Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The failures of Waverley West

Another round of false hopes and broken promises

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Over the past six years, Winnipeggers have heard much about how Waverley West would be a panacea for civic woes.

The development industry believed it would be good for economic growth by keeping jobs in skilled trades from exiting Winnipeg for Alberta. The provincial NDP, a major land owner and potential developer, argued it would be economically "just" not only by keeping housing prices low, but through some of the profits funding programs in impoverished core neighborhoods.

The sounds of cement mixers and nail guns could not be heard soon enough. In March 2006, planning firm ND Lea said the shortage of available lots in southwest Winnipeg had reached a "critical stage," and Winnipeg Real Estate Board spokesman Peter Squire said stalling on Waverley West would be "totally counterproductive" in creating a sustainable city.

By September, things had become so grim, that Garth Steek, then the president of the Manitoba Home Builders' Association, warned south Winnipeg would "run out of building lots in two years."

After all that pent-up demand, and months after building lots were alleged to have disappeared entirely, the Free Press reports that only 75 houses have been built, or are in the process of being built in the new subdivision.

Market demand is not the only thing that is underwhelming: What is now being built features few elements of smart growth -- environmental sustainability and walkability -- that were talked about initially. This is not surprising to anyone who paid attention.

In December 2005, an open house held at a Pembina Highway hotel unveiled plans for the first phase of development. It called for what is essentially more of the same suburban pattern of the past 25 years.

Walkability and social interaction were limited through cul-de-sacs fed into a serpentine drive, and future residents were protected by vast buffers of green space from local commercial services and adjoining neighbourhoods. As someone who appreciates proximity to density, transit, and commerce, I wonder what it is about life in suburbia that is so reviled that it must be separated from where people actually live.

In approving Waverley West, city hall proved an inability to practice due diligence and look at things with foresight, and is now acting surprised that Waverley West's developers downplayed the municipal costs and exaggerated the tax revenues.

The real failure of Waverley West, however, may end up not being its low demand, its same-old-suburb design, or its high costs and low profits, but that it will not succeed in slowing residential development outside city limits.

It was not a tight market that pushed buyers out past city limits in recent years, but a healthy seller's market that created much to choose from.

Waverley West will not decrease Winnipeg's property taxes or increase its lot sizes, which are the primary reasons why people move out to the bedroom communities of surrounding rural municipalities.

If anything, the development of Waverley West will only encourage this exurban migration. Waverley West's laughably dubbed "town centre" will bring commercial amenities farther and farther outward. With fast-food drive-throughs, credit unions, and tanning salons that much closer to outlying bedroom communities, it becomes more desirable for buyers to move there.

And so it goes, with the city continuing to lose residents and the property taxes needed to pay its increasing stack of bills.

Winnipeggers who don't mind living in the city and its (pre-Unicity) suburbs will be held to paying higher taxes for this, while watching municipal services in their own neighbourhoods decline.

For those searching for the suburban life, a move outside city limits will become an attractive option. Those who demand the walkability of urban life may move out of province altogether, since not only will the quality of urban infrastructure wane, but so will the quality of urban life.

With low property values and diminishing population densities, infill development and renovation of existing buildings so badly needed in central Winnipeg become prohibitive ventures.

Acting as the academic apologist for Waverley West in 2004, David Witty, dean of the University of Manitoba's faculty of architecture, imagined a "walkable neighbourhood where a bus stop is never more than 400 metres away and cafes, libraries, shops and recreation centres are around the corner."

Sounds to me like what any neighbourhood in central Winnipeg is, or was -- before being bludgeoned by stagnation and social segregation-oriented planning decisions that came not only from a city government asleep at the job, but from a provincial government clearly on the make.

 

Robert Galston is a writer who lives in the inner-city neighbourhood of Point Douglas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2009 A11

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