It's like a stab in the eye: Why infill needs to be architecturally appropriate

There’s opposition to a Crescentwood infill condo project. Some say that’s because local residents feel their historic homes are sacrosanct. Yet in Crescentwood, where infill is neither new nor unusual, it’s not simple NIMBYism, Joanne Seiff argues.

Opposing development that doesn’t suit the character of a neighbourhood isn’t NIMBYism, Joanne Seiff argues

Ventura Developments wants to build a four-storey, 12-unit condominium building at the southeast corner of McMillan Avenue and Harrow Street. (CBC)

There's opposition to a Crescentwood infill condo project. Some say that's because local residents feel their historic homes are sacrosanct.

Yet Crescentwood infill is neither new nor unusual. The area has had many changes over more than 100 years of residential use.

However, even a hundred years ago parts of the area were built with specific restrictions. Even when approving infill, there are good reasons to respect neighbourhood-appropriate zoning guidelines.

I'm no local history expert. I took one Jane's Walk and learned more.

The Peanut Park walk explained the area's early development, complete with restrictions on how many dwellings could be on each plot, the minimum size of home and the expectations surrounding the first owners.

While this was a fine premise, other, less wealthy areas adjacent to the original development evolved differently.

For instance, my home, on a corner lot, was built for a single family. At least twice in its history, it served as a boarding house.

According to a neighbour, in the 1970s, one Mrs. Cunningham rented out rooms in the house to other older women without anywhere else to go.

Appeal of an old-fashioned neighbourhood

More recently, our house sported deadbolts on each bedroom door and on the doors to the living room and dining room when it was used again as a boarding house, with kitchen access.

This changed when we bought it in 2009. We removed those deadbolts, doing many (expensive) repairs to restore it as a safe family home. Some of the wood moulding is covered with graffiti from boarders. With some elbow grease, we have a character house, even if it's well-worn.

We could have spent the same amount on a new build in a suburban area or a renovated one. Instead, we liked the feel of the established, old-fashioned neighbourhood with large elms, friendly neighbours, easy walking and transit.

We assumed, when we arrived, that this area maintained its historic character through careful zoning and architecturally appropriate planning. We were wrong.

Over time, we've discovered that many nearby homes are actually apartments or condos. We've met many people who lived briefly in a house in our neighbourhood.

These haven't always been "single-family homes" with a NIMBY attitude, but rather, an area that largely maintained its architectural integrity and community spirit, even as it increased in density.

Often, you can't tell from the outside if a home is filled with condos or divided into apartments. That's how it should look in an area primarily zoned single family residential.

We were surprised when a developer demolished a house across the street to build approved condos, but was then allowed to change his building plans mid-stream.

What originally looked appropriate morphed into something so stark and ugly that we called it "the unhappy house." The unsightly new development has a timer on bright halogen outdoor lights that shine directly into our home.

We've asked politely if they could shut them off late at night, lower their wattage or alter them to fit better into our block of mostly young families' homes.

Their response? Get thick curtains — that shut out our southern exposure.

Roughly $1,000 in curtains later, their lights are on, even though no one's home.

Yes, one empty condo remains on the housing market several years later. There are sometimes short-term guests who arrive in limos, with luggage.

Did the neighbourhood need this housing? If so, does it require special zoning for short-term rentals? Empty condos and transience don't contribute to a stable, safe environment.

Apparently the only recourse is to ask questions right when the yellow zoning placards go up.

These indicate the owner is applying for variances — perhaps one that might allow someone to merge two residential lots and build a large steel and glass condo development. If you don't "register on the record" promptly, you may have no way of knowing what is happening close to home.

Zoning specifications don't mean no infill

Further, although Ventura Developments explains that their proposed four-storey, 12-unit project is near an office building (on Corydon) and another small apartment building (at Corydon and Harrow), the proposed development faces single-family century homes in all other directions on McMillan, a smaller residential street.

Most cities have zoning specifications or neighbourhood covenants to protect the historic and aesthetic integrity of their surroundings.

These requirements don't mean there's no infill. There's infill all over Crescentwood. The question is whether it's in keeping with the neighbourhood's character.

Theoretically, Winnipeg's proposed new "mature infill guidelines" will do something to help.

In the meanwhile, developers and infill activists accuse residents of NIMBYism when they advocate for careful urban planning rather than being subjected to demolition and ugly new development without any choice in the matter.

In the mid-1980s, one of my elderly Parisian relatives used to rail about new development in Paris. She complained about large housing blocks, La Défense, Centre Pompidou and even I. M. Pei's Louvre pyramid. We now celebrate some of these architectural marvels, but I'd stop short of saying the new Crescentwood steel and glass condos are about to win international architectural awards.

For people who choose to purchase old homes in a historic area, this episode calls for more appropriate zoning and not, as Cousin Marcelle put it, "a glass and steel stab in the eye."

Joanne Seiff is a freelance writer, knitwear designer and educator who lives in Winnipeg, near the proposed Ventura condo development.