A lot can happen on an empty lot. For a long time, on the one at the southeast intersection of Logan Avenue at Princess Street, nothing did.
It was bought in a tax sale from the city in 2010 by CentreVenture Development Corp., which subsequently had demolished a collection of decrepit buildings on the site and marketed the 22,387 square feet at the northern edge of Chinatown. A few developers took bites at the apple, but decided a nibble was enough. Not a lot was happening.
Then, in 2017, the corporation issued a request for proposals, hoping a developer would look past the dandelions sprouting up from the ground and see an opportunity for the once-industrial corner. Ravi Joshi was intrigued.
"We won the RFP, and we started putting the plans together for the site," said Joshi, the president of Aembit Developments, which bought the land from CentreVenture. The company connected with Winnipeg architect Verne Reimer to draw up designs for an 88-unit apartment building.
"I think we saw potential in the fact that it was an empty lot, that it had good proximity to Red River College, good access to public transportation, that it was within walking distance to everything," said Joshi.
Then came more waiting, about three years worth: zoning changes, urban design review, an appeal from a neighbouring property against a variance for the construction of a multi-family dwelling (which was denied), and a wait for the financing via Canada ICI and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. In the summer of 2020, Joshi says, the financing came together, and Aembit’s first project in Winnipeg was finally able to get off the ground. (The project is a joint-venture between Joshi’s Raviia Capital, CIAO Developments and Greenview Developments, out of Calgary).
The five-storey building, dubbed Soho Flats — so called in a nod to the famed London neighbourhood’s proximity to Chinatown, said Joshi — started construction last year and will be complete by the end of 2021.
Over the past three months, due in large part to the project using prefabricated exterior walls and building components from Carberry’s Riverbend Building Supply, the wood-framed building has shot up remarkably fast. "It’s our first time using prefab and it was quite surprising to see it go up," said Joshi. "This was bang, bang, bang."
The roof should be up by mid-June, he added.
The building’s amenities include 24-7 laundry on each floor with on-site card reloading stations, a fully automated and secure parcel delivery system, pet friendly policies, on-site car-share through Peg City Car Co-Op, and available outdoor gated parking. It is also designed to exceed the national energy code for buildings by approximately 28 per cent.
Reimer said the building isn’t too flashy, and it’s designed to play along with, not against, the dominant building types in that part of the Exchange, with an exterior white-grey-black gradient accented by splashes of red. "I’m a big fan of background buildings," he said. "You’re not trying to do too much, be too ostentatious. You want a well-designed building to add to the fabric of the city."
Along with the Peace Tower apartment building across the street, and a series of converted warehouses into apartments and condo buildings, the northern segment of Princess Street has and will continue to undergo a housing revitalization, Joshi said, with Aembit’s project paving the way for future development of rental housing.
Because of its financing through the CMHC and its benefits from the federal national housing strategy, Joshi said rents must be set at at least a 10 per cent discount over established market rents for the city.
Units range from $900 on the lower end to around $1,400 on the higher end, Joshi said. According to the January 2021 rental market report for Winnipeg by the CMHC, the average rent for a bachelor unit is $757, with $991 for a one-bedroom unit, and $1,262 for a two-bedroom unit. The average overall rent is $1,107, per that report, and will likely be even higher by the time the new apartment block is leasing.
Joshi said the rents were "not necessarily geared to income," and that part of the purpose of the national strategy is to expand available housing stock to create more affordability in the long run while offering below market-rate rents. He did say the development company would look at dropping the entry level rents and amortizing the differential, recognizing a need for more affordability in the area, buttressed by community organizations such as Siloam Mission and Union Gospel Mission, which work with people living below the poverty line, many of whom experience homelessness.
Technically, the building will be in the city’s Point Douglas Ward, where the median household income after tax was $44,437 in 2020, about $15,000 less than the city-wide median according to WRHA data. In the downtown community area, the median income after tax was $39,626. The growing desire for income-geared housing in communities across the city, specifically in lower-income areas, far exceeds the construction of those units, the CMHC said in its report; about two in five households in those areas spend more than 30 per cent of their net income on housing per year, a proportion that grows as rents increase and wages do not keep pace.
"This development is a good example of much of the investment in housing in Manitoba through the National Housing Strategy going to projects that do not meet the needs of those who are hardest hit by the affordable housing crisis," said Josh Brandon, a community animator with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.
"These units are well beyond the reach of households in poverty," Brandon said, adding that at those monthly rates, household incomes would need to be at least $36,000 or at most $52,000 annually to meet federal affordability guidelines. Projects geared to income should be prioritized, as should community-owned housing, he added, otherwise, new developments may push out lower income residents, "making the neighbourhood even less accessible for families living in poverty."
Joshi said target residents for the building include students and employees at the nearby Red River College campus and other workers downtown. The units range in size from around 420 square-feet to 900 square-feet, and will be value-packed, he said.
The unit’s completed construction will coincide roughly with the long-awaited groundbreaking of the "creative hub" at the Marketlands development by CentreVenture at the former site of the Public Safety Building and Civic Centre Parkade.
That development will also feature over 100 units of affordable housing in addition to market-rate housing. However, some critics of that project have also questioned whether "affordable" is an accurate label when considering the financial realities of many downtown and core residents.
With construction set to finish by the end of this year, Joshi expects the building to be ready for occupancy by January or February, by which time he has optimism that students will be returning to Red River College and the downtown neighbourhood he was intrigued by years ago will have thriving businesses and lots of foot traffic.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.