Here’s an audit that would help us know how well we’re governed

The rules governing Winnipeg’s growth are rigged in favour of growth and against the city’s ability to pay its bills. The city is like a drunk who keeps ordering refills, hoping someone will be found to pay the tab. But unlike the drunk’s pals, Winnipeg’s taxpayers must pay up or face the consequences.

The neglect of the public interest is evident throughout our system of urban development. In Winnipeg – and, unfortunately, in many other North American cities – the development of new areas of the city is governed by the proposals of developers, not by the public interest. Developers have a responsibility to their shareholders to make proposals that maximize their bottom line. It’s up to the city to ensure that the proposals that are accepted are in the public interest.

A minimal definition of the public interest would be that development be phased to minimize the burden it imposes on the public purse. If we were serious about governing land use appropriately, that could mean many things, but at the least it would mean that city infrastructure and services were extended to places that produce significant tax revenues. What we have done instead is to extend infrastructure wherever a developer wants it, even if that means extending it across vast green fields, which produce minimal tax revenue. Let’s take a look at an example of what that means in practice, with help from Google Earth.

There are many undeveloped fields that are served or bypassed by city services, but produce minimal revenues to cover the costs. A particularly blatant example is Transcona West. For decades now, suburban development has been growing eastward from Winnipeg and westward from what used to be the city of Transcona. In between is Transcona West, part of which I photographed on a snowy day not long ago.

Also pictured (below) are Google Earth views of Transcona West in 2002 and 2013. It’s easy see that not much development took place in this empty space during that decade. Meanwhile, developers cherry-picked the areas that were the easiest, the most convenient, or the most profitable to develop and bypassed much of Transcona West and other areas, secure in the knowledge that the city would extend roads and other municipal services required by the new developments, regardless of cost. That includes, not only roads, sewerage and water lines, but also transit service, and much more.
TranscW02.05.25Transcona West 2002

TranscW13.12.21Transcona West 2013

These expensive services have to be extended across lands that generate the low levels of taxation typical of farmland or unoccupied tracts, rather than the much higher taxes that come from urban development. Once occupied, new developments beyond the empty tracts require conveniently located community centres and library branches, and the same response times for fire fighters, police, and paramedics that more densely populated areas of the city enjoy. Street cleaning, snow removal, grass cutting, insect control, and everything else the city does has to serve empty parcels of land as well as full ones.

An area currently preferred by cherry-picking developers is Waverley West – located west of Waverley Street/Tim Sale Drive and north of the Perimeter – which, as Google Earth shows you below, was farmland in 2002. A couple of years later, the Manitoba Homebuilders’ Association stirred up a panic about a “critical lot shortage”. At the same time, the Manitoba government was anxious to secure revenue from the development of a large tract it owned in Waverley West.

As a result the city was browbeaten into opening up Waverley West to development, making enough agricultural land available for more than 13,000 additional single-family suburban homes. In the most recent Google Earth picture of Waverley West, it is clear, despite the snow cover, that scattered development is underway, almost to the southern edge of the area, though large tracts remain undeveloped. Once again, the city is obligated to either serve or bypass further vast tracts of land with the full range of city services and facilities.
WavW02.05.25Waverley West 2002

WavW13.12.21Waverley West 2013

Given how lavishly we spend on extensions of our infrastructure and services, it is small wonder that older infrastructure is liberally dotted with potholes and not infrequently punctuated with sinkholes.

Here’s a comment I often hear when I recount this sad tale: “You can’t tell developers where to develop.” My response: True, but the city can tell them where not to develop (for the time being), and it should. If Winnipeg’s pampered development community didn’t wish to accept restrictions we imposed in order to keep costs in line, there are developers in other parts of North America, who are used to operating in much more restrictive environments than ours. It would be interesting to see how our developers would fare if they were faced with serious competition.

In the land and development issues that have preoccupied Winnipeggers this summer audits unearthed some revealing and disquieting information. I have a suggestion for another audit: Let’s have a study of the number of actual and potential lots accessible to the full range of Winnipeg infrastructure and services that stand empty and produce minimal revenue. That would give us some idea of how much we are spending on services and infrastructure that serve the convenience of developers, but are not needed by the rest of us.

