August 8, 2020

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Opinion

Mansion protest tests limits of infill goal

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Protesters picket outside the 110-year-old mansion at 514 Wellington Cres. on June 8.</p>

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Protesters picket outside the 110-year-old mansion at 514 Wellington Cres. on June 8.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/6/2019 (417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A stately old home that has watched over Winnipeg’s most prestigious residential street for the past 110 years has suddenly become the centre of a protracted neighbourhood battle. The mansion at 514 Wellington Cres. was slated to be demolished, potentially making way for a multi-family development, but neighbours rallied in opposition, picketing the site and blockading construction vehicles to save it from the wrecking ball.

On June 7, the home received a temporary reprieve when it was announced that the Crescentwood neighbourhood is being considered as Winnipeg’s second heritage conservation district, which would create new guidelines and review processes for any demolition in the area.

Winnipeg’s first heritage conservation district was created in Armstrong’s Point last April. A neighbourhood that is identified as having special architectural and historic significance can apply for this designation to ensure the unique character of the area is preserved over time. Once an area is so designated, a series of design guidelines and policies are established in consultation with community residents. A committee is set up to review and approve everything from existing home exterior renovations and additions to demolition and new construction, which must receive a heritage permit before proceeding.

Winnipeg’s character is defined by its beautiful tree-lined neighbourhoods, and heritage conservation districts can preserve this legacy. It is important, however, that mature neighbourhoods be allowed to grow and change.

Cities across North America, including Winnipeg, are working hard to add density in all neighbourhoods to become more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. Balancing this need for communities to evolve and densify is important as we create guidelines for heritage protection.

Development in all communities, including heritage conservation neighbourhoods, must be evaluated against a diverse set of planning priorities, including heritage value. If we fail to do this, heritage districts could be used as another weapon in the arsenal against infill development and neighbourhood growth.

When Coun. Brian Mayes voted to approve the Armstrong’s Point designation, he made a valid observation that there is an inconsistency in the city’s desire for infill development in some older neighbourhoods while at the same time, protection against it is being given to other, generally wealthy communities.

The heritage conservation district policies and procedures framework clearly states that designation is not intended to freeze a neighbourhood in time, but is instead a tool for managing growth appropriately in heritage areas. Protecting history in our city is an important goal, but it is not difficult to imagine that elements such as lot coverage, setbacks and building size, which are identified as character-defining elements worthy of protection in the Armstrong’s Point District Plan, will be used to justify restricting infill development and growth. With all the challenges and opposition to infill that already exist, it would seem unlikely that with these added restrictions, a new row house or fourplex will be added to any corner lots, or wide properties will be split to create more affordable housing in heritage conservation communities.

Most homeowners would likely say that is exactly what they want, but infill development in mature neighbourhoods is an important strategy to reduce the amount of new infrastructure we build and maintain as the city grows, from roads and sewers to schools, arenas and community clubs.

Densification makes transit more effective and increases access to diverse and affordable housing options, encouraging greater economic opportunity and social diversity. Winnipeg’s crumbling streets, rising property taxes and stretched civic budgets are a direct result of the low-density city we have built — a city growing more than twice as fast in area as it is in population.

Vancouver has been implementing a citywide heritage action plan since 2013, focused on saving homes built before 1940. The idea that densification must be a goal that works in tandem with heritage protection is understood and a series of incentives are in place to promote both. Zoning incentives include allowing greater floor area to be built as additions or dormers, and promoting secondary suite development within existing houses or as a second dwelling on a property, such as infill in the rear yard or laneway.

These secondary suites under a single roof or as separate buildings on the property can be strata-titled, meaning homeowners can sell these dwelling units separately, such as condominiums. A series of financial incentives, including reduced permit and development fees as well as heritage grants, are also in place to promote adaptive reuse that increases density while retaining historic properties. Some of these heritage grants are paid for through development fees levied on new construction. Similar incentives in Winnipeg’s heritage conservation districts could reconcile the perceived conflict between heritage protection and neighbourhood growth.

As a percentage, Winnipeg has far more heritage homes than any other city in Canada. Nine per cent of Winnipeg’s housing stock is more than 100 years old, compared with Quebec City, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax and Ottawa with between four and five per cent, and Calgary and Edmonton with one per cent. Our heritage is something to celebrate and protect, and conservation districts can be an effective tool to achieve this.

Most people would likely prefer to see the old mansion at 514 Wellington Cres. given a new life, but as older communities begin lining up to request heritage protection, it will be important to ensure we are preserving heritage and not simply wanting to retain the status quo. By carefully balancing the protection of our built history with our overall urban planning goals that promote growth and evolution in mature neighbourhoods, we will ensure Winnipeg remains a city of great neighbourhoods long into the future.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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