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River Heights Housing Development

River Heights Housing Development
Image by jezz

After World War I, north River Heights in Winnipeg experienced steady growth. In 1921. Sir John Franklin School was built to serve elementary students in the area. As early pictures attest, the school was a lot smaller and on rougher prairie fields than what came from the 1950s onward.

The red brick school originally designed by J.N. Semmens in the Collegiate Gothic style and built by Fraser and MacDonald contractors cost $52,000. Day labourers from Sutherland Construction built the one floor, six room schoolhouse on what was the very edge of the city at the time.

Sir Sam Steele school was built in the same red brick style and renovated in much the same way on Chester Street in Winnipeg in 1921.

There were expansions in 1934 and 1951 to add more classrooms and a gymnasium.

The school was U-shaped with a courtyard facing to the back lanes. The front of the school as well as a small staff parking lot faced out to Beaverbrook School. A play structure was built in the 1980s at the front of the school. Tether ball poles, four square courts and hop scotch were set inside and around the court yard.

For a time, an outdoor curling rink existed in the 1970s by the parking lot. There were two soccer fields, one baseball diamond and a single basketball hoop. The entire school was surrounded by a chain link that was open on the Beaverbrook side. Narrow openings existed to the street at Lanark. There were also a few waist level holes ostensibly to let dogs in and out. It was not unusual for River Heights people to just let their dogs out on the 1950s through 1970s and see them in the school yards at recess.

Bushes and trees lined the fence along Lanark Street ending in a stand of mature oaks at the northeast corner narrow entrance of the school. Children use to play in the bushes during and after school.

The official address of the school was 386 Beaverbrook Street and a red mail box was right at the corner of Beaverbook and Grosvenor Avenue to handle to mail from the school and Westworth United Church across the street. A play structure was built in the 1980s at the front of the school. It was in the 1980s that a daycare was established at Westworth Church as a before and after program for school kids.

It all came to an end in 1989 when the school saw dwindling enrolment and with too many other schools nearby, the school was shuttered. In 1990, the old school was demolished.

Sir John Franklin Community Club made use of the school for many years for soccer as well as baseball. Throughout the 1990s, it was typical to see a few games going on each day.

In winter, the fields sat largely empty save for people who cut across school grounds and those who strapped on cross country skis. It is uncertain when it happened but sometime in the 1990s that it became an unofficial off leash dog park.

The clashes between the community club and dog owners was ferocious in particular to people not cleaning up after their dogs. No trespassing signs and barricades were torn down by the dog people. Eventually the club gave up and even recently people have wiped out in a big pile of irresponsible dog owners.

The city tried to buy the park from the Winnipeg School Division but could not strike a deal. The WSD knew that the land was valuable and wanted to more from it than giving it for free or for a small sum.

The status quo suited some as long as someone was mowing and taking care of the property. The school division eventually made the move to sell and a debate has gone on for some time.

Dog owners wanted the land to become an official dog park. There certainly is a demand for an off leash park and the city is woefully behind in setting a policy for it. Many cities have quite a few of them. Winnipeg really only has unofficial kinds. Sir John Franklin often have dozens of owners in the park with their dogs.

The city has plainly said there enough parks in River Heights that they maintain already. While this might be true, the dog owners have a point that the city should allocate many more for their use. The school division maintains that while a school has not been there for under 15 years, it is not a park and they should be able to dispose of it accordingly.

All three of the above are correct. The city should offer up an off leash dog park somewhere else in River Heights. It is not the job of the school division to offer one. Dog owners must accept that the unofficial off leash park was temporary despite the trespass of all these years.

My personal preference to set up an official off leash dog park is off Edgeland in Tuxedo, close to the neighbourhood Safeway.

There may be other choices out there. Heck, if the city wants to get creative, they can move the works yard beside Sir John Franklin Community Club.

Dog owners should have options. Time for the city step up and do their job.

The school division has the right to sell the land at 386 Beaverbrook Street.

While some residents and dog owners wanted no change, a number of other people became resigned to the fact that the land was likely to be housing of some kind. Like the disposition of the CN Oak Bank rail lines nearby, citizens rejecting every proposal made will ultimately have something imposed on them if they offer no alternative input.

If housing was to go on the site, what kind of housing? A number of people, including a nearby church, thought maybe seniors housing. Such a project requires someone taking the bulls by the horns and no one did so the idea fizzled. The Free Press suggested high density housing but as pointed out Lanark Street might not be able to accommodate it. And Jane Jacobs said high density can’t simply bowl over a neighbourhood without consequences.

The school division eventually sold the entire site to a developer called 386 Beaverbook Developments.

Public hearing were held and the development company showed a design similar to the bay designs that line the west of Lanark Street now. The city flatly said no. When they said no more parks, they meant it. There might have been wide support ultimately for the design which also included housing on Beavebrook Street but the city did want a bay.

The bay houses might be valuable for the homeowners but they are underutilized parks with no real amenities and only costs for the city in terms in cutting grass and tress service. To be fair, the heyday of the parks might have been the 1970s when dozens of kids played in the parks all the time. Those days have long passed and the parks themselves often look a lot rougher than in years past from neglect.

Moreover, Lanark Street has become busier and busier ever since the traffic lights were placed at Academy and four way stop signs at Kingsway. The popularity of the shops and coffee places on Academy plus homeowners parking on the street means that most north River Heights streets are a unbroken line of parked cars 24 hours a day.

Lanark Street is the primary street used to turn left at Academy and is always busy. The traffic circle at Lanark and Grosvenor funnels even more traffic down the street. A bay would put more traffic on the street. Lastly, Grosvenor Avenue would have been broken up by an alleyway and a pathway to the bay. This might have already squeezed Westworth Church even more than roadway changes have already done.

Another proposal was for houses east and west and the east side of Beaverbook Street with a pocket park at Beaverbrook and Grosvenor.

This idea fell out of favour as well. The city really mean no when they say no more parks that they have to specially tend to.

Just a few days ago, it looks like the final design has been settled on.

It appears the city favoured an extension of the lane for garbage pick-up and a east-west road and another public lane for garbage pick-up and garages. The one major concession to parks was preservation of a green strip down Lanark and the mature oaks at the corner of the lot.

The garages at back and a public road east and west provides parking in front of houses if needs and off Lanark Street.

The houses facing Grosvenor face a church. For those who love parking only in front of their houses, they will face competition for the spots from the church and vice versa.

No one will be completely happy but the construction of 31 new homes in River Heights represents compromises. It puts money in the budget for the Winnipeg School Division to do something else. It gives the city new tax money from homes in a high value area, infills land inside the city, increases density using existing infrastructure.

The church while unhappy that they may have fewer spots in front to park might find they have new church goers as well. Ironically, new homes might attract more families seeking schools in the area… of what once was a school.

Dog owners need spaces. Time for the city to get off their duffs and help find them. I think I have pointed out a few spots already. There are more out there.

“Not in my backyard” cannot prevail without challenge. More people need to take the position of “Not without my involvement” or we achieve nothing.

River Heights gets 31 new family homes. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

By the way, I am looking for many more old Sir John Franklin school pictures. Please send my way.

This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations

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