Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

A Neighbourhood Full of Illegals

Dear Winnipeg,

I must have bumped my head over the summer, passed out and awoken in a parallel, bizarro universe, because it happened again: I agree with Councillor Mayes. [I know, right?]

The City recently released its draft infill development guidelines, and Councillor Mayes is not happy. [I mean, he rarely is.]

Councillor Mayes every time I’ve ever seen him.

You and I have done the math together already. So. Many. Times. That’s how we know that infill development is a necessary part of making our City financially solvent again.

[Wait, could it be that I am the cause of his unhappiness? Is he only grumpy when I’m around? Note to self: investigate this further.]

Anyways, back to the draft infill guidelines. Councillor Mayes says that they seem like they were put together with only the Glenwood neighbourhood in mind.

It doesn’t say ‘Just like in Glenwood’, but it might as well…

Councillor Brian Mayes on the draft infill guidelines, in a Sept 18th, 2020 Winnipeg Free Press article

And after having gone through the guidelines, I have to say: I completely agree with you, Brian. It DOES read more like a Secondary Plan for Glenwood rather than a city-wide policy proposal.

[With that acknowledgement, here’s hoping he looks more like this next time I see him!]

Proof positive that he is physically able to smile. Lookin’ good, Councillor!

Now before I go any further, I think it’s important to clear up a little potential confusion.

The Glenwood neighbourhood is in St. Vital, Councillor Mayes’ ward.

The Glenelm neighbourhood is in Elmwood. This is where I live. Glenwood Crescent is located here. Also, there’s Glenelm School, which was originally called Glenwood School, until they renamed it in 1948 to avoid confusion with the school of the same name in St. Vital.

Pretty clear?

Ok, on to the good stuff. [And by good stuff, I mean maddeningly misguided City policy.]

So first things first. The draft strategies aren’t all bad, they do have some things to like in there, like parking maximums for townhouses and low-rise apartments.

But, seeing as how the overarching goal of the infill guidelines is to encourage and manage development in mature communities (and not to stifle it), that’s about where everything else starts going off the rails. [On a crazy train!]

In a financially healthy city, neighbourhoods undergo continual, gradual development. That’s how humans developed cities for thousands of years. Doing it that way has tons of advantages, not the least of which is that it physically revitalizes the neighbourhood as newer buildings keep putting renovation/redevelopment pressure on older buildings, in an ongoing virtuous cycle.

Unfortunately, our zoning by-laws for the past several decades have tried to prevent that naturally-occurring economic process from happening, for various reasons, which we’ve named “character preservation”.

Not surprisingly, that has led to slow decline in our mature neighbourhoods, as the majority of development was redirected to the outskirts of the city, where there are fewer rules.

It’s like the old saying, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. [And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!]

So it’s really disappointing to see an infill policy that will actively prevent forward movement in my neighbourhood. Here are a few examples (data pulled from the City’s Open Data portal, using Water Frontage measurement):

Duplexes should be on a 32′ wide lot minimum

While over 80% of lots in Glenwood can accommodate this, in Glenelm more than twice as many lots are disqualified, as over 41% of lots here are narrower than 32 feet. That rises to about 50% in the adjoining Elmwood neighbourhood of Chalmers.

It gets worse for triplexes and fourplexes

Triplexes are restricted to a minimum lot width of 35 ft, and four-plexes to 50 ft. About two-thirds of the lots in Glenelm and Chalmers don’t qualify for this level of development. No change for Glenwood though, still about 80% of lots get the green light.

So the message the City is sending to Elmwood is quite clear:

Having more people able to live here would mean more customers to support our local businesses, more kids to fill our schools, more taxpayers to share the cost of local amenities, like the community centre we lost in 2007. Sorry Elmwood, not for you!

But it gets worse.

Because according to page 8, these guidelines “apply to properties being redeveloped whether the development results in added density or not.”

Knock on wood that no one here suffers a house fire, or tornado or other disaster that would require them to rebuild, because these guidelines will prevent them from doing so.

We have duplexes on 30 ft lots. Four-plexes on 47 ft lots. Townhouses in the middle of a block. [It’s the Wild West out here.]

