Precinct K: This 255-hectare chunk in the southeast Winnipeg is the one of the last undeveloped pieces of the Royalwood/Island Lakes puzzle.

Trappistes (Precinct L): This swath of agricultural land east north of Rue De Trappistes would extend St. Norbert residential development west toward Waverley Street.

Assiniboia Downs (Precinct R): A loose rectangle of land north of Assiniboia Downs and west of the Perimeter Highway, at the border with Headingley.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 0

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