This year’s annual CanU Summit, #CanU9: City Making Math: The Art & Science of Urban Design, will be held in Winnipeg Manitoba from September 14th – 16th.
To learn more about our host city before the summit starts we will be featuring articles on urban design in Winnipeg. Our first feature is a great article by one of our #CanU9 Co-hosts and Canu Board Member Brent Bellamy, exploring “how forward-thinking political leadership can effectively leverage public investment to stimulate private development, with transformational results.”
DOWNTOWN GROWTH DIDN’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT
First published on January 09, 2017
If construction cranes in the skyline create optimism in a city, then Winnipeggers might feel particularly confident in 2017. Downtown is projected to see as many as five highrise towers under construction this year, potentially including a new tallest skyscraper, a first since 201 Portage (formerly the TD tower) passed the Richardson Building almost three decades ago. Along with these towers, population growth in downtown will be supported by three mid-rise apartments and four residential heritage building conversions also slated for construction this year.
Image: (Brent Bellamy / Winnipeg Free Press) DCondo on Assiniboine Avenue is one of several residential developments planned or underway downtown.
An important component of these proposed developments is that they are spread across different areas of downtown and often located near other recently completed housing projects, helping reinforce pockets of residential growth in key areas. Developing unique population nodes that can grow together over time is an important strategy to bring renewal to an over-scaled downtown.
Graham Avenue is poised to bustle with construction as the 24-storey residential and 17-storey office towers at True North Square rise together, structurally topping out by this fall. The $400-million project, heralded as the largest development in downtown Winnipeg’s history, will combine with the recently completed Centrepoint towers on Portage Avenue to form the heart of the sports, hospitality and entertainment district.
At the head of Graham Avenue, Artis REIT has targeted a 2017 start to its new tower at Main Street, projected to be the tallest building in the city at 40 storeys. The project could redefine the Portage and Main skyline and provide even more impetus to open the intersection to pedestrians.
Midway between these two projects is the site of the long-awaited SkyCity, which could also challenge for the crown of Winnipeg’s tallest building. The building’s Toronto development team is currently advertising more than 50 per cent of units sold and is publicly promoting a 2017 construction start.
Other downtown projects include the 24-storey DCondo on Assiniboine Avenue, projecting completion in 2017, which, together with its new neighbour, Heritage Landing, will add 300 units to the Broadway-Assiniboine area. Redevelopment of the historic Sterling Building will continue Portage Avenue’s evolution into a residential destination, and the historic Scott Block and Fortune Building redevelopments will combine to begin breathing new life into south Main Street.
The Exchange District will continue to grow with new projects at 316 Ross Ave., 98 Market Ave. and the final phase of District Condos, also on Market. Two residential buildings could also soon rise beside a redeveloped James Avenue Pumping Station. After sitting empty for 30 years, this project demonstrates the value of patience when it comes to protecting the heritage buildings in our National Historic Site.
The residential growth in downtown Winnipeg in 2017 is a continuation of momentum that has been building since the mid-2000s and an important example of how forward-thinking political leadership can effectively leverage public investment to stimulate private development, with transformational results.
After decades of decline as the retail and social hub of the city, Winnipeg’s planners and politicians turned to residential growth as a primary vehicle for urban renewal, following the mantra of famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, who wrote, “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.”
In 2004, a first major step was taken with the conversion of an abandoned rail line into Waterfront Drive. The $9-million public investment was the catalyst that introduced urban living to the Exchange District, leveraging more than $100 million in private development and creating 350 residential units on that street alone.
Downtown residential development since then, including the projects under construction this year, are almost exclusively a product of tax increment financing offered through combined civic and provincial programs. Tax increment financing is a system that, for a specified number of years, rebates to developers the increased property and school taxes realized by construction, through higher assessed property values.
The TIF programs act to level the economic playing field for residential development downtown. Complexity of construction and, in turn, development costs are higher in dense urban areas than on open suburban sites, and lower core-area real estate values do not provide the same economic return. Until downtown has established itself as a thriving residential neighbourhood that makes urban living attractive enough to demand rental and purchase rates that compete with or even exceed what can be found in the suburbs, incentives are needed to direct growth to the city’s centre. Without this support, very few downtown residential developments would have happened over the past decade, and few will likely happen moving forward, as these balanced market conditions are not yet in place.
The use of TIF to support downtown growth has provided a secure and high-value return on public investment and has realized transformational change. Since the construction of Waterfront Drive, the private sector, working creatively with government, has constructed more than 50 private residential downtown developments, adding more than 2,400 homes to the city centre. More people live downtown today than ever before, and the momentum of renewal has undeniably created a new optimism in the city.
The downtown residential development grant program ended in 2016, but this year we will begin to reap its rewards. In 2017, an unprecedented 1,400 residential units could be under construction simultaneously, with the possibility of two towers racing to claim the crown of tallest building between Toronto and Calgary.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.