Winnipeg architect Andre Silva had a clear vision for the project he and his three business partners wanted to build at 350 River Ave. Silva, who owns some Airbnb rental units in the city, noticed they weren’t just being used for short-term visits; plenty of would-be renters wanted to stay for months at a time.
"In most cases, it was because of a fire, they were moving here for a job and they needed a place to stay while they were finding a home, someone going through a divorce," he said.
That insight sparked a business idea. In January, Silva and his partners bought the home on the corner lot on the south side of 350 River Ave., which is currently divided into apartments. The plan was to demolish the house, then redevelop it into a four-storey, single-room-occupancy building with 30 rooms. Each would rent for roughly $600 a month. It would be aimed at renters of all stripes who are going through transitions in their lives. Silva believed those temporary renters could help each other out as they moved toward their next home.
"The goal was to create a community within a building... They were very small, private spaces, so that you could live and you could be private and you can still have your own space, but they were very small, 10x15 (feet) or 10x20, the size of a bedroom, almost," Silva said.
"And then you would share your kitchens, living and dining room, and then we had a roof terrace on it so you could have a little bit of a social space."
The plan to redevelop the lot is moving forward, although not like Silva and his partners had planned. The variance required for the 30-room plan was approved by the city’s board of adjustment in June, but Silva said neighbourhood resistance to the project took his group by surprise.
"We didn’t expect there to be an appeal, or that much opposition, especially from people that we knew."
That opposition played out over the summer and fall. Critics circulated letters around the neighbourhood, and multiple appeals were filed with the city. An extensive letter of appeal from architect Verne Reimer, whose offices are in the Pulse condominium just across Scott Street at 374 River Ave., concluded the 30-room project would "further negatively impact on the viability of commercial activity in the neighbourhood and it will ultimately decrease the value of surrounding properties."
At an open house in September, Silva’s group offered to reduce the number of single-occupancy rooms to 10. Those opposed to the original plan say they’re partially satisfied with the revised project, but some tension remains.
Jason Fiege is president of the condo board at the Pulse. In his view, the original plan was inappropriate for his neighbourhood.
"We were worried about noise, worried about a constantly changing influx of people in the neighbourhood who don’t really have a stake in the neighbourhood," he said. "It seemed like a bit of an experiment for a well-established neighbourhood like Osborne Village."
Public consultations that Fiege described as "extremely poorly advertised" didn’t help the conflict between Silva’s group and opponents to his project. Silva concedes his group’s public-consultation efforts might not have reached everyone in the neighbourhood, but said they had no ill intent and weren’t trying to avoid anyone.
"I think 10 rooms is much more palatable than 30," Fiege said about the revised project. "I’m not especially concerned about it, but as a resident, we’ll be keeping an eye on it. If problems develop, we’ll be sure that we make some noise about it."
Opponents of the single-room-occupancy project focused on a lack of residential parking in the neighbourhood amid worries the original plan didn’t have enough on-site parking. Reimer, the architect whose offices are located in the Pulse, fears he’ll have to move out if the local parking situation doesn’t improve. He still worries about the effect the project will have on parking.
"I designed my office specifically so clients would come here... and my clients are now saying, ‘No, we don’t want to come to your office because there’s no street parking anymore,’" Reimer said.
Reimer appreciates Silva’s willingness to shrink the scope of the single-room occupancy to 10 rooms, but he thinks city planners are "really stretching the Osborne Village neighbourhood plan" in terms of the setback variances being permitted.
Fiege is displeased with the project’s approved setback variances, which he believes will result in a structure that’s "too big for the lot." Silva argues the setback variances for his project are consistent with those permitted for other developments in the area, and are in line with the neighbourhood’s development plan.
Despite the backlash, Silva is still enthusiastic about making the case for diverse types of rental housing in Osborne Village.
"We can’t just have million-dollar condos everywhere, we need to have affordable housing, we need to have smaller spaces that people can rent. We need spaces that are social, community-oriented."
As the plan stands now, Silva said the non-single-room-occupancy portion of the four-storey project will be filled with five apartments that might rent for between $1,200 and $1,800, depending on finish and build quality. He acknowledges some neighbours might still be unhappy.
"But not being happy about something, and whether it’s an important, viable thing for other people are two different things."
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.