Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tower's opponents can relax

Project is unlikely to happen anyway

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No matter where you stand on the proposal to build a 24-storey apartment tower on Waterfront Drive, it's time to stop worrying and start chilling out.

Earlier this week, city council's downtown committee upheld a zoning variance that would let a tower rise on the site of the historic James Avenue Pumping Station and incorporate the heritage structure's 107-year-old gears and engines into a "machine garden" at its base.

Opponents of the proposal -- chiefly, existing Waterfront Drive, Exchange District and South Point Douglas residents -- condemned the decision as being out of whack with the character of the area.

With all due respect to the downtown dwellers, the freakout is premature. Obtaining a variance for a project this ambitious is just the first and easiest step in a process that will only become way more difficult from here on in.

And with all due respect to the tower's proponents, this project doesn't appear financially feasible. And that's just a very nice way of saying it has about as much chance of ever happening as Latvia's hockey team winning Olympic gold in Sochi.

Five years ago this month, city council's downtown committee upheld a zoning variance for another audacious proposal: a 16-storey, ultra-modern tower that would have risen on Assiniboine Avenue land once occupied by Restaurant Dubrovnik.

At the time, residents of existing Broadway-Assiniboine apartments complained the proposed tower was out of scale with the neighbourhood. But four members of council unanimously rejected their appeal.

The proposed building, envisioned by the late architect Ernie Walter, would have had 300 trees within a glass-enclosed courtyard, geothermal heating, a sushi bar, a plastic-surgery clinic, retail stores, an underground parking system capable of "self-storing" 168 cars and a vendor-friendly riverfront plaza, accessible to the public.

When asked why they approved such an ambitious plan, one of the downtown-committee councillors confided there was no actual risk, because "this thing will never happen."

The councillor's point: A zoning variance is just a zoning variance. The truly difficult aspects of building a tower come later.

They include coming up with a design that actually works, a business plan that guarantees a profit, a development plan the city can live with and most of all, finding money to actually make it all happen.

The Walter-designed Assiniboine proposal evaporated only months after the variance was approved. A subsequent plan to build a taller but more conventional tower -- D Condos -- is going ahead in its place. Developer Karampaul Sandhu has just applied for the permits to begin construction.

Casting a skeptical eye toward the James Avenue Pumping Station, it will be very difficult for proponents Sotirios Kotoulas and Peter Anadranistakis to obtain the $70 million they need to build a tower on the site, let alone convince downtown development agency CentreVenture to part with a Grade II heritage structure in the first place.

Before CentreVenture signs off on the plan, the proponents must hammer out a development agreement that would spell out precisely how the unique engines in the station would be preserved within the "machine garden," confirm the presence of a grocery store and show how all this makes financial sense.

The project doesn't sound feasible if rents really are only going to be $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Rents might have to wind up in the $2,000-a-month range to generate the return required to justify a $70-million construction budget, even if the city contributes millions in heritage-restoration funds and a financier is willing to back the project.

That, too, seems unlikely. The James Avenue proposal appears even more complicated than a stalled Creswin Properties plan to build a tower near Portage and Main. If a developer as experienced as David Asper couldn't find a way to build a 27-storey hotel-and-condo tower on a vacant plot of land near the heart of the city's financial district, how can less experienced developers be expected to finance a similar-sized tower that incorporates a heritage museum into its base?

It's not impossible to build towers in downtown Winnipeg. As you read these words, Crystal Developers' Heritage Landing is going up on Assiniboine Avenue, Longboat Development's Alt hotel is under construction on Donald Street and both D Condos on Assiniboine and Longboat's Glasshouse on Hargrave Street are not far behind.

Even if Kotoulas and Anadranistakis are successful on James Avenue, it will take several years and plenty of scrutiny before they can proceed. Until then, haters and proponents of the pumping station proposal ought to take a deep breath and relax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 B1


Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 9:56 AM CST: Formats fact box

1:03 PM: Corrects spelling of Ernie Walter

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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 and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

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


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