Monday, February 5, 2024

(OPINION) Soapbox of Scotia: Profiteering, and the Problems of Infill Housing

 


Canada is in the midst of a housing crisis. Last year, the country welcomed a million new people into the country as the total population crossed 40 million. Yet, during the very same year, the rate of new homes being built actually fell. For every new home being built, five people are granted citizenship. 

At the same time, even as interest rates skyrocketed, the price of houses was only marginally affected. I think it’s clear that we need more homes and greater affordability. 

The city’s answer to this in recent years has been to sprawl in all four directions — building new neighborhoods like Island Lakes, Bridgwater, Ridgewood West, and most recently, Parkview Pointe in West St. Paul. But with the houses primarily being single family, and the neighborhoods being entirely car-dependent, it’s an incredibly inefficient and unaffordable way of housing people. 

Aerial view of Bridgwater

I think the obvious answer is that the city needs more density in central areas. This includes condos, apartments, and overall taller buildings that can accommodate more people with less land. A small part of it is infill development in older neighborhoods that were originally zoned R1 or R2. 

Since most of these neighborhoods were developed decades ago, space is limited for new homes. Of course preserving and repurposing of existing structures should be prioritized and encouraged, but from time to time — through abandoned or fire-damaged properties, or small homes on large lots — opportunity arises for something new to be built. This should be a positive opportunity to create more density and bring more capital and beauty to a neighborhood. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t play out that way

In the proposal stage, it seems developers get whatever they want and wherever they want it. Splitting a lot three ways and tearing down a home that’s still functional? Building a home that looks like a cube of tin and using solid concrete as landscaping on a 25 foot lot? Building something nearly twice as tall as any of the neighboring houses and look nothing like them? You want to maintain ownership and rent them at a rate that no one can afford? Approved, approved, approved. 

73 and 75 Newton Avenue.

And it becomes overwhelmingly clear who runs the show at city hall and what the intention of these builders are: profit, with not a care in the world what neighboring homeowners have to deal with once the project is approved. 

I’ve been told by a city councilor that the purpose behind these duplexes (the term the City of Winnipeg uses is “single family home with a secondary suite,” even though functionally they’re just duplexes) on 25 foot lots is so that a family or young couple can afford to purchase a home in a mature neighborhood and use the revenue of the additional unit to pay for the mortgage. There’s some pretty glaring issues with that line of thinking.

149 and 145 Cathedral Avenue.

Number 1: these infills are rarely sold. Usually, due to rent on properties like this raking in $4000/month each or more, the builder intends on building them and profiting off the revenue from renting in perpetuity. That’s why they seemingly so rarely go for sale after they’re built. 

Number 2: when they are sold, they aren’t affordable enough for the average person to buy them. As it stands, no program exists to take into consideration additional rental revenue when a duplex is purchased as a primary residence. Meaning, regardless of whether you can prove to a bank that you’ll be making $1500+/month as a landlord with your new home, you still need to be able to qualify for the full amount of the mortgage. 

So let’s say hypothetically that I’m half of a young couple that was looking to buy a house in 2022 and have a budget of around $350,000. A scenario that hits rather close to home. The problem is that not a single one of these types of homes would fit into that average budget. So while a $550,000 duplex (there’s currently one for sale in Elmwood) with a $1500/month contribution factored in from a renter would give us roughly the same monthly payment as a home in our price range, the option go that route was entirely out of the question since our budget wasn’t over $500,000 to begin with. 

A best case scenario is that folks who rent these homes treat it like their own. However, often times this doesn’t seem to be the case. All the while, when issues arise, the responsibility of fixing them falls on neighbors rather than the owners and landlords.

So we’re left with unaffordable rentals that change the dynamic of neighborhoods, and that’s even before we discuss the architecture.

Recently completed duplexes at 154 and 156 Perth Avenue.

These buildings, by and large, are ugly. That’s just my opinion (and seemingly the opinion of almost anyone who lives anywhere near one or has even seen one). Objectively though, at least in older neighborhoods, they often look absolutely nothing like surrounding houses and the neighborhood at large and frequently dwarf surrounding properties. They’re clearly just cookie-cutter houses made with the largest amount of scale and cheapest possible materials in order to maximize profit for the builder. All the while, the consideration of those who are forced to live next to them once they’re built is ignored.

