Last minute changes to Infill Guidelines a huge leap BACKWARDS

Winnipeg’s Residential Infill Strategy is very important. Getting something out took a long, slogging process that started in early 2017. A big part of this Infill Strategy is creating Infill Guidelines. Guidelines seek to regulate how and where infill homes can be built. The Infill Guidelines appeared before City Council’s Property & Development (P&D) Committee for April 19, 2021.

Winnipeg’s Public Service puts lots of work into these Guidelines. There was a lot of technical work and policy research. But also public engagement. Engagement included focus group sessions, surveys, stakeholder workshops, and pop up sessions. The Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) did a lot of work, too. This group includes planners, architects, industry professionals, and representatives from an environmental and social organization.

Many interests and stakeholders came to play in the Infill Guideline process. The Public Service had a heavy task in balancing them all. As supporters of mixed-use density and infill homes, we weren’t exactly thrilled with how the draft Guidelines turned out. As a group, by March YIMBY Winnipeg was leaning to supporting the Guidelines as they were written. We thought they might serve as a compromised first step to committing to infill homes. Later, hopefully, better infill policy like that in Edmonton would come.

Winnipeg Infill Guideline stakeholder workshop from October 19, 2019.

Image Source: Colin Fast/Twitter

Then an eleventh hour bombshell hit.

On the week of April 12, the Public Service made last minute changes to the Guidelines. According to a City Councillor’s assistant, these changes were mostly made to bend to political demands from Councillor Brian Mayes. The gist of the last minute changes is that they make the already restrictive Guidelines much more restrictive.

It can’t been understated how last minute these changes were. Some members of the TAC felt blindsided by the changes. The last minute changes were added after the TAC did a final review of the Guidelines. So this group was not able to use their expertise to tell Public Service what the new stuff would mean for the viability of building new infill homes. Despite not having an opportunity to give official input on the changes, TAC did not like what they saw. The group sent a letter to the Mayor and Council saying so.

This gets us back to the April 19th P&D Committee. The P&D Committee’s members were Councillors Cindy Gilroy, Janice Lukes, Kevin Klein, and Vivian Santos. The Committee deferred voting on the Guidelines until June 8th. They were courteous enough to listen to all the delegates who registered to speak on these draft Guidelines.

Many planners, architects, industry professionals, environmentalists, and TAC members spoke out against the last minute changes. A few YIMBY Winnipeg supporters also appeared as delegates to speak out against these harmful last minute changes.

Councillor Janice Lukes made it clear she wanted a final vote on the Guidelines at the June 8th P&D meeting. In her own words, “I’m done with sitting through all these appeals…we need to make a decision [on these guidelines]”.

We are urging people to contact their City Councillors to oppose these last minute changes. Don’t know who your Councillor is? Use this lookup tool!

Key Points

  • Infill is crucial for Winnipeg’s future. We need more infill homes to meet our climate goals, create a more prosperous city with revenue for high quality public services, and facilitate walkable communities.

  • Ensuring a steady supply of multifamily homes is necessary for affordability & preventing a scarcity scenario. In 2010 our city’s rental vacancy rate was 0.8%. New apartment units were hard to come by for newcomers to Winnipeg and those looking to move for school, work and family reasons. We can’t go back to that.

  •  Parking minimums for small scale apartments need to be eliminated or drastically reduced. This will allow more apartments to get built at more reasonable rents.

  • Measures like a two build limit per block for new homes and bans on lot splits on gravel back lanes are overly restrictive. They put too many limits on how many new infill homes can be built.

See “Worrying changes” for more discussion.

Worrying changes

The draft of the guidelines present in fall 2020 had some compromises and restrictions on infill that were less than ideal but perhaps not fatal to infill homes. Lowering the lot coverage down from 40% to 30% and new height restrictions were less than ideal. But maybe they were needed compromises to get an infill policy framework in place. Since then, however, there’s been new and more concerning changes to the draft Guidelines. See the draft Guidelines for page numbers.

Block Quotas: The draft Guidelines propose to manage the pace of new infill homes at two builds per residential local street block per year (page 14). This could seriously cut down on the number of infill homes that get built per year at viable sites. This may prove particularly problematic for local blocks with many aging, deteriorating houses.

Parking: For small-scale apartments (as well as other building types) surface parking should take up no more than 25% of the lot (page 74). In isolation, this could really help create good urban design and walkability. However, the draft guidelines do not provide sweeping reductions or removal of parking minimums for apartments. Parking minimums are the lowest number of off-street parking spots a builder has to include per home. Parking minimums hamper the construction of more affordable infill, requiring builders to buy more land or spend money digging a parking garage below. Parking minimums would prevent many of Winnipeg’s historic and iconic small-scale apartments from being built today. The combination of a 25% lot cap for surface parking while keeping existing parking minimums will mean fewer small apartments get built. The ones that do get built will charge higher rents.

Iconic small-scale apartments in central Winnipeg that could not be built under today’s parking minimums without major variances.

Image Source: Dylon Martin/Instagram

The Guidelines talk of establishing a parking maximum of 1.2 stalls per unit (page 73) but don’t discuss broadly reducing or eliminating parking minimums, as Edmonton has. Instead, the Guidelines list a number of circumstances where they would relax parking minimums. Aside from tree preservation they provide no specific number for how these circumstances would translate into reduced parking requirements.

Gravel lanes: The Guidelines discourage lot subdivisions on streets with gravel back lanes (page 14). This may seriously limit new infill homes in parts of east Winnipeg.

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