Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Didn't plan on housing crisis

-- Land-use blueprint hasn't prevented conflicts -- Could curtail city's growth

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One of the best jokes about Winnipeg -- and hardly the most unfair -- was this city was planned during 10 crazy days in 1905.

Back in the midst of the railway boom, streets were carved out of the prairie and buildings went up at a rate determined only by the financial limitations of the city's early entrepreneurs. There wasn't anything resembling modern urban planning, a process by which a proposed use for a piece of land is considered within the context of what already surrounds it -- and what might surround it in the future.

What we had, instead, was a development binge that resulted in modern hangovers such as the CPR Winnipeg Yards splitting downtown from the North End and heavy industry abutting residential streets in St. Boniface. A century after the boom ended, Winnipeg is still trying to contend with an odd jumble of overlapping land uses approved at a time when only Chicago was growing faster among North American cities.

While the steam escaped from the railway boom almost a century ago, this city never actually stopped growing. It just grew more slowly than other major Canadian centres and is now virtually tied with Hamilton as the eighth and ninth largest metropolitan areas in Canada.

The Winnipeg metro area is now estimated at 773,000 people, with 700,000 residing within the city itself, according to Statistics Canada. And more people are expected soon.

In fact, our modest but resurgent growth forced city planners to come up with a new land-use blueprint a few years back -- Our Winnipeg, whose goal is nothing less ambitious than to map out how the city will house and employ an additional 180,000 people over the next couple of decades.

Much of this document involves general land-use principles planners are supposed to consider when they make development decisions. But there are actual maps marking out future areas where the likes of new roads, industrial areas and residential homes are supposed to go.

On page 75 of an Our Winnipeg handbook called Complete Communities, you'll find a map of 15 "precincts" set aside for purely residential purposes. One of those areas, Precinct H, sits at the northeast corner of Transcona.

Over the past few years, the primary land owner of Precinct H, a developer called North Grassie Properties, has been trying to put together a plan to actually build some homes on this land. Frustrated by delays, the developer's agent complained in November the city was holding it back by demanding additional consultation with its neighbours.

As Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt explained, some of those neighbours include heavy industrial operations, both inside city limits and in the neighbouring RM of Springfield, all of whom fear their activities could be curtailed. So in one of his last acts as a member of council's property committee, Wyatt instructed the city to come up with a new Precinct H planning process that would take the concerns of industrial operators into account. One of those businesses is Border Chemical, a sulfuric acid manufacturer that occupies a sprawling complex on the north side of Gunn Road. In an interview earlier this month, general manager Dennis Smerchanski said he's concerned about plans for homes and a schoolyard a few hundred metres away from an access road for sulfuric acid trucks.

He said North Grassie is mistaken in its belief heavy industry on the edge of Transcona supports the idea of nearby residential development. But more importantly, he said nobody from the city -- neither a planner, nor any other official -- asked Border Chemical's opinion about earmarking the neighbouring land for new homes.

"After being here for 53 years, we'd like to see a process where we have input into decisions," Smerchanski said.

In other words, the city's new land-use guide, intended to map out future growth in such a way that minimizes land-use conflicts, proposed a new residential area within sight of a sulfuric acid factory. Consultations were only done with the majority owner of Precinct H -- not the neighbouring land owners.

To be fair to the city, no development on Precinct H can proceed until everyone is happy. The time it will take to consult all the players is what upset North Grassie Properties in the first place.

But it doesn't inspire much confidence in the city's future growth when one out of 15 areas earmarked for new single-family homes is already the subject of a land-use conflict.

Already faced with a rental-apartment crisis, Winnipeg is running out of land for new homes. It will take more than colour-coded maps and promises of consultation to solve this problem before the absence of housing severely curtails Winnipeg's growth.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2012 B1

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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.

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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.

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