It’s fair to argue that the diversity of architecture in older neighborhoods is a positive, and, to some extent, I would agree. In north west Winnipeg, we have examples of homes that date back nearly 200 years all the way through Victorian, Tudor, Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern, and all the way to modern. If you own a property and choose to build something new as a principal residence, of course you should get to choose what it looks like. This is not the issue. 

Recent examples of diverse modern architecture on Scotia Street.

On the other hand, I think we need to hold builders — that are building for the sake of profit and often demolishing an existing house to do so — to a higher standard. I’m not claiming to be the arbiter of what gets to be built, and what should or shouldn’t to torn town to build it. But maybe — and I know this sounds crazy — the city should require developers to get support for these projects from within the community. And those in the direct vicinity of the proposed property should have a degree of control over what it looks like.

What does good infill and higher density housing look like on quiet streets in older neighborhoods? Well we only need to look at our past. Terrace houses have been a part of our city since its inception. The difference nowadays is that we have the technology to make these fit into smaller lots and waste less space, and the scale to make them far cheaper than they would have been originally. 

Wright’s Terrace & Missler Terrace (1882/1978), University of Manitoba Archives, City of Winnipeg Archives

This approach has already been scaled up in places like Toronto, where often townhouses are reflective of the architecture in the neighborhood they reside.

Example of newer multi-family developments in Toronto.

This could be the blueprint for any 50-150 foot lot on quieter streets, surrounded by older, single family homes. It would seem to make even more sense than the two duplexes on a 50 foot lot when they have an awkward 4-5 foot gap wasted in between them that could otherwise be used for valuable floor space. 

Terrace-style houses may not be a solution to smaller 25 foot lots that open up. In that case, virtually any of these classic architecture styles, with a little effort, could be implemented in a 25 foot lot infill situation. 

Examples of classic architecture being used on smaller lots.

Is there a high possibility it’ll cost builders more to make aesthetically-appealing structures like this? Yes. However, if they’re required to make these changes by law and the scale goes up in the city as more are built, the cost will eventually come down. This is not reinventing the wheel. It’s using already successful models from other cities to ensure that infill not just suits the neighborhood, but actively contributes to its beauty. 

And guess what: builders have already shown that it can be done profitably here in Winnipeg. In 2016, developer Number TEN Architectural Group bought a property along St. Mary’s Road in Norwood Flats and proceeded to built a multi-family complex that very much suits the character of the area. 

96 St. Mary’s Road

A person who just bought an early 1900s home just struggling to get by, or elderly couple that has lived in the same home for decades, probably can’t afford to take on builders who have millions at their disposal to entice city councillors. It should be the responsibility of council members to stand up for those of us who reside in mature neighborhoods and not caving to developer’s every demand. Because if the quality of livability goes down for everyone else in the neighborhood as these infill structures go up, what really is the point in building them? 

435 Alfred Avenue, boarded up within 3 years of being built.

Without proper forethought and implementation, a 3 year-old infill can end up no different from a 100 year-old teardown. And without city council properly addressing Winnipeg’s mental health and drug crisis, no amount of infill is going to rejuvenate a neighborhood. 

Returning to Canada’s housing crisis and how it relates to these infill structures, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that these dozen or so new infills per neighborhood every year are peanuts in the grand scheme of things. Winnipeg’s population is increasing by at least 8000 people per year and these subdivisions and infills are not going to be what makes the major difference to housing and affordability. 

The things that will — like the Fulton Grove development on the Parker Wetlands — have been deliberately stalled by city planners, and because of it, all of us taxpayers are on the hook for $5 million after the developer successfully sued the city. That development, which should already be mostly built by now, will boast around 1900 units upon completion. 

Artist’s conception of Fulton Grove, Gem Equities

So the next time you hear the housing crisis being used as a scapegoat for these poorly-planned and designed infills, especially by someone involved in municipal politics, remember the far larger developments that have been stalled and could have been built during that time.

And at the same time, the city just approved looser rules surrounding infills — allowing developers to cram four unit, four storey buildings on a single 25 foot lot so long as they’re remotely close to transit in an effort to grasp new federal funding. Developers already can’t get infill right, yet council members (all except three — Brian Mayes, John Orlikow, and Shawn Dobson —  voted in favour of the new changes) seem hellbent on giving them the keys to our older neighborhoods. How are we supposed to be excited about that?

The more I read about the dissatisfaction with current infill, the more I realize that it’s not a case of Not In My Backyard; it’s a case of “don’t build it in my neighborhood if it fundamentally destroys part of the reason I moved here to begin with.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Glorious Gambrel: The Story Of 36 Armstrong Avenue

Years ago, in the Municipality of Kildonan, a man would have a magnificent home built. 

