Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Now that's dense: Zoning regulations hinder development of great neighbourhoods in city

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Perhaps one of the best-loved features of Winnipeg's built landscape is its mature residential neighbourhoods. Characterized by a canopy of elm trees that arches over the roadway like the nave of a great cathedral, the houses stand close together and fairly close to the street. Scattered throughout these neighbourhoods are walk-up apartment blocks and corner stores.

These neighbourhoods can work much the same way more built-up, big-city built environments do: The narrow boulevards and front yards are what the Danish urban theorist Jan Gehl calls the "soft edges" of a street -- spaces that create street life. Here, children play while adults relax on the steps, chat with neighbours, or tend to the flower beds.

Homes in many of the best examples of this kind of neighbourhood are rapidly increasing in value. While Wolseley and Fort Rouge have appealed to Winnipeg's ostensibly bohemian sets since the 1970s, more and more retiring baby boomers and young families are demanding the walkability and character these places offer. Since neighbourhoods such as this have not been built since the 1940s -- when a myriad of zoning and traffic regulations essentially outlawed them -- their supply is limited.

Recognizing the value these old neighbourhoods lend to the city's competitiveness and, more broadly, its sense of identity, Winnipeg's long-term planning document, Our Winnipeg, places a great emphasis on preserving and enhancing them through the concept of "complete communities."

High on the list of what defines a complete community, according to Our Winnipeg, is a diversity of housing types, access to non-residential uses, and the ability for a neighbourhood to evolve over time.

However, while Winnipeg's cherished older neighbourhoods have many elements of complete communities, the city's zoning regulations continue to hinder their ability to evolve.

Last year, at 705 McMillan Ave., just around the corner from the heart of the Corydon Avenue strip, a local developer planned to build a four-unit condo building on the site of a single-family house. This proposal ended up going all the way to city council, which decided only a duplex should be built on the site, since according to the planner's report, a four-unit building in the middle of the block would not only be incompatible with the street's character, but would create too much traffic in the back lane.

While Our Winnipeg may call for more complete communities, these kinds of day-to-day planning decisions -- even when done with the good intention of preserving the physical character of a beautiful neighbourhood -- still uphold the status quo.

Any city neighbourhood is great not simply because it looks nice, but because it functions well. The dynamism and walkability that emerge from a strong population density are a more desirable asset than visually homogenous streetscapes or Edwardian residential architecture.

Neighbourhoods change regardless of whether or not we wish them to. In spite of its popularity, the McMillan neighbourhood has lost 40 per cent of its population since 1971.

Multi-unit infill development increases a neighbourhood's population in the face of shrinking household sizes. More housing options mean more diversity in commercial services, which is what helps make a neighbourhood complete. Small-scale neighbourhood commerce depends on a strong residential population with a variety of ages and incomes. The Grove -- one of Winnipeg's far-too-few neighbourhood bars -- sits in the middle of the wealthy enclave of Crescentwood. However, much of its business comes from the old-timers and young hipsters who live in nearby apartments.

Increasing density in older neighbourhoods does not have to mean the proliferation of large apartment blocks; there is a variety of housing types that would be much more finely scaled to streets lined with single-family houses. Secondary suites (in the attic, or at the back of the lot), two- to four-unit condos, and townhouses are all options that are currently overlooked by Winnipeg's planning regulations.

Regardless of the decision made for 705 McMillan, the fact that rezoning a lot to build even a duplex is such an undertaking suggests increasing density is still low on the city's priorities. Building a single-family house, or demolishing one for a vacant lot (as one property owner on the same block of McMillan did this year) is much easier to do.

There are numerous ways to increase a neighbourhood's density without significantly or suddenly altering its physical character. As long as zoning regulations make low-density development a matter of course, and moderately dense development an arduous uncertainty, Winnipeg's best urban neighbourhoods will continue to lose the chance to become even greater.


Robert Galston is filling in for Bartley Kives, who is currently reporting from Niger.  Read his series.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2012 A6

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