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Inner-city Winnipeg housing complex sits vacant, up for sale only 12 years after it was built

Manitoba is looking to redevelop, sell or give away an inner-city Winnipeg housing complex that sits vacant only 12 years after it was built at a cost of $3.7 million.

Center Village, a 25-unit apartment complex originally intended to serve as housing for newcomers to Canada, is surrounded by security fencing while Manitoba Housing determines what to do with the Balmoral Street property.

The complex’s whimsical design initially won three architectural awards but soon came under fire from tenants, critics and even some of its original proponents.

The multi-storey apartment layout was derided as impractical and the exterior design as unsafe in the context of the Central Park neighborhood.

The property has been vacant since it was fenced off in January of this year. Its assessed value, according to the city, is $2.1 million.

“While site redevelopment is a possible option, Manitoba Housing is continuing to explore long-term options for the property that may include sale/transfer to a non-profit housing provider,” the province said last week in a statement, which was not attributed to any official.

Housing advocates say the vacant state of the housing complex is shameful in a city that suffers from a shortage of affordable homes.

“It’s awful that this is happening when we have thousands of families waiting for subsidized housing,” said Codi Guenther, the director of New Journey Housing, a non-profit organization that helps newcomers find homes.

However, “it didn’t seem like it was designed with the families in mind that were going to live there,” she said.

The three-storey apartment layouts prevented single parents from using the kitchen while watching their kids, Guenther said, and the open areas outside demanded a security fence.

Originally planned as co-op

Center Village was conceived as a partnership between the downtown development agency CentreVenture, Central Park’s Knox United Church, Manitoba Housing and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The provincial and federal governments contributed $1.5 million toward the project.

It was originally intended to serve as a co-operative for observing Muslim newcomers who could not obtain mortgages without violating a faith-based proscription against paying interest.

The co-op model, however, was abandoned. Manitoba Housing assumed the title in 2015.

A British filmmaker who flew to Winnipeg that year with the intention of shooting a documentary about the award-winning complex wound up penning a scathing piece instead in UK newspaper The Guardian, calling the complex “badly affected by crime” and describing the apartments as ” cramped and unsuitable” for families.

Several of Center Village’s creators agreed.

“It’s not the project we originally envisioned, or we saw a need for in the community,” Bill Millar, then a pastor with Knox United Church, told The Guardian at the time.

“We could have done better,” Ross McGowan, then CentreVenture’s executive director, added.

“We all have a responsibility, as the owners, as the consulting team, as the province, as the city. Maybe that’s part of the issue: [we thought] ‘well, it’s just affordable housing, let’s not get too wound up about it.'”

Center Village won three architectural awards but became the subject of complaints that its design was not suitable and that it was plagued by crime. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Carolyn Ryan, Manitoba Housing’s portfolio director at the time, blamed the design by Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture.

“Innovative designs aren’t always going to work,” she told the Winnipeg Free Press in 2016. “Sometimes you have to go back to basics.”

Sasa Radulovic, the founding partner of 5468796 Architecture, rejected the suggestion Center Village was failing because of its design.

“I would suggest on a number of levels, it was a success,” he told CBC News in 2016.

500 calls to 911

Following the publication of the Guardian piece in 2016, Manitoba Housing pledged to conduct a safety review of the complex and mused about building a security fence.

One by one, the suites in the complex became unoccupied. In March of 2021, when five apartments still had tenants, one complained to CBC News a promised enclosure was never built.

Guenther noted the irony in the security fence that now surrounds the complex.

“The lack of investment in this building over the past 12 years means that now there’s a fence around it and nobody can live there,” she said.

City of Winnipeg data obtained by CBC News suggests security concerns are not just anecdotal. Since Center Village opened in 2010, more than 500 calls to 911 were placed to the city about or at the complex.

That works out to an average of nearly one emergency call per week related to a structure with 25 units.

Demand for housing remains

Housing proponents hope the property will become housing once more, noting there are many successful subsidized, supported and low-income housing developments in downtown Winnipeg.

“To me, it’s still a resource,” said Jason Whitford, CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg, which estimates the city needs about 1,500 affordable housing units.

“Maybe it has potential for renovation and a proper tenant can come in there with a need and a specialization of helping a certain population.”

Colin Neufeld, a partner at 5468796 Architecture, said his firm wanted to have a positive impact on Central Park residents and is sad to hear the complex is empty.

“Regretfully, an architect’s involvement ends shortly after occupancy and we were not consulted about its upkeep nor to consider any needed adjustments,” he said in a statement last week.

“We would welcome the opportunity to explore possible solutions to reoccupy the building.”

A British filmmaker who flew to Winnipeg in 2015 with the intention of shooting a documentary about an award-winning housing complex wound up writing a scathing article in The Guardian, a UK newspaper. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Millar’s successor at Knox United Church called on the province to ensure Center Village is occupied again.

“There is a critical need for housing, and not just for newcomers, but [for] all low-income people,” Rev. Lesley Harrison said.

Angela Mathieson, McGowan’s successor at CentreVenture, also called on the province to help.

So did Daniel McIntyre Coun. Cindy Gilroy, whose ward includes Central Park.

“It’s very disappointing,” she said. “We have a housing crisis and this could be … housing for many different people.”

Guenther at New Journey said the site must remain subsidized housing.

“We can’t continue to lose” subsidized units, she said. “This is a public investment and now we don’t know what’s happening to it, and that should not be the way things work.”

Provincial Families Minister Rochelle Squires did not respond to a request for comment.

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