The story of how it came to be begins in 1876, when George Hilton was born in July near Moscow, Russia to parents Henry Hilton and Mary Ann Godfrey. The two would together raise a family of nine children, with six girls and three boys.

The Hiltons were English natives, but in 1873 moved to Russia. Henry Hilton was an estate manager for Russian nobleman, Colonel Pashkoff who had property around Matcherka and the role necessitated his presence in the country.

Old Upper Trading Rows in Moscow, Russia (1870-1888)

The family spent over a decade in Russia, where George spent the first part of his life. It was in 1888 that the family briefly travelled back to England for a year and George saw where his family was originally from. 

In 1888, when George was 12, that the family would immigrate to Manitoba. The family settled in St. François Xavier, and Henry made his living as a farmer on the prairie.

Early map or St. François Xavier, Société Historique de Saint-Boniface

The family would stay in the area for a couple of years, and, by the early 1890s, settled in Winnipeg at 640 Spence Street. Henry took a job at a food manufacturing company, Dyson Gibson Co. 

Ad for Dyson Gibson’s Health Coffey (December 23, 1898), Winnipeg Daily Tribune

After the move, George also began his own career: working as a traveller for various companies, including J.C. Anderson and The McPherson Fruit Co.

Ads for J.C. Anderson and McPherson Fruit Co. (September 26, 1904 and October 19, 1901), Brandon Daily Sun and Manitoba Free Press

Around this time, George also met the woman he would go on to spend the rest of his life with, Frances Louise Cameron. She had earlier moved from Ontario to Winnipeg, which is where the two met. 

The two were married on December 31st, 1902 and moved in to 493 Notre Dame Street.

Hilton — Cameron wedding announcement (January 2, 1903), Winnipeg Tribune

In the following year, Hilton would use his experience at the McPherson Fruit Co. to go about beginning his own business venture: opening a grocery store. He chose the corner of Main St. and Burrows Ave. as his storefront. 

Hilton’s grocery store building (2018), Apple Maps

Ad for Hilton’s grocery store (May 9, 1905), Winnipeg Daily Tribune

Promotion for Hilton’s grocery store (May 9, 1905), Winnipeg Daily Tribune

Within the next year, Hilton relocated his store further north to 1084 Main St. Around the same time, he’d also relocate his home north as well. He’d soon cash in and sell the business to J. H. and Harry Sullivan, and return to the field of sales with a position at the Imperial Oil Company.

Announcement of Hilton selling his grocery business (September 1, 1906), Winnipeg Tribune

Ad for an oil heater by the Imperial Oil Company (December 1, 1910), Manitoba Free Press

In the following weeks and months, Hilton would take his earnings and invest it into a property, purchasing a lot in the brand new development called Queen’s Park in the Municipality of Kildonan. Its borders were Armstrong Avenue on the north, the Red River to the west, the south back lane of Newton Avenue to the south, and Main Street to the east. 

Ad for Queen’s Park (October 6, 1906), Manitoba Free Press

The area was marketed in the early 1900s as a spot for “homes for the elite,” and “the cottager’s paradise,” eluding to the large trees that shaded many of the lots. 

Lot boundaries of Queen’s Park, with Hilton’s lot shaded (October 6, 1906), Manitoba Free Press

Hilton would purchase lot 53, at the corner of Armstrong Avenue and Scotia Street, and be among the first to build on the entire street. With a scenic view of an open field full of trees to the north and Red River to the east, it was here that he had a magnificent home built for his family. Featuring three stories, the home was constructed as fusion of two distinct architectural styles.


With a Dutch Colonial Revival silhouette, the home features a prominent “barn-style” gambrel roof, with the east side featuring a two storey bay window with a matching smaller gambrel roof. 


The Dutch Colonial Revival style is complimented with an abundance of Tudor Revival half-timbering along each side of the home which frames the windows. 

  

By the time the family would move into the home in 1907, Hilton and his wife had four daughters; 10 year-old adopted daughter Mary Spence, 3 year-old Helen Rosa, 2 year-old Maud Louise, and newborn Olive Mary.

In the following two years, the Municipality of Kildonan would establish the park, Kildonan Park, in the large area across from the home.

Hilton continued his work in the field of sales, but in the spring of 1914 ran for office as a trustee for the West Kildonan school district. In the end, he lost lose the race by a majority of just one vote to a previously retired candidate. 

