By Stefano Grande
It’s been a great start to the summer! Maybe not when it comes to the weather – but when thinking about downtown progress, it’s been almost perfect.
In the first quarter, we’ve seen forward movement on many initiatives, and the common thread that ties most of these new initiatives together is housing. For the first time, it feels like both social and physical revitalization are on the radar at the same time, and that strategic focus and the importance of connecting the different districts of downtown is better understood.
Here are some snapshots of what’s been happening this summer!
The 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness
A plan to end homelessness has arrived. With the leadership of the United Way of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council, a new plan will coordinate resources and place those less fortunate into homes first, surrounded by supports. The plan shows promise to improve the health and safety of all our citizens, and help our city become a more caring and tolerant place.
The proposed redevelopment of Parcel 4 and Railside Land at the Forks National Historic Site has been announced. A well thought-out, community-based plan with wide support has finally emerged under the careful direction of Forks North Portage Development Corporation. Housing forms a key part with over 700 units planned as part of a well-designed mixed-use development. While to date Waterfront Drive has been the calling card of the new downtown, Parcel 4 has the potential to match or exceed it. Developers will be lining up.
Tax increment financing
The second generation of the residential tax increment financing program has arrived. The first program of over $40 million in incentives has leveraged five times that much in private sector investment to stimulate downtown housing, which resulted in almost 2,000 units under construction or proposed under the direction and leadership of development agency CentreVenture.
A short six years ago, there was much opposition to such a large-scale program on the basis that the private sector alone should revive the downtown market. With the voices of groups like city BIZ associations and the leadership of key politicians in the province and city who understand the long-term financial implication of not directing development inward, the new program took shape.
The arrival of this second generation program, with an estimated $24 million in additional tax support, is more finely tuned and focused. Its emphasis on targeting surface parking lots; strategic focus in certain districts; and emphasis on mixed use are all elements that make this version much more powerful.
This could lead to a speedier realization of the ultimate goal – vibrancy through density and mixed-use developments. No doubt there will still be some challenges, the biggest one being if owners will bite, or simply inflate their property value and try offloading their properties, making development more difficult.
An earlier recommendation by the BIZ, when real estate prices were much lower, was for the city to simply start buying surface parking lots, controlling the market and creating strategic partnerships with the private sector, then applying the tax incentives. If you want to play the game, then think like a developer would!
More additions to the University of Winnipeg
The United Health and RecPlex on Spence Street has finally been unveiled, adding to the U of W’s vison of creating a world-class campus. First-rate sports facilities, great housing, and a walkable campus with storefronts, restaurants and more are all key ingredients in attracting students to universities, and clearly Dr. Axworthy has visited some of the best campuses in North America. His vision has taken shape at lightning speed and is perhaps a model whose approach should be replicated in other districts in downtown Winnipeg. The complex will be a boon to everyone from local youth to older soccer heroes wanting to relive lost glory.
A second farmers’ market
Office workers wanted it, so we delivered it. A second market this year has taken off with the support of the Workers Compensation Board on Broadway. The goal is to give office workers reasons to enjoy their downtown; help residents buy organic produce not sold anywhere else; and create a positive buzz in the area.
At times trying to create a conversation around revitalization can make you feel like a lone voice – especially when policy has not yet caught up. But we at the BIZ are not alone; ordinary people, politicians, administrators and many other leaders in the city share our passion and beliefs. But what is important is that these conversations spark creativity in others, whether it challenges them to think harder, or creates synergy with partners that helps get us to our goal. Conversations are good, and they must continue, because momentum is finally on our side. A great first quarter start – let’s keep it going.