Winnipeg developer frustrated after city department downsizes previously approved infill project

Rahul Kumar stands on the lawn of his property in Winnipeg’s St. Vital area and shrugs with frustration.

“In my mind, I’m thinking I’m screwed. I invest money and everything and I feel screwed,” he said.  

Kumar bought the lot in 2016 and got permits to build a six-unit apartment block. The city’s property and planning department, and its water and waste department, had both signed off on the modest infill project.

However, Kumar wasn’t quite ready to build and the permit lapsed, so he was obliged to reapply and began working with a planner at the city.

The rookie developer hired former city councillor and deputy mayor Russ Wyatt last year to help with the process and submitted a new design for the six-unit project. Wyatt says things moved along well — for a while. 

“October last year, the planner signed off on the design …[for] a six-plex,” Wyatt said. “Full support.” 

By November, Kumar and Wyatt got some bad news from the property and planning department, which said the water and waste department was scaling back the size of the project.

Kumar had received a permit to develop a six-unit building on his St. Vital property. But after delays meant he had to reapply, the number of units was cut to three by the city’s water and waste department. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

That department would only authorize a three-suite building — not six — apparently over concerns about sewage system capacity.

“At the 11th hour, water and waste comes … and says ‘no, you cannot do that, you can only build three here,” said Kumar, who has already spent $40,000 on the project, in addition to the initial purchase cost for the property.

Wyatt says he was reluctant to bring the issue to the media, but told CBC News the city’s process needs to be scrutinized. 

“It just completely destroys the project that he had — this is a small builder and Indo-Canadian. A hard-working, first-generation Canadian who wants to improve our city, raise property values — and [is] being shut down,” said Wyatt, who was the councillor for Transcona from 2002 to 2018.

“The red tape today is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”

Wyatt says other clients he’s working with are facing similar problems, and he’s hearing similar stories from other smaller developers.

‘Only so much room in the pipe’: councillor

CBC News asked the city why, in spite of policies to promote infill, Kumar’s proposed development was downsized.

The property and planning department “evaluates the zoning and construction aspects of an application to ensure they meet the city’s development requirements, while … [water and waste] reviews an application’s impact on sewage and water services,” a City of Winnipeg spokesperson said in an email.

“The city does attempt to align these reviews during the rezoning process and ensure the developer is aware of these requirements from the onset.”

While there is a push for infill, the city is also facing concerns over its sewage capacity, with costs for needed upgrades to Winnipeg’s sewage treatment system currently estimated at $1.8 billion.

The city is conducting a massive upgrade of its sewage treatment system to meet the requirements of its licence under the province’s Environment Act and reduce the outflow of nutrients into Lake Winnipeg. 

The city’s spokesperson acknowledged supporting infill development is a goal, and infill guidelines have been developed following consultation.

The city is always looking for ways to “evaluate ways of amending the development review process so that issues associated with service capacity are flagged early on,” but there are limits to how much infill develop can be supported, the spokesperson said.

“While infill is a desirable form of development for the city and meets the goals of increased housing in mature communities, applications must still comply with existing environmental regulations and applicable bylaws.”

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes says while he understands why Kumar is frustrated, ‘by the time he was ready to go, our sewer staff were saying there’s no longer room for six more units.’ (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, who also chairs the city’s water and waste committee, says he supports infill development, but “there’s only so much room in the pipe.”

“It’s fair that … [Kumar is] frustrated. But the years went by. He waited a while and the pipe started filling up. So by the time he was ready to go, our sewer staff were saying there’s no longer room for six more units,” Mayes told CBC News.

Mayes was at the hearing where Kumar’s application was heard and believes the city’s departments all have to be on the same page when it comes to issuing permits.

“We’ve got to have one position out of our public service, which should be ‘it’s this many units,’ rather than public arguing from different branches,” Mayes said, acknowledging capacity issues are creeping up all over the city.

He says all three levels of government have to focus more resources to expand Winnipeg’s aging capacity. 

City ‘shutting down’ densification: Wyatt

Wyatt says it’s confusing to see the city grant permits for massive subdivisions when smaller developers see their plans scaled back.

He believes the city needs both the economic development and housing that comes from larger-scale development, but says there is a problem behind the scenes. 

“City hall, which keeps saying ‘we want to grow up instead of grow out, we want to have density,’ is shutting down the very density that they claim to be supporting,” Wyatt said. 

The former city councillor says the provincial government has taken notice of the issue, and sent two letters this summer cautioning the city to ensure it complies with its combined sewer overflow licence from the province, which “aims to decrease the quantity and improve the quality” of overflows from combined sewers into Winnipeg’s rivers.

A clause of that licence “requires that the frequency and volume of overflows cannot increase due to new or upgraded land development,” according to the province.

“The province has now issued a letter saying you’re misinterpreting the environmental licence when it comes to these neighbourhoods,” Wyatt said.

The City of Winnipeg, though, disputes that.

“The province … has confirmed that the city’s interpretation of the licence is consistent with their intent,” wrote the city’s spokesperson. 

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