Announcement of Hilton’s trustee campaign loss (July 28, 1914), Manitoba Free Press

By late 1914, Hilton would try his hand at running for office yet again; this time for an even higher office, as a West Kildonan Councillor. In the end, he was once again defeated.

Coverage of the 1915 municipal elections (December 2, 1914), Winnipeg Tribune

By early 1915, Hilton and his wife had a family of seven, with their son Henry born in 1912. His position with the Imperial Oil Company necessitated a change of scenery and the family would move to Calgary, leaving West Kildonan and 36 Armstrong Avenue behind. 

Hilton would go on to make his mark in Calgary for the next 18 years, becoming involved in the local Baptist church and the local Rotary Club. Him and his wife went on to have one more son, George, in 1919 and he would pass away on March 23rd, 1933 due to an illness. 

Hilton’s obituary (March 24, 1933), Calgary Herald

But the family’s 1915 departure from Winnipeg left a vacancy in 36 Armstrong; a vacancy that would soon be filled by a well-known Winnipeg businessman.

George Jerome Lee was born November 2nd, 1858 in London Middlesex, Ontario to English parents John Bullen Lee and Mary Ann Rapson. 

Born into a larger family, Lee immigrated to Winnipeg in 1874 and became involved in the lumber business. He spent the next decade building his business and quickly became one of the city’s most well-known businessmen with his prominent shop at the corner of Main and Stella Streets. 

Main St. and Stella Ave. (1931), Winnipeg Archives

Ad for Lee’s business (June 26, 1908), Winnipeg Tribune

Lee soon met Ontario native and school teacher, Sarah Amelia Wright, and the two became married on May 5, 1884. They then moved to a grand Queen Anne style home in desirable central Winnipeg, 436 Elgin Avenue. During these years, Lee continued to grow his business and his wife became active in the Baptist church. They would also have six kids between 1885 and 1898.

A write-up of George Lee at the time (December 21, 1907), Winnipeg Tribune

In 1915, with the new vacancy in 36 Armstrong, Lee would move his family to Kildonan. The family continued to live in the home for 15 years before Lee, on a trip to Saskatchewan to visit his daughter, would pass away at age 72 after battling an illness for two years. 

Lee’s obituary (March 6, 1930), Manitoba Free Press

Sarah continued to live in the home with several of their kids before she too passed away in 1933. The home was to be left to son Clarence, who worked at the Alberta Pacific Grain Company, his wife Etta, and their children. 

The family continued to live in the home into the 1950s. During this time, Clarence’s son Donald was selected as one of the university graduates across Canada to take a year of training at Ford Motor Co. 

Photo of Donald F. Lee (July 4, 1951), Winnipeg Tribune

In the middle of summer in 1950, a horrific flash storm with a hurricane-like appearance would sweep over Winnipeg and the surrounding areas. Trees were toppled and garages were annihilated. The occurrence made front page news, but, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons, so would Clarence Lee.

News of the storm (August 7, 1950), Winnipeg Tribune

During the middle of the storm, Clarence rushed to close the windows on his Armstrong home, and suffered an immediate and fatal heart attack.

Coverage of Clarence’s death (August 7, 1950), Winnipeg Tribune

After his death, Clarence’s widow Etta continued to live in the home into the later part of the 1950s, at which point the home was sold to Jack Dahl. 

By the 1980s, 36 Armstrong changed hands again when it was purchased by Paul and Elizabeth Dittberner. The Dittberners were married in their home country Germany in 1951 and immigrated to Canada in 1957. Paul would make his living as a master bricklayer and built his own business through word of mouth. 

Photo of Dittenberner, Winnipeg Free Press Passages

Dittberner’s passion for the craft would be reflected in his addition to the home: a sealed-in front porch and a two storey chimney, all done in beautiful river stone. 


The Dittberners continued to live in the home into the early 2000s when it was sold to its current owners.

In the decades since, 36 Armstrong continues to be immaculately maintained, and its beautiful, century-old story and unique gambrel roof and appearance continues to live on.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Up In Flames: The Story of 108 Scotia Street

Down Scotia St. near the corner of Luxton Ave. stood a large, wood-framed home. Built a little after the turn of the century, 108 Scotia St. would be a home for many families over the years. 

