Winnipeg infill guidelines need improvement to protect neighbours, Joanne Seiff says

At dinnertime recently, there was a digger about 45 centimetres from our dining room window. This is what infill feels like for the neighbours.

Protection from damage, proper notice and pest control all left out of draft, columnist says

Infill homes sit side by side on Vivian Avenue in St. Vital. The city is asking for feedback on new guidelines for infill housing. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

At dinnertime recently, there was a digger about 45 centimetres from our dining room window.

My kid took photos, documenting the demolition of the century-old home next door. We watched radiators, leaded glass, old-growth lumber and history go straight into dump trucks to the landfill.

Our house shook. People living up and down the block described how their homes swayed and vibrated. Plaster walls and foundations cracked. 

As demolition continued, the house's chimney fell into another neighbour's home. 

A back lane neighbour accosted the foreman, asking when this "firing range" would cease — the noise, even indoors, was intolerable. 

Birds, bunnies, and yes, lots of mice, along with noise, construction traffic and trash — flooded our streets, yards and homes.

This is what infill feels like for the neighbours.

Winnipeg has asked citizens for feedback for its new "Small scale and low-rise development for mature communities" draft guidelines, seeking responses via virtual and in-person meetings and an online survey.

"These guidelines … reflect the needs of residents in defining development in their neighbourhoods," says a city councillor's website.

To be clear, these (much-needed) guidelines are for developers. These documents spell out how a developer can demolish an old home, expedite approval of new projects and earn a profit, as well as increase city tax revenue.

While perhaps better than no guidelines, this draft just doesn't reflect the needs of nearby residents who must live through these infill projects. 

Here are a few suggestions on what to add:

  • When proposing infill, require more neighbour notification and feedback, even when no zoning change is necessary.
  • Listen to their concerns and make adjustments.
  • Protect adjacent properties so they aren't damaged.
  • Increase side yard setbacks. Current and proposed zoning and setbacks (four feet or 120 centimetres) mean that with the current demolition/rebuild next to my home, the excavation hole can be dug right up to the property line. When heavy equipment is that close, it's hard to protect neighbouring homes' walls and foundations.
  • Require, by law, that neighbours be notified in advance about demolition, excavation and other construction dates, instead of putting the onus on them to check.
  • Require pest remediation when a building's demolished.
  • Strengthen environmental protections and monitor building sites. When you knock down a 100-year-old home, lead paint and asbestos dust could end up in the neighbours' homes and yards.
  • Emphasize and prioritize sustainability. If a home must be demolished, require proper salvage techniques, and keep reusable fixtures, metal, wood and other building materials out of the landfill. These are high-quality, valuable resources, many of which cannot be replaced.
  • Consider reuse and renovation of existing housing to accommodate 21st-century needs.

There's currently little to no effort to prioritize renovation and restoration of older housing to accommodate "modern" apartments or multi-unit settings.

The draft guidelines don't reflect the needs of nearby residents who must live through construction of infill projects, Joanne Seiff says. (John Einarson/CBC)

Rather, the emphasis on splitting lots and new construction of multi-family units reduces green space.

It increases pressure on Winnipeg's poorly maintained mature neighbourhood infrastructure. It's failing, with sewage in rivers, lead in soil and aging roads, schools and community centres.

It also fails to address neighbourhood needs for affordable family housing.

In the last 10 years, our area near Corydon Avenue, which already had a mix of housing, has been flooded with upscale condo and luxury apartments. All of them involved demolition of 80- to 100-year-old homes.

Could older homes have more people living in them? Yes! 

Our 100-year-old home was a boarding house for elderly widows, with 10 people living here during the 1960s. It was reconverted to a single-family home, but could be transformed again into three historic but "modern" condos.

The draft guidelines emphasize demolition and new builds. There's no economic incentive or easy permitting for modernizing, maintaining or repurposing existing old-but-sturdy housing stock.

The infill guidelines target corner lots: my family's house, with original features like interior work by T. Eaton Co., will likely be demolished if we move. This makes our most expensive asset less valuable because, according to one realtor, developers want a discount for a tear down.

Winnipeg's current historic district preservation efforts focus on mansions built for wealthy white men. The proposed Crescentwood heritage conservation district excludes most of the neighbourhood.

What can we learn from more modest homes? The social history of our citizens lives here.

Many minorities and new immigrants boarded here as students. Some slept on the third floors of middle-class homes when they were called the servants' quarters. Their rooms came with employment as a nanny, housekeeper or cook.

Preserving more modest historic housing in Winnipeg offers visible history. It's a past that includes all Winnipeggers, including people of colour, people living in poverty, immigrants, students and the elderly women who boarded in my home.

Let's make it financially viable for people to salvage and restore older homes. Not everyone wants a new home.

Economic incentives and sympathetic zoning and permitting bylaws would help young families afford renovation and repair of our housing stock so these families stay in place rather than move to outlying suburbs.

One reason frequently given for encouraging new infill is Winnipeg's aging housing stock. Reality check: Winnipeg is a young city, with young housing. 

When you look at Europe or eastern North American cities, the idea that older houses aren't habitable is ridiculous.

As a child in Virginia, I visited friends' homes built 150 years ago, and 250-year-old public buildings. These places survived many floods and storms; Winnipeg's houses, with a median age of 73, could do the same. 

Ask a demolition expert about old houses, he'll call for demolition. When you're a hammer, everything's a nail.

Let's invest in our existing neighbourhoods. Value this history. Reuse old buildings and building materials.

City councillors, please listen to your neighbours rather than the developers. Fix those guidelines and write zoning that respects good neighbours, good neighbourhoods and the restoration and renovation of our mature, beautiful homes instead.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.


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