If we lose any of these, the rules force my neighbourhood to decrease in density, because they cannot be rebuilt. The opposite of the City’s stated goal.

But it gets even worse.

With all the meticulous rules on side yards, main floor heights and building heights, large strips of single family homes here can’t be replaced either.

These houses couldn’t be rebuilt because the new rules say their main floor is “too high”.
Tall houses beside short houses… blasphemy!
Side yard? What’s a side yard?
A four-plex on a small, odd-shaped lot. The only thing that makes this development challenging is arbitrary regulation imposed by the planning department.
A mid-block 5-unit townhouse? Yeah, this is going to ruin the neighbourhood. What’s that? It’s already been here for 106 years? Well, give it another century and then we’ll talk…

Basically, my entire neighbourhood is made illegal by these infill guidelines.

So my question to our City Planners is, why do you hate Elmwood so much?

What it is about the way Elmwood is built that is SOOOO undesirable that it should be made illegal, and impossible to rebuild? Why are you doing your best to restrict development here and force us into decline?

Is it because a small, but very vocal, group of Glenwood residents would have us believe that infill is causing massive, irreparable, drastic harm to their neighbourhood?

Well let’s take a look at that claim. Again, according to the City’s Open Data portal (using Year Built), there have been 124 infill builds in Glenwood over the past 10 years.

In a neighbourhood of 1,839 properties, that makes an average of 0.67% properties developed per year. If that’s the interest rate on your savings account, you probably won’t even notice the increase to your account balance. Hardly the earth-shattering, neighbourhood-wrecking amount that we’ve been led to believe.

In fact, the City’s target of achieving 50% of development through infill means we should see an average of 1% of properties being redeveloped every year across all mature neighbourhoods.

But if you want development across all mature neighbourhoods, then the rules can’t make it impossible to develop in some neighbourhoods but not in others.

And this isn’t just a problem for Elmwood. Most of the city’s small lots are located in older central neighbourhoods such as Daniel McIntyre, St. Matthews, St. John’s, West Alexander and Spence. In fact, over 11% of ALL lots smaller than 35 ft are located in just the 4 neighbourhoods of Daniel McIntyre, Chalmers, St. John’s and William Whyte, where nearly 77% of lots are that narrow.

That’s really important to note, because the cost of construction doesn’t change from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The cost of wood, nails and an electrician’s wages are the same whether you’re building in St. Vital or St. John’s, in South Pointe or South Point Douglas. Even a newly-constructed 768-sq ft small home of “minimalistic design” sells for $220,000 (on vacant land).

So the effect on these neighbourhoods is either gentrification, and the displacement of current residents, because all you can build are relatively expensive single-family homes, or no development at all, which just means further decline.

Consider the (currently illegal) alternatives: a $320,000 duplex can provide homes for two families at $160,000 each. A $420,000 triplex can provide homes for three families at $140,000 each. A $520,000 four-plex, four families at $130,000 each, and a $620,000 5-unit townhouse can house 5 families for $124,000 apiece. You get the picture. Economies of scale and whatnot.

On top of that, all of these small-scale development types with private entrances to the sidewalk, what is often called “missing middle” housing, all fit seamlessly into any residential neighbourhood’s “character”.

[I mean, unless you consider your neighbourhood’s character to be “run-down, aging housing stock no longer covering its costs” or “bigoted homeowners”. But then we shouldn’t be encouraging that with City policy.]

Look, I understand that one of the main issues for some in Glenwood was that it seemed like ALL the infill development in the city was happening in their neighbourhood and nowhere else. But then the solution isn’t to implement city-wide rules that make it harder to develop in Glenwood. We should be relaxing rules to make it easier to develop everywhere else.

If you’re on 12 different medications, it’s often better to start removing medications to get to the root of a health problem, rather than adding even more meds.

So congrats to the Planning Department on the development of the Glenwood Neighbourhood Secondary Plan! The rest of us are still waiting for the City-wide Infill Guidelines…

[That’s my new angry-face emoji. It’s ok, he and I are friends now! I hope.]

Later ‘gator,

Elmwood Guy