A photo around 1920 shows 108 Scotia on the left, City of Winnipeg Archives

The final family to reside in the home, who purchased it around 1977, would be the Gooch family. William George Gooch would marry Marion Watson in 1940, and together they would have three kids: a son Robert, and two daughters, Merry-Lynn and Patricia. 

They would live in various north end apartments, including ones on Flora and Burrows Avenues. Initially the couple would make their living as salespeople, Marion working at McLeod’s Ltd., before William would later switch to a caretaker position. 

Edgar Court, 401 Burrows Ave, where the family lived in the early 1960s (2020), George Penner

By the late 1970s, the family would move to 108 Scotia St. Unfortunately, William wouldn’t live here long. He would pass away in 1979 after a battle with cancer just a couple of years after they moved in. 

William Gooch’s obituary (February 22, 1979), Winnipeg Tribune

Marion would continue to live in the home with son Robert and daughter Merry-Lynn. The three were well liked around the neighborhood, and in the coming decades they would become longtime residents.

Over the years, those closest to them said Marion became extremely distrustful of outside agencies and the medical profession, despite the family needing the support. Marion would pass this distrust on to her two kids.

Robert would sadly lose his ability to walk due to an outdoor accident which necessitated the amputation of his legs, so the home’s main floor would be adapted for him along with the addition of a ramp outside. Merry-Lynn also had medical issues, leaving 90-plus year-old Marion as a caretaker for the three of them.

Street view of the home in 2007 (September 2007), Google Maps

By the 2000s, the home was in poor condition. The roof leaked, there were mice living inside, and many structural problems persisted. 

All of this culminated into what happened on February 2, 2009 when around 9:30 at night, on a minus 31 degree evening, the house broke out in flames. The fire was called in by a neighbor.

Fire crews battling the flames (February 3, 2009), Winnipeg Free Press

Fire crews arrived on scene and attempted to battle the flames, but it wasn’t until around 3:30 in the morning that the fire was finally put out. 

Fire fighters battling the blaze (February 4, 2009), Winnipeg Free Press

What was left of the top storey by morning (February 4, 2009), Winnipeg Free Press

Unfortunately, due to how quickly the flames spread, the family was trapped inside and none of them would survive. The fire would later be deemed accidental. 

What was left of the house by spring of 2009 (April 2009), Google Maps

But unfortunately this wouldn’t be the end of controversy for what was once 108 Scotia St. 

After the structure was demolished, the empty lot on 108 Scotia was purchased by a home builder firm Fairview Custom Homes. The initial plan consisted of putting a 5000 square foot, 2-storey, 4 unit condominium complex on the lot. 

Blueprints for the condominium complex originally proposed (November 15, 2011), City of Winnipeg Clerks

By the time the developer went to the city to apply for the necessary rezoning to R2 in the fall of 2011, area residents had already banded together to attempt to have it blocked. 

Local residents in opposition of the initial proposal to develop 108 Scotia (November 23, 2011), Rob Brown

More than 40 residents — including mayoral candidate and area resident Judy Wasylycia-Leis — showed up at the November 15 Lord Selkirk-West Kildonan community meeting in order to have the proposal stopped, while a petition of over 100 residents in opposition was presented. Area City Councillor Ross Eadie was also strongly opposed to the plan, saying that it wouldn’t fit the character of the neighborhood.

The plan was temporarily halted at that committee before the Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development overturned the decision several weeks later, sparking a passionate response from Councillor Eadie toward the members of the committee. 

Coverage of Eadie’s response (November 30, 2011), Winnipeg Free Press

The project would once again be brought forward in the Lord Selkirk-West Kildonan community meeting in early April 2012, where a revised plan was put forward by the developer but the same basic concept remained. 

A revised mock-up for the development (April 10, 2012), City Clerks

In the end, the residents would come out triumphant. The 4-unit multiplex idea would once again be defeated in the community meeting. And even though the Appeal Committee would once again overturn the decision of the community committee, the developer eventually backed down and abandoned the idea. 

In the following years, the developer applied to have the large lot split into two smaller lots. The lots continued to sit vacant for another number of years before construction would begin on two infill single family homes with an additional unit in each. 

The two infill homes that stand at 108 and 110 Scotia (2023)

They would both be completed in 2020. Today they both stand completed on the lot that the Gooch’s 108 Scotia St. home used to stand, with a plaque in the front dedicated to the memory of the family.


(OPINION) Soapbox of Scotia: Profiteering, and the Problems of Infill Housing

  Canada is in the midst of a housing crisis. Last year, the country welcomed a million new people into the country as the total population ...