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.
Transcona West 2002
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.
Waverley West 2002
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.