Downtown Mixed-Use Development and Revitalization

Introduction

In April 1999 the Winnipeg Real Estate Board established a task force to look at the issue of mixed-use development in the downtown with the aim to encourage more residential activity and intensification. When this effort was brought to the attention of Mayor Glen Murray, he encouraged the involvement of the City of Winnipeg and had David Schoor from his office work on the task force. From that point, a number of other key civic officials were contacted and they all agreed to participate.

This initiative came out of a strong desire in 1998 to determine what were the hurdles to downtown development and how the Winnipeg Real Estate Board could be helpful to bring about changes to facilitate and encourage mixed-use development. This same year, the Winnipeg Real Estate Board approved an important civic and legislative affairs position paper, which highlighted the redevelopment of the inner city as one of its main sub-headings. Under this sub-heading, it states…"review zoning and codes with a view to allowing mixed use of buildings and to encourage sustainable development in the inner city, particularly in the Market Square and Exchange areas."

Background

The Mixed-Use Task Force recognizes that cities that have allowed their central core to deteriorate have experienced a decline in economic development. It wants to ensure Winnipeg does not suffer the same fate. To this end, the goal of the Task Force was to come up with a blueprint for redevelopment of the downtown, which would create an atmosphere conducive to the development of commercial activity in combination with additional residential housing units. A healthy mix of commercial and residential activity brings vibrancy to a downtown, as it becomes much more than a repository for the 9 to 5 office workers. The new vitality is apparent by virtue of the fact people live, work, play and shop downtown.

The Task Force held a number of meetings to discuss what members felt were impediments to mixed-use development downtown and what should be considered as potential solutions and enabling actions to overcome identified problems. There was a good degree of information sharing based on individual member’s experiences and background and everyone recognized the need to make changes. The status quo is not acceptable.

During the short tenure of this Task Force, a few members made specific trips to meet with civic officials in both Ottawa and Montreal to learn from their downtown revitalization experience. While Montreal is a better fit to Winnipeg’s situation than Ottawa, both cities offer constructive approaches worth investigating further.

The City of Montreal has combined an abundance of vacant historical buildings with new technology to create Cite Multimedia, a new business zone. It has created an amendment to the National Building Code, which has strong mechanisms to deal with equivalencies. The Province of Quebec did its part by developing a program of tax incentives for these new, start-up companies. New business investment in the area has spurred on high quality residential construction to provide residences for the employees. The City of Ottawa has launched a residential intensification program to provide affordable home ownership and market housing in the Lowertown market area by waiving development charges. As a result 30 housing projects were initiated between 1994 and 1997.

In putting forward the following recommendations, the Mixed-Use Task Force saw its role and contribution being one of strongly encouraging CentreVenture to act on them and to report back on their progress. The Task Force does not have the mandate nor time to go beyond this report. However, the members will through there own respective organizations and involvement in other boards and groups create an awareness and raise consciousness of the need for new residential and commercial development downtown. The Winnipeg Real Estate Board in particular will take an active role in promoting mixed-use development. It has already provided a full front-page story in its Winnipeg Real Estate News on CentreVenture’s start up business plan and will continue to report on downtown initiatives.

Summary of Recommendations

The City of Winnipeg should take an aggressive and proactive approach to stimulating new residential and commercial development in the downtown area, including meeting with developers and owners, creating enabling legislation and offering incentives.

 

Recommendation 1

That the City of Winnipeg make residential living in the downtown a permitted use.

The Task Force recommends that City Council permit residential uses in the downtown. The objective of this recommendation is to create an urban environment that has a variety and mix of land uses, which contribute to the downtown’s diversity, vitality and role as a people place. Currently, the downtown is zoned as a traditional central business district. In this zone residential uses are conditional, while office, retail, entertainment, and cultural uses are permitted. It is believed that permitting residential uses would increase the efficiency of zoning applications.

 

Recommendation 2

That the City of Winnipeg clearly identify all the departments and steps involved in successfully implementing a new commercial and residential downtown development with the aim of streamlining the process and making it more transparent and accessible.

There is a community perception in Winnipeg that the City is anti-development because of the bureaucratic hurdles in its processing of development applications. Real or perceived, it was agreed that the development process must be totally revamped to promote and facilitate new downtown development. A ‘can do’ attitude needs to be instilled at the City and steps taken to reduce the liability the City of Winnipeg takes on when approving unique applications, such as a mixed-use development. By creating more certainty through the establishment of a set of building equivalencies, civic staff will be encouraged to be more innovative as opposed to risk averse. The Task Force recognizes that the Department of Property and Development Services has been making an effort to improve the development process however it goes well beyond one department. As a supplement to these efforts the following is recommended:

  • Designate a City of Winnipeg staff person to chaperone new residential and commercial projects through the development process.
  • Formalize building code equivalencies by seeking an amendment to the Manitoba Building Code; and upon getting Provincial Government approval, initiate a high profile campaign to let developers, builders and potential investors know of the important changes; and,
  • Create and make readily available a handbook that describes the steps, and necessary requirements to complete a renovation project, or new development in the downtown;
  • Provide a set of guaranteed dates for the administrative review of zoning and building applications (two months).

Recommendation 3

That the City of Winnipeg facilitate and promote residential development, and to preserve and promote existing commercial development in the downtown within the provisions of CentrePlan.

The City of Winnipeg does not actively promote residential and commercial development. It should take an active role in this respect. With City Council’s leadership the staff in all City of Winnipeg departments will have the necessary resources and direction to undertake work in the downtown. Continued activity and development in the downtown will be ensured with the establishment of an advocate, such as CentreVenture.

 

Recommendation 4

That the City of Winnipeg encourage and facilitate innovative residential demonstration projects in the downtown to set an example of the types of development which are possible (e.g. financially viable with or without incentives).

To entice developers in the downtown, the Task Force recommends that the City promote demonstration of low, medium and high density, to set an example of the types of developments that are possible. This approach to downtown development will illustrate that the City is open to innovation and development.

 

Recommendation 5

That the City of Winnipeg initiate partnerships with the private sector and consider the development of financial incentives to encourage development in the downtown.

Development activity has not been occurring in the downtown because the risk of development in this area is perceived to be too high. The City of Winnipeg should initiate partnerships, offer financial incentives, and consider such things as waiving of development charges, in an effort to encourage development activity.

 

Conclusion

The Winnipeg Real Estate Board is glad to support and champion these recommendations and partner with the City of Winnipeg on initiatives to promote and facilitate mixed-use downtown development. It can certainly help raise awareness of the need for downtown development and exciting new projects in its Winnipeg Real Estate News.

 
 
 
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