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This article was published 27/5/2019 (753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As traffic whips through the intersection of River Avenue and Nassau Street, past a group of neighbours gathered on a few square feet of dry grass at the northeast corner of the busy thoroughfare, Elaine Henderson can look up and see where the community’s vision for Osborne Village and that of the City of Winnipeg’s have parted ways.
Conrad House, or 522 River Ave., was one of the first new developments on the south side of River Avenue to benefit from a residential multifamily-large zoning in the Village Residential Medium Density area, following the adoption of the Osborne Village Neighbourhood Plan (OVNP) by city council in 2007.
"If the City is going to allow developers to build high density south of River Avenue, it means inherently that there will also be drastic variances on setbacks (of buildings from the street)," Henderson said. "It’s a disease that spreads."
The development from 2013 — a four-storey 45-foot tall building with 37 units — was recommended by the City’s planning department and approved by council. In its report, the administration said the formerly residential multifamily-medium zoned property was an appropriate spot for higher-density redevelopment, based on its proximity to developments on the north side of River Avenue, in the designated "Village Residential High Density" area.
The associated variances for the development allowed for the building to cover most of the lot, with a five-foot front yard (instead of 25 feet), no rear yard, and a lot area per dwelling unit of 359-square-feet, instead of 400-square-feet.
Since its construction, the complex at 522 River Avenue has been used by city planners to support development applications in other areas of Osborne Village, seeking a RMF-L zoning in the Village Medium Residential area, some of which have been successful.
Earlier this month, City Centre community committee approved two more development applications in the neighbourhood, consolidating and rezoning 327 and 339 Wardlaw Ave. from RMF-M to RMF-L, and rezoning 530 River Ave. from residential two family to RMF-L. The rezoning allows for twice as many units on each property as would have been permitted on a lot zoned as RMF-M.
Both properties fall under the Village Medium Density Residential policy of the neighbourhood plan. In the case of 530 River, Conrad House was referred to by city administration as a nearby development with comparable setbacks.
Henderson, who has lived with her family in the Roslyn neighbourhood for most of her life, said she and others in the community fear a precedent is being set by permitting these rezonings and they cannot be considered a "moderate increase" in density.
"That’s what is dismaying, distressing to us, because it’s going to allow, now that it’s started, high density south of River Avenue, they can keep going one property after another, throughout the entire community, from River to Gertrude, with nothing stopping them," Henderson said. "The entire character of Osborne Village will change."
Henderson is also a member of the Osborne Village West Committee, a residents’ group that formed after the City approved construction of a rental complex at 180 Roslyn Rd.
The group opposed the two recent development applications at City Hall, asking instead for the City to promote redevelopment under a RMF-M zoning, which they believe corresponds to the Village Medium Density Residential area of the neighbourhood plan.
The Osborne Village West Committee argues the City’s interpretation of the neighbourhood plan has changed since its adoption and now contrasts that of the residents.
David Wilken, a 28-year resident of the Village, said the lifestyle once enjoyed in the community is slowly disappearing, and minimal side yards, exceptional parking variances, and lot rezonings are speeding up the change.
"Infill housing is good, environmentally it’s great, but we have lived here for many years, most of us," Wilken said. "We moved here for a reason. We like the central location, we like the greenery and it’s a very nice area to live.
"We were quite happy that we had a councillor who brought in the secondary plan (the OVNP), so there’s some sort of coherence to the whole process.
"Even adhering to the plan, this quality of life that we’ve become so used to, and moved here for, is being chipped away.
"That’s a sacrifice we’re making. We made a sacrifice and that’s fine. Having said that, why is it so necessary to go off and change the rules of the game?" Wilken said.
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The OVNP was the product of significant stakeholder consultation, which included public workshops and community feedback, in the mid-2000s. All development applications, redevelopments and improvements within the bounds of Osborne Village have to conform to the plan.
The application of the plan, and the standards of conformity for new development in the Village Medium Density Residential area isn’t just a source of conflict for residents.
In November 2015, Geoff Milnes, vice-president of operations with Progressive Real Estate, appeared at City Centre community committee for a development application at 378 and 384 Wardlaw Ave. His company wanted to consolidate and rezone the two lots from RMF-M to RMF-L. Progressive had intended to build a 36-unit, four-storey (55 feet) rental complex on the 11,400-square-foot property (316.7-square-feet of lot space per dwelling unit).
Density was a factor in the City administration’s decision to reject the development.
In its report, the administration said proposed density was more than double the density of three recent developments on the block and the proposed density was a significant increase to what was there at the time, among other reasons for rejection.
The administration suggested Milnes modify the plans to meet the RMF-M zoning.
By comparison, the recently approved application at 327 and 339 Wardlaw Ave. will have 30 units on a 12,016-square-foot lot (just over 400-square-feet of lot space per dwelling unit) in a 45-foot, four-storey building, the maximum number of storeys allowed in the Village Medium Density Area.
In its report, the administration said "the Village Medium Density Area ... governs the scale of buildings based on height, rather than density."
Milnes said knowing a similar development was approved a stone’s throw away is frustrating.
"At the time, I think we’d expected we’d get cut down in terms of the unit count," Milnes said. "But they just essentially said no, and that you have to leave things as it is.
"As a result, we had to abandon the whole amalgamating the two properties for financial reasons and we just stuck with building eight units on the one site (378 Wardlaw Ave.)," he explained. "We got pigeonholed into doing that, but c’est la vie. It’s done now and those condos are sold."
Milnes said with the exception of the application for Wardlaw, his experience working with the OVNP has been consistent.
Based on the most recent approval for Wardlaw Avenue, Milnes said that, given the opportunity, his company would consider putting forward another similar development in the area.
"Now that the precedent is set, I guess that makes our decision a little easier," he said.
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A request for an interview with a member of the City of Winnipeg’s Urban Planning Division was not accommodated, but division officials said in a written statement that context is a key consideration to ensuring parts of the plan are applied consistently across development applications.
"The (d)ivision looks at the proposed development in its context and requests that developers incorporate these character policies," the statement reads. "Examples can include ensuring that buildings have a street front orientation, compatible setbacks, and employ façade materials that are high quality and take cues from the more traditional materials used in the neighbourhood."
City planners also depend on the immediate context when interpreting the OVNP.
"Context can differ in parts of the Village that may share the same residential policy area. The interpretation of context comes from the fact that some properties that share the same policy area have different locational factors, such as being close to higher density, close to commercial development, or close to rapid transit."
Richard Milgrom, head of the University of Manitoba’s department of city planning, said it’s reasonable to expect some change as an area plan ages and the community develops, but the best way to consistently meet the expectations of residents and developers is to follow the plan as closely as possible.
"That’s the only way to ensure everyone is treated the same way," he said. "You go through this consultation process, you come up with a plan that in theory at least both residents and developers are engaged in, and you stick with it.
"There is always a problem with interpretation, so you want to make sure that you’re interpreting it the same way over time, and that’s a bit more challenging," he added.
However, when spot-zoning (the practice of making exceptions for specific parcels of land) becomes commonplace, that may signal the need to review an area plan.
"I think if there’s pressure on a plan and it doesn’t seem appropriate anymore, you need to go through a new planning process," Milgrom said. "If everything you’re doing is being rezoned, that indicates there is some sort of mismatch between what is happening, or what developers and other forces want to happen in the city, and what the plan anticipated."
According to the OVNP, a review should occur every five years and include public consultation. The plan has not been formally reviewed since its adoption, but according to the City there will be a small-scale update "in the near future."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.