Arts & Life, City & Politics

Osborne Village could one day be among the best neighbourhoods in Canada – but it isn’t yet

By Steve Lafleur

I read Sheldon Birnie’s Spectator Tribune article with interest. Having opined on this for some time, it seems like an ideal time to chime in.

Osborne Village is not the best neighbourhood in Canada.

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Anyone who has been to Yorkville in Toronto, Gastown in Vancouver, or Montreal’s Le Plateau recognizes the vast gulf dividing the elite Canadian neighbourhoods from the second tier. That isn’t to say that Osborne isn’t a very good neighbourhood. The comparison just isn’t fair. Toronto and Vancouver are much wealthier and Montreal has a European style urban core, which can sustain more vibrant urban cultures. The amenities both within and proximate to those neighbourhoods put them miles ahead.

However, Osborne Village does have the potential to offer a much better value than those neighbourhoods, and an overall quality of living that some would consider preferable. That will depend on leadership and creativity from both the public and private sectors. Under the baseline scenario, we should anticipate that Osborne Village will improve. But whether it becomes an elite neighbourhood is up to us.

Osborne Village is in transition. It has the urban form and demographics to be a very interesting place. It is walkable, has a large cohort of young professionals, and an eclectic mix of shops. It also has key amenities such as a 24 hour Shoppers Drug Mart and Subway. While those may not seem like such a big deal, most Canadian neighbourhoods have neither. They are handy, and provide useful “eyes on the street” at night (as an exercise, stand at River and Osborne around 3 a.m., and consider how much less safe you’d feel without those businesses open).

Osborne is also adjacent to the lovely legislative grounds and Riverwalk on the north side, emerging Sherbrooke Street is just west, the Forks are east across Main Street, the wonderful architecture of the Exchange District is to northest, and charming old St. Boniface is southeast. Most of Osborne Village is within a twenty minute walk of Downtown and the MTS Centre. The Millenium Library just north is an excellent amenity for Osborne residents, and the grounds are something of an urban oasis.  In short, Osborne Village is very well situated.

Yet, despite all of its advantages, Osborne Village currently lacks some of the basic amenities one would expect of a great neighbourhood. There isn’t a diversity of great bars. Frankly, there isn’t even one. The Toad in the Hole may suffice if you’re a college kid going out with a big group, but there isn’t a neighbourhood pub that has any type of draw, let alone a trendy lounge. There are some excellent restaurants such as Segovia, but there are culinary gaps, such as the glaring lack of a Vietnamese restaurant, or a good late night Chinese takeout joint. There also isn’t a single top-tier coffee shop in the neighbourhood. These are temporary problems, though.

As I write from the Second Cup at River and Osborne, I can see the old Papa George’s restaurant. While many lamented its closure, it is making way for a new location of The Grove, which is one of the three best bars in the city. A few doors down, the owners of one of Winnipeg’s best coffee shops, Parlour Coffee, are opening Little Sister Coffee Maker. Tastes are changing (I’d argue improving), and the market is adapting. That is progress.

While Osborne proper is improving, Corydon Village is also going through what appears to be a positive transition. Corydon is home to Bar Italia, which is one of the more popular night life venues in the urban core. It recently lost the Red Cactus, though it is being replaced by Teo’s, which is owned by the owners of trendy Brooklyn Bistro. Fresh Café was shuttered, but Burrito del Rio has filled the space. It’s tough to say whether the current wave of restaurants opening on Corydon will succeed, but the fact that things other than sushi restaurants are popping up should provide refreshing diversity to the neighbourhood. These improvements are welcome news for Osborne residents.

The future of the Exchange District will also be critical for Osborne Village. The Exchange wants to be a nightlife hub, and it does contain many popular night clubs, but it isn’t yet the type of neighbourhood people reflexively wander into on a Friday night. People go there, but not in the spontaneous way that hordes of Torontonians flock to Ossington Avenue or Vancouverites to Granville Street. It’s hard to say whether the Exchange will take off in the near future, but it could one day be a significant nightlife destination reasonably proximate to Osborne.

Another development that has bolstered Osborne is the boom in food trucks. While they are mostly located on Broadway, just north, they are an easy walk. Street food is taking off in major cities, and for good reasons. It is cheap, convenient, people love eating outside and it wedges in retail activity without the need for new buildings. Winnipeg appears to be more accommodating of food trucks than many cities, though that’s not necessarily saying much.

Other areas for improvement are transportation and housing availability. Public transportation from Osborne to most popular destinations is adequate. The rapid transit line has made transportation to the University of Manitoba easy and fast for Osborne residents. The 21 and 22 lines provide easy access along Portage to Unicity. Several buses travel the short distances to the University of Winnipeg and Polo Park.

But the city’s taxi shortage is particularly noticeable to car-free Osborne residents. While it is easier to get a cab here than in most of the rest of Winnipeg, 410 taxis is not enough to serve a city of over 700,000. One can wait up to 30 minutes to get a cab during daytime peaks, and longer on weekend nights. This needs to be addressed (though how is a subject for another time).

Housing supply is a more complicated issue. While it is obvious that the area could use more rental units and condos (much as some reflexively oppose the latter), it isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand. The East Exchange condo subsidies have not worked out as planned, and the city is now about to provide more subsidies for condo buyers in the neighbourhood. Since the aim of this article is merely to assess Osborne Village, rather than to solve its most complicated problems, I’ll merely note that this is one of the challenges the neighbourhood is facing (though it’s not exactly a secret).

Assuming that the area continually improves without substantial housing price increases, it could provide an excellent value relative to top tier Canadian neighbourhoods. At the moment, one can rent a large, newly renovated three bedroom unit for the price of an equivalent one bedroom unit in Toronto’s trendiest neighbourhoods. You might not be able to get on the subway to the opera, but you can walk to see an NHL game or major concert. For most Canadians, those are more appealing to begin with. And 90 percent of urban residents would be happy with Winnipeg’s nightlife becoming as diverse and exciting as even second tier Toronto neighbourhoods such as Yonge and Eglinton, which is within the realm of possibility. Osborne could become a much better value for money than other great Canadian neighbourhoods. If this is what the contest judges had in mind, then, yes, Osborne Village could become Canada’s best neighbourhood. But not yet.

Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (