Monday, 4 July 2011

Councillors Approve Zoning

Harbour Master's Building

New Hotel

Today (July 4th, 2011), a Council Committee voted to approve a zoning change, so a private company can build a hotel on the banks of the Red River. The recommendation will now go to Council later in the month for final approval.

The Standing Policy Committee on Downtown Development, Heritage and Riverbank Management approved the rezoning despite a well reasoned opposition to the rezoning and creative alternatives for the hotel project put forward by Friends of Victoria Park and residents of Waterfront Drive.

The Committee basically ignored the standards set in law to protect public property from such private development, as well as a history of municipal efforts to develop waterfront land for public use.

First, the Winnipeg Charter Act sets out the criteria for permitting zoning changes;

247(3)      An application for a variance with respect to a property may be approved if the variance

(a) is consistent with Plan Winnipeg and any applicable secondary plan;

(b) does not create a substantial adverse effect on the amenities, use, safety and convenience of the adjoining property and adjacent area, including an area separated from the property by a street or waterway;

(c) is the minimum modification of a zoning by-law required to relieve the injurious effect of the zoning by-law on the applicant's property; and

(d) is compatible with the area in which the property to be affected is situated.

247(4)      A variance must not be approved if it makes a change of land use other than

(a) a temporary change of land use for a period of not more than five years; or

(b) a change of land use to a use that is substantially similar to a use permitted under the zoning by-law being modified by the variance.

The current zoning for Riverbank property is also very clear. Quoting from Downtown Winnipeg Zoning By-law 2004, Part 6; This sector is intended primarily for the use and enjoyment of the public. Uses supportive of and accessory to a continuous linear parkway and public gathering nodes are encouraged.

Third, the area being considered was rezoned ‘Riverbank’ in 2005. At the time, the same Council Committee looked at a number of existing plans for the area and concluded, in the administrative report by the Planning Department, that;

Together, these policies and guidelines foresee an interconnected linear parkway system. The parkway system provides public access along the riverbanks, integrated with the adjacent neighbourhoods via streets and pathways linked to the rivers at a number of activity nodes. These nodes have many forms and encourage public gathering at a variety of intensities – ranging from casual viewpoints to programmed public activity areas such as The Forks. The Alexander Docks site is envisioned as a key focal point for inviting visitors into the Exchange District and connecting Exchange District denizens to the North Winnipeg Parkway System.

None of these policies and guidelines prevents or prohibits development of riverbank properties in general or the Alexander Docks site in particular. On the other hand, they do encourage development of the subject properties to be of a form and function that strengthens public access opportunities to, from, and along the Red River and that its operations have a clear connection to its riverbank location.

Underlying many of these public development efforts, was a recognition of the historical significance of this part of Winnipeg. Victoria Park, which was one of Winnipeg’s three keystone public parks built at the turn of the 19th century, was to be a meeting and socializing space for Winnipeg’s workers and their families. The Park was then a meeting place for workers during the uprising of 1919. Later city officials destroyed the park in an act of vicious retribution.

A document prepared by the Planning, Property Development Department in 2005, Alexander Docks, Vision and Development Parameters states, “This site has historical significance to the settlement of Winnipeg, to its early public park history, to its evolution as a major North American trade centre, and the inland fishery.”

For example, next year, 2012 will see the Bicentenary of the 1812 establishment of the Red River Settlement by the Earl of Selkirk. This Bicentenary has been referred to by the President of the Manitoba Historical Society as one of  ‘the most important historical event in the history of Manitoba’. Prime Minister Harper, in a speech recently, referred to this settlement as the very beginning of today’s settled western Canada.

The Chief Executive Officer of CentreVenture gave the hotel total support and a token recognition of its historical significance. He said there are plans for a small memorial, which according to Friends of Victoria Park is totally inappropriate and basically an insult to the memory of the Park and its value to Winnipeg. (Incidentally the CEO was part of a city appointed committee that proposed a major memorial park to be built on this land in the 1990’s.)

Opponents also showed how the developer’s plans for the area lack technical merit. The developer of the hotel complex, Sunstone Properties, applied for a change in zoning because the proposed hotel would not meet any of the current criteria nor does it augment any of the heritage potential of the area.

The developer claimed that the hotel will not cause concern for local residents;

  • The hotel proposal claims parking is ample for the number of rooms (approximately 1 parking space for every 3 rooms) but not for the restaurant or special occasion clientele.

  • The restaurant would be a big noise maker, but the developer claimed the restaurant is set behind the hotel in the intake structure, providing screening for noise by the hotel itself, which is highly unlikely as sound travels over and around buildings, especially at night when residents require the silence of the river and area.

  • The developer also claims the hotel will not affect the local resident’s view of the river. Considering that a three story hotel is planned on the riverbank, it is inconceivable that the landscape will be uninterrupted.  

  • As well, the developer argued they have provided unencumbered pedestrian access along the riverfront, behind the hotel, and they are building a restaurant for everyone. However, this complex will be the only interruption along the entire riverfront drive from the Forks to Point Douglas, changing significantly the natural and scenic personality of the entire area.

An appeal sent to the Friends of Victoria Park by a Waterfront Drive resident, summed up the social value of the area and what would be lost by situating the hotel on public waterfront land.

My wife and I recently retired and purchased a condo on Waterfront Drive. We really enjoy being a part of the community in the exchange district. Yes! we bought our bikes and love to explore whenever we can along the many trails that the city has provided. It especially nice to witness how popular Juba Park and the rest of the green space is to Winnipeg families. On many days it is a steady stream of bicycles, baby strollers, wedding parties and boats on the Red River. From the Forks to the Ball Field to Juba Park the theme has been focused and consistent.. "Relaxation and Family fun". Now it appears that the city has been distracted and want to see a hotel erected on the river bank. Please ... there are numerous opportunities for hotels on the west side of Waterfront Drive. Continue to develop the riverfront for the exclusive use and enjoyment of Winnipeggers, Manitobans and their families. Don't get distracted with words like boutique. History will thank you.”

The Friends of Victoria Park also pointed out that there arebetter alternative developments for Waterfront Drive. First, this hotel complex could be built further north and on the west side of Waterfront Drive. Also, there were proposals for development along the Red River that would retain its cultural heritage while providing the City with some revenue.  The 2008 proposal by the Labour History Project for example, rejected by this same Committee, could have met all the City needs and vision for the area (note the full proposal on this web site).

At the end of the public hearing, it was clear there was no substantial evidence to back up the opinion that this hotel complex would benefit Winnipeg. On the other hand, there were substantial arguments to show how the hotel would irrevocably alter the riverfront for all Winnipeggers and for generations to come. But that imbalance did not affect the Councillors (Swandel, Steeves, Browaty, Gerbasi) who approved the rezoning.

Once again, City Councillors showed that they are intent in promoting commercial development regardless of the cost to community development.


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