Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Don’t force infill on neighbourhoods that don’t want it; buy them out instead!

Dear Winnipeg,

I saw a really interesting thing on the bird service the other day: [Full disclosure: my wife actually saw it. I do not subscribe to the bird service. I think the fact I call it the bird service makes that pretty obvious.]

Super interesting, right? [Of course it is.]

But what’s even more interesting is that anyone finds this surprising at all. This is simply how things got built before everyone got rich (ie. pre-WWII). Buildings were built incrementally. When you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t take big risks, and so you build things little by little, as money becomes available, instead of all at once like we do now.

There are examples of this everywhere.

Even the church in my neighbourhood was built this way. Residents built a stone basement topped with a roof in 1913, then proceeded to attend church services there for 14 years (14!!) before saving enough to build the rest of the (very impressive) structure.

If the additional money had never materialized, we would probably still be looking at a five-foot stone wall with a roof. [Which you have to admit would be pretty cool in its own way. Plus, we could talk about how interesting that is on the bird service!]

It was safe and fiscally prudent. But it also was highly adaptive. As new technologies were invented, as people moved here or away, so our needs as a population changed, and so our city changed in response. Our predecessors knew that a city existed to serve us, and therefore it was never finished, it was always evolving, because WE were always evolving. And they had (albeit by necessity because they had next to no money) created a feedback mechanism for getting the right kind of development. You could never build too much of the wrong thing, because everything was built a little bit at a time, so you could easily adjust to changing needs. Any other way would have been ruinous.

But after the war, things changed drastically. We got rich (relative to before), and credit became plentiful. And so we discarded our old ways of building incrementally, and started constructing buildings, nay, entire neighbourhoods, all at once to a finished state.

And so we continued for generations. Now we’ve been doing this for so long that we think it’s the natural order of things for our neighbourhoods to stay the same forever. [Spoiler alert: it’s not. Well, at least if we want our city to stay solvent, and you know, actually meet our needs as citizens.]

So what are we to do when we know that new growth is a money loser, and current neighbourhoods refuse to accept infill development? [No, you don’t move to Vancouver. Nice try, Winnipeg.]

Easy. Buy them out.

Let’s look at an example using our highly-underused basic math skills! [Yup, the fun never ends!]

The Maybank neighbourhood is nestled in the southwest corner of McGillivray and Pembina in Fort Garry. It was almost completely built out over a few years in the early- to mid-1950s in the standard post-war, suburban-style development pattern, filled with single family homes on 50′ wide lots.

Today developers are aiming to split those lots in half (to basically the width of all the lots in my pre-war neighbourhood I might add), and trying to put 2-storey duplexes where once there were only single-family bungalows. But they are meeting a LOT of resistance to change from residents who expect their neighbourhood to stay exactly the same forever, mostly because until now, it has. [This neighbourhood is not unique, I only use it as an example because it was in the news. So, please put away your pitchforks and flaming bags of dog poo.]

The entire neighbourhood of Maybank has a total taxable assessment value of about $262 million, which brought in approximately $1.5 million in taxes in 2018.

But it also has about 30.26 lane-kilometers of roads and pipes, worth about $125 million, which require $2.5 million to be set aside per year, just for replacement. [That’s using our 2% replacement rate, instead of the more conservative 4% that developers are using in their cost-benefit analyses. Using their number make it $5 million per year.]

Add in the cost of delivering city services for the area, and we could save between $2.8 and $5.3 million per year net by abandoning this neighbourhood entirely. That’s a return on investment of between 1.1% and 2% on the $262 million we’ll need to buy out all the residents. And we’re just counting the savings from abandoning the roads and pipes… there’s also a community centre there!

I agree, it’s not an AMAZING return, but it’s still better than a savings account. And also better than the status quo. And for only half the cost of the Kenaston widening!

Plus, we could probably juice up those returns by selling some (or all) of the houses as RTMs on Kijiji. Or there’s probably at least a cool million in selling the copper wiring to scrap metal dealers. [I know, I’m thinking of that song too now. Weird.]

So let’s do it! Let’s buy out Maybank and abandon all its infrastructure!! Our municipal accountants will thank us! [If they could talk, that is. What’s that? Oh, they CAN talk? Learn something new every day…]

Or, and here’s a crazy idea, we could accept infill into our neighbourhoods with arms wide open.

And I agree, we don’t want our neighbourhoods to completely transform into something unrecognizable overnight. Our neighbourhoods will start to look different, but it should happen gradually. As Charles Marohn says:

No neighbourhood should be exempted from change.
No neighbourhood should experience radical change.

Charles Marohn, PE, AICP, founder of Strong Towns

And I think that’s the essence of it: rather than freezing our neighbourhoods in time in the name of “character preservation”, we need a return to small but continual changes, city-wide. A return to incremental development. Replacing single family homes with 50-storey high-rises isn’t right. But, a neighbourhood of single family homes should and must evolve into a neighbourhood of duplexes and triplexes as our need for additional housing increases. Duplexes should be able to become small walk-up apartments/condos. And so on and so on. No exceptions.

As Chuck so succinctly puts it:

Every neighborhood must be allowed to develop to the next level of intensity, by right.

Charles Marohn, PE, AICP, founder of Strong Towns

The key is “by right”. No rezoning, no variances, no public hearings needed for developing to the next increment. You should just be allowed to do it. No neighbourhood referendum on roof angles required. That’s what our infill policy should be.

And if the neighbourhoods refuse, then we can always just buy them out.

[Just kidding, obviously.]

[Or am I?]

[Yes. I am.]

[But am I?]


Elmwood Guy