By Lanny McInnes

Over the past few months, infill housing has become one of the most hot-button topics of discussion at city hall. Certainly, the state of residential infill development in Winnipeg is a cause for concern within the residential construction industry.

To try to deal with the current divisive and arbitrary state of infill decision-making, the city is attempting to develop a new strategy around infill development and has recently launched the next phase of public consultation, hosting a number of open-house sessions and inviting the public to participate in an online survey.

Any discussion on residential infill development in Winnipeg should begin with the directions laid out in the city’s high-level development plan adopted in 2011, titled Our Winnipeg, which presents a 25-year development vision for the entire city. It positions Winnipeg for sustainable growth, which is key to our city’s future competitiveness. This plan is required by the City of Winnipeg Charter, which requires the city to adopt a development plan that sets out long-term plans and policies.

The city-building section of Winnipeg’s long-term plan states a need to strike a balance between “growing out” and “growing up.” This means residential infill development is identified in the Our Winnipeg plan as an important part of the city’s long-term growth strategy.

In 2011, city council also passed the Complete Communities Direction Strategy as one of four supporting documents to the Our Winnipeg plan. Complete Communities deals with residential infill within the areas of stability section of the strategy. This section outlines the city’s direction on the tools that need to be developed to provide clarity and promote compatibility for infill housing in mature neighbourhoods. This current direction includes promoting a mix of all housing types, including multi-family, and encourages developments that increase density, or intensification, to occur at centres and along corridors.

Despite the uncertainty around infill development, there continues to be fairly clear direction and language in place about what Winnipeg’s residential infill strategy should be based on. The gap appears to be the lack of adherence to the Our Winnipeg plan by decision-makers and the lack of properly developed tools, such as clear and concise infill guidelines, through which the city’s infill strategy can be effectively implemented.

One tool the city has developed since 2011 is the Planned Development Overlay (PDO). PDOs allow for implementation of architectural controls and preservation of other unique neighbourhood characteristics at the local level. But other important tools such as density limits, understanding the existing sewer and water capacities in mature neighbourhoods and having specific guidelines on historic and heritage designations must also be developed so that the city can make informed and strategic decisions on infill development. In order for Winnipeg to move forward with a successful infill strategy, the city’s current consultation on infill must focus on how to develop these important decision-making tools rather than concentrating on finding prescriptive remedies to micro-issues such as step heights and siding colours.

Creating these much-needed tools and properly implementing them will help the City of Winnipeg more consistently base its residential infill decisions on existing development plans and reduce the seemingly arbitrary nature of the current infill development approval process. This should also help reduce the overall high level of frustration and anxiety around infill development we are currently seeing in Winnipeg.