On Thursday, Feb. 16, a council committee resolved a months-long debate over the future of Winnipeg’s most densely populated neighbourhood by approving the expansion of the Osborne Street Shopper’s Drug Mart and the demolition of two neighbourhood mainstays - Vi-Ann restaurant and Movie Village.
Late last year, it was abruptly announced that Shopper’s intended to expand its current location by more than 13,000 square feet and had made a purchase offer to Martin Ringer, the owner of the two buildings currently occupied by Movie Village and Vi-Ann.
On Dec. 21, a City of Winnipeg Board of Adjustment, which was required to approve an application to exceed the 5,000 maximum commercial square footage mandated in the area’s zoning bylaw, approved the plan.
Bac Bui, the owner of Vi-Ann restaurant, filed an appeal along with other concerned citizens, which was reviewed by an appeal committee on Feb. 16.
The committee, consisting of Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) and Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), rejected the appeal unanimously, effectively approving the expansion plan and driving out Bui, whose lease expires in June.
“I’m very sad by this,” said Bui, standing outside the council chambers with his wife as well as about a half dozen supporters and concerned citizens.
Bui has operated Vi-Ann restaurant for over a decade, building up a loyal base of Osborne Village customers.
“I want to stay here and serve the customers, thousands of people came in and supported us,” said Bui during a January interview, adding that many of his customers are young professionals and university students.
Andrew Jennissen, a 30-year-old business analyst consultant and University of Winnipeg graduate, is one of those customers.
“If we’re seeing small independent businesses being absorbed by larger corporations, we’re losing that entrepreneurial drive (and) I don’t think that’s good for the environment, I don’t think that’s good for the Village,” he said.
Jennissen made a presentation in front of the committee, arguing the Shopper’s Drug Mart proposal violated several sections of the city’s long-term planning document for the area - the Osborne Village Neighbourhood Plan - because the plan explicitly emphasizes street-level diversity.
However, he conceded that several changes made to the proposal between the Board of Adjustment hearing and the Feb. 16 appeal hearing, caught him off guard.
Among the changes announced by Shopper’s representatives was that Bui had been offered 2,000 out of a possible 5,000 square feet of leaseable commercial space on the second floor of the newly expanded store.
Bui was also offered two years rent-free, with gradually phased increases for the next eight years until reaching “market comparable” rental rates, said Tammy Smitham, the director of communications and corporate affairs for Shopper’s.
“It was very difficult to respond (to those changes),” Jennissen said.
Smitham did not know current market rates, nor would she speculate on future rates.
Bui, who was offered $10,000 for moving expenses by landlord Martin Ringer, will not relocate to the second floor of Shopper’s, citing kitchen installation and other expenses associated with a potential move.
Bui estimates that, over the course of 11 years, he has invested $100,000 in Vi Ann, including most recently by renovating the lights and carpeting under the false assumption his lease would be renewed in June.
Although he would like to stay in the Village, his future relocation is uncertain.
“Right now, I don’t know,” he said.
David Ringer, owner of Movie Village and son of landlord Martin Ringer, has yet to announce what will become of one of Winnipeg’s last remaining video rental stores.
Christopher Leo, city politics professor at the University of Winnipeg, has been a vocal critic of the expansion plan.
“Putting the restaurant up on the second floor is a poor fallback position, it’s not a very good option in comparison to having all those businesses front onto the street and what they (city council) should be doing, in fact, is doing everything they can to increase that diversity,” he said, adding that development should be geared toward multi-story buildings with varied businesses at street level.
Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, whose Fort Rouge ward includes Osborne Village, laments the loss of the two neighbourhood landmarks, but believes the expanded Shopper’s will improve the Osborne Street block between River Avenue and Roslyn Road.
“There are people on both sides of the issue,” she said.
“(But) that parking lot is a schmozzle right now for pedestrians to walk, everyone who goes there knows that it’s very hazardous, there’s no clear line of where you’re supposed to walk.”
The new development involves moving the garbage bins indoors, diverting truck traffic away from Roslyn Road through the relocation of the Shopper’s loading zone and constructing a covered pedestrian walkway, which Gerbasi views as positive.
She also takes issue with critics who insist the development is a big box store, citing figures from the city planning department stating that a big box store has no windows and is, on average, 100,000 to 150,000 square feet, whereas the total square footage for the new Shopper’s Drug Mart store is 18,000 square feet.
Additionally, the new development includes 5,000 square feet for rent by another commercial business, a separate street-level entrance for the post office and translucent windows facing Osborne Street.
It will also have the look of three separate businesses due to three separate designs for its roofline, Gerbasi added.
Published in Volume 66, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 22, 2012)