My neighbourhood is pretty humble. It isn’t flashy, it doesn’t have aspirations of grandeur. It is comprised mostly of single-family dwellings, many of them post-war CMHC type houses. It is close to some major transit lines, a regional mall, has two schools, an arena, a strip mall with a food store and restaurant and framing store and a BMX shop. It is in the south-east, just close enough to the University and downtown that people are willing to commute daily from our little corner of the city. It’s not far-flung, but it’s certainly in what was once considered a suburban area at one time.
We moved in the 1980s, during the recession. We’ve always had pleasant neighbours. People put care into their gardens, walk their dogs every night. It is close to a ravine that connects to the river valley system, which brings plenty of opportunities for nice long walks on summer nights. If a person is motivated they can easily walk to Whyte Ave or ride their bike downtown with little effort.
While our neighbourhood isn’t “hot” – it’s not Old Strathcona or Mill Creek or Glenora or Grandin – it has changed in the last few years. Without any outside influence (ie: city plans or revitalization schemes), there has been a sudden influx of investment by individuals in the ‘hood. A couple of years ago we noticed the post-war houses coming down and new houses popping up in their place. These weren’t like the handful of hideous stucco duplexes (sorry, semi-detached houses, to use City parlance) that stubbornly appeared in their post-awesome glory in the 90s and early 2000s. No, these were people’s dream homes – carefully constructed to each family’s exacting specification. One or two first popped up, and then a trickle, and now a river of new in-fill development is blanketing our streets.
And it’s ‘good’ development – for the most part the houses are nice, fairly respectful of the character of the existing housing stock. Without a single visioning exercise, or revitalization plan, or hand-wringing discussion about attracting people to central neighbourhoods. And no, most people are not building right to the edge of the property lines and swallowing up the existing buildings. There are a few mis-steps, to be sure, but people generally have good taste. Really.
My walks around the neighbourhood now reveal one or two new houses going up per block. Some of them are nicer than others, and there has been a bit of a quiet uproar over a very large, modern house that took up a lot where an unassuming little house once stood. But overall, people are pretty laissez-faire about the whole process.
Why this gives me hope is because if the city does go ahead with the decision to allow lots to be subdivided to 25 feet, I think we will see even more people investing in an older neighbourhood like ours. And that’s a good thing. In-fill development isn’t a dirty word.
I’m not quite sure what conditions have led to this subtle regeneration of our ‘hood. I think it has to do with the location, the amenities (grocery store, schools, dental and medical offices, banks), transit, proximity to the University and downtown, and most importantly housing prices. Because it’s not as desirable as Old Strathcona, the lots are priced fairly reasonably. A friend speculates that this must be leaving people just enough lee-way to be able to renovate or rebuild the homes they want, rather than relying on developers to move in and decide what people want for them.
I call this bottom-up regeneration. It still doesn’t address issues like core affordable housing needs in the city, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some affordable units being developed in neighbourhoods like mine. Since individual investors (home-buyers) are building the houses they are generally single-family units. But what strikes me about this movement is that it’s being executed by people who have made a decision to invest in the neighbourhood for the longterm. You don’t build your dream home without planning to stick around for 10, 20, 30 years. It affords our little neighbourhood some stability.
So, I offer my neighbourhood as a case study for those who are trying to figure out how to ‘revitalize’ the city’s central/core areas. It’s not a downtown neighbourhood, but in the grand scheme of things it is still a central area. And it’s thriving. Without an arena, without condos.
Undoubtedly, the fact that most of the new houses are single-family units is probably greasing the wheels. No major uproars from surrounding neighbours about parking concerns or fears about increased density. Nobody is rushing to City Hall to put injunctions on new buildings, because these houses aren’t terribly threatening to the status quo.
The question is – with a regeneration like this happening, can we condition people to be more at ease with two, three and four-unit housing? Can we diversify the housing stock and increase density in gentle ways? In central Winnipeg (the “West End”) some affordable housing units have popped up on narrow lots that are very clever in their use of space. I think something like this would fit into a neighbourhood like mine quite easily. We already have a handful of 2 storey walk-up apartments from the 70s. I think that we have the precedent to allow denser housing while still respecting the character of the area.
My only gripe about the current state of my neighbourhood is this: it could really use a cafe. I’m sure some enterprising individual out there might invest in such a thing sometime in the future when the odds are in their favour. You’re welcome, future investor.