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Top bureaucrat getting tough on developers

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Barry Thorgrimson has spent the past two years being the bureaucratic equivalent of a rump roast in a meat grinder.

Now, the director of Winnipeg's embattled planning, property and development department seems to be meting out some punishment of his own.

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Since 2012, Thorgrimson has faced more heat than any other City of Winnipeg department director -- and for good reason.

He signed off on a curious water-park proposal for The Forks that city council wound up eviscerating. He played a role in the three-for-one city land swap that sparked an external audit into Winnipeg's fire-paramedic replacement program. His real estate division has wound up under the microscope of a second, potentially even nastier audit.

During this time frame, several highly visible heads have rolled at city hall. But Thorgrimson has managed to not just hold onto his job, but has started owning the darn thing. This is surprising.

Over the past month, Winnipeg's property director has commenced an expropriation proceeding against one of the city's most powerful commercial developers, called out a councillor for trying to amend the terms of a real-estate sale and placed his signature on a plan to smack a condo developer with $170,000 in de facto penalties.

While those moves are not enough to warrant the manufacture of Barry Thorgrimson bobblehead dolls, they are unusual for this particular public servant, who has been the subject of retirement speculation since the uproar over the city's fire-paramedic station program began in 2012.

Thorgrimson's unusual stint began with the declaration Winnipeg's Shindico Realty had become unreasonable in negotiations over the acquisition of fire-paramedic station No. 12 on Taylor Avenue -- a move that marked the start of what may be an unpleasant expropriation process.

Thorgrimson then butted heads with Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck over her attempt to ensure an industrial use for the soon-to-be-sold Kenaston snow dump, a move he described as "basically telling the adjoining property owner 'You're the guy that gets to apply for this one.' "

But his most remarkable move -- and yes, department directors ultimately take responsibility for all decisions made under their watch, even if they weren't the architect -- was to demand $170,000 from developer Andrew Marquess for erecting two residential buildings without proper permits.

Marquess, a developer better known as the city's partner in the Parker land swap and the developer of the Fort Rouge Yards, ran afoul of officials for failing to abide by the terms of an agreement governing Terra Commons, a series of townhouses west of McPhillips Street and north of Mountain Avenue.

In short, Marquess placed two buildings on land that was supposed to be set aside for a park. So after issuing a stop-work order, the city slapped the developer with a $70,000 fine and claimed his $100,000 deposit.

This is an unprecedented penalty. It is nothing less than a shot across the bow of every developer who ever considers ignoring the terms of an agreement with the city.

That's because the bulk of the fine -- the $100,000 loss of the deposit -- was proposed not by city councillors, but in a report authored by Winnipeg's chief planner, Braden Smith, and approved by Thorgrimson.

Councillors later added a $250,000 additional penalty and then reduced that fine to $70,000. But the message in the report is clear: Winnipeg's property department, which used to appear friendly to any and all developers, is now trying to balance that accommodation with the consistent enforcement of rules.

If there's one thing developers can't stand more than excessive regulation, it's the inconsistent application or enforcement of regulations. Standardized agreements that provide certainty to developers, residents and politicians are the holy grail of an urban-planning department.

By slapping a penalty on a high-profile developer -- the party involved in both the Parker land swap and the Fort Rouge Yards redevelopment -- the city is sending a message to the community at large.

Is this merely an attempt by Thorgrimson's department to inoculate itself against criticism that may follow the release of the coming real estate audit? Could it be a parting shot from a retiring public servant?

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. In a city where confidence in the public service has been shaken by scandal, a move like this goes a long way.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2014 A5

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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