The Better Voter Series: Desolation in downtown Winnipeg

Dearth of empty lots impede inner-city development, say candidates

  • The question of what to do with downtown parking lots is on the minds and agendas of Winnipeg’s mayoral hopefuls. – Jordan Janisse

For years downtown Winnipeg has been littered with surface parking lots, taking up vast swathes of space in what was once the most densely populated area in the city.

Now, incumbent mayor Sam Katz and challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis have pledged incentives for development, vowing to replace surface lots with a series of mixed-use properties in the city’s core.

“There needs to be good public policy to shift away from surface parking in the downtown,” said Wasylycia-Leis, who would like to use $24 million in revenue from the 2009 sale of the Winnipeg Square parkade on five new publicly-owned developments downtown.

“Parking lots ... pay less taxes based on market value,” confirmed Nelson Karpa, the city’s director of assessment and taxation.

“An office building with a market value of $10 million is going to pay more than an empty lot valued at half a million dollars,” he said.

In order to address this, and the fact that parking is a profitable business downtown, Wasylycia-Leis pledges to institute tax incentives for new development.

She has made no specific promises, however, and will not increase property taxes on the estimated 140 existing lots.

“It makes sense to me to provide the carrot approach rather than the stick,” she said. “The latter can harm individuals that still need their cars or feel that they need their cars.”

Incumbent mayor Sam Katz agrees with Wasylycia-Leis that a system of incentives would be more effective than penalties on maintaining empty lots.

Katz’s proposed incentive would see property taxes frozen at their initial rate for the first five years after the redevelopment of an empty lot. After those five years, there would be phased increases for another three years.

For example, a $200,000 empty lot will be paying the same tax rate for five years after being redeveloped into a new $2 million property.

“I actually gave something, put something on the record,” said Katz, when asked how his approach differs from that of Wasylycia-Leis. “She basically said she’d give some incentive and (she would) talk to you in 18 months.”

Long-term solutions

While the two main mayoral candidates commit to the reduction of surface parking lots in the short term, some are calling for longer term city planning strategies to tackle the issue.

“We need to pursue transit-oriented development in certain spots, like around Graham Avenue,” said Paul Hesse, spokesman for the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition, adding that Graham Avenue is the key route for all transit buses in the city. “This way, you won’t need a parking space for every person downtown.”

We need to make surface parking lots the least attractive option ... but we also need a larger strategy to tackle these issues.

Jino Distasio, director, Institute of Urban Studies

Hesse believes that developments like the Fort Rouge Yards, a $200 million transit-oriented development in Winnipeg’s Lord Roberts neighbourhood, is an example of how the city can increase population density and ensure that people live and work in roughly the same neighbourhood.

“A few dollars of incentives for transit-oriented development is money well spent,” he said.

Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, agrees with Hesse.

“We need to make surface parking lots the least attractive option,” he said. “But we also need a larger strategy to tackle these issues.”

Developments like the recently approved Assiniboine Avenue high-rise apartment tower and the derelict Avenue Building redevelopment will have extensive residential units, the mayor said.

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve been a supporter of rapid transit because we can go to high density and that’s what we want,” Katz added.

The Assiniboine Avenue high-rise will have three levels of commercial and 22 floors of high-end condo and rental space. The Avenue Building redevelopment, which is placed directly on Portage Avenue, will feature 59 small, loft-style apartments with rent below $1,000.

Wasylycia-Leis, however, claims that by halting development on phase II of the Southwest rapid transit corridor, the mayor is jeopardizing density and transit-oriented development in the inner city. 

“By cancelling a project for rapid transit in order to use that money for other projects he’s delaying progress ... in Winnipeg,” she said.

Published in Volume 65, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 21, 2010)

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