7 responses to “Here’s an audit that would help us know how well we’re governed

  1. Winnipeg is a mess – Take South of Wilkes to McGillivray, you could house 250 Thousand plus people.

    As for the RCMP – A public Inquiry like the Charbonneau Enquete would serve us better. As it stands, the Province has deflected its responsibility and oversight and has narrowed the RCMP’s effectiveness.

    Breach of Trust is the only thing the RCMP can act on. With an inquiry, the RCMP is on standby. Facts would be revealed in a public forum under the power of subpoena and under oath. This opens up the possibility of RCMP acting on perjured testimony while “breach of trust ” remains the focus.

    • Hello Sid. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think you took my course in Issues in City Politics, but it almost sounds like you did, because I used to make a somewhat similar comment about that neighbourhood. I used to suggest to my students that they take a drive south through River Heights on Waverley and observe how the scale of development changes when they cross Taylor.

      River Heights is a beautiful neighbourhood. No one can say those people don’t live well. But the grid street pattern is economical in its use of space, even though it allows for generously-sized yards. On the other side of Taylor, the curved streets and the wide rights-of-way use a lot more space to no real benefit. People in Linden Woods don’t live better than people in River Heights, but they use up a lot more space.

      The difference is best observed at street level. It’s less obvious on a map — although even there it’s noticeable.

      Regards, Chris Leo

      • Hey Chris,

        Aside from you mentioning the wasted of space between curvilinear vs. grid streets, another of the great traits of grid pattern streets that is hardly mentioned is that they are adaptable. Those curvilinear lots in Linden Woods will never adapt to changes in lifestyle/neighbourhood make-up and will always be odd shaped pie lots. Square lots are much more simple to unify (or subdivide), and with changes in neighbourhood structure can change from single family dwellings to mixed-use, to low-rise, etc.etc.

        A great place to see changes like this is along streets like St. Mary’s Road, where many of the former single family lots have turned into in-home businesses or low-rise mid-scale density.

        Keep up the great writing!

  2. The Waverley West story is very complex. The Province blames those of us who independently own 1 or 2 acre lots, with no city services at all (except for occasional leveling of the gravel road, and a snow plow when it is convenient for the City). When we acted as a group to offer a new design for the area called “B”, we were told that there were not enough city planners to look at it. When we asked for water and sewer, even at the expense of thousands per person, we were told essentially to get lost–“you cant have something for nothing” was the exact quote–BUT we pay CITY taxes and most of us were offering to pay an upfront fee. The City seems to want us to leave en mass so that one developer can have all the lots that we now care for so tenderly, with healthy mature trees. We would prefer a better format for development, Meanwhile the Province, which owns most of the surrounding area, has ripped all the topsoil off nearby fields so that it is barren and now grows weeds.
    I want this city to hire more City Planners with forward thinking ideas.
    Thanks for your writing–excellent.

  3. I believe that we can tell developers where to develop. It is done through effective Urban Planning and working together to as indicated in the article work towards what is in the best interest of the city and the citizens. Developers would not build in Waverly West if it meant they and the buyers were responsible for paying for the new infrastructure required. It also creates a city more reliant on cars as we move away from the development of a sustainable healthy city. Mayoral Candidate wants Environmental Impact to be part of the equation which would rightfully mean a much more difficult process to approve these Urban Sprawl developments.

  4. MB CurmudgeonArt Mira

    The Transcona West has resulted in the land used for a snow dump being sold off for development and there is no longer any such site on the east side of the city. I suspect that at some point it may result in the City contractors and commercial snow removal being dumped into the Red River Floodway which could set in motion a series of events with catastrophic consequences for Transcona residents. The 300+ acres of land being developed for Transcona West is marginal and has always suffered from bad drainage problems. One of the reason’s Ravelston remained unpaved for decades was because of base roadbed stability problems due to soil and drainage. To agravate matters even more approximately 100 to 200 acres of the land has had 8 to 10 inches of soil/organic matter stripped and hauled off by Reimer. Given the City’s partnership with Genstar in this project it’s possible the impact to taxpayers could be over and above the usual problems with land development/infrastructure/servicing costs. It brings to my mind the old joke about buying swamp land in Florida.

  5. Pingback: Check-out Christopher leo’s Blog It’s very topical during this election | Democracy Winnipeg

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