On March 14, residents of Wolseley and the West End blocked a proposed pawnshop on Portage Avenue. Approximately 20 people attended a City of Winnipeg Board of Adjustment hearing regarding a proposed variance to allow a new pawnshop to open next door to a cheque casher, despite a bylaw requiring at least 1,000 feet separation between these types of businesses. Thanks to rapid community organizing and a strong, well-informed turnout, the proposal was turned down.
Residents faced an uphill battle. The Board of Adjustment has a record of often supporting requests by businesses to set aside existing city regulations. A city administrative report by the Urban Planning Division recommended providing a conditional variance as the cheque cashing facility and pawnshop were owned by the same business group. The business group also promised to be a more “upscale” establishment – proposing to sell higher priced goods like antiques, jewellery and precious metals. However, the business group expressed distain for the neighbours and neighbourhood, including a complaint during the proceedings that Wolseley gardens are too weedy.
Opposition to the proposed pawnshop formed both in social media and in the community. On a Wolseley Neighbourhood Facebook group, one resident posted a picture of the zoning variance poster encouraging others to get involved. Soon neighbours were talking, researching and sharing information, including concerns about break-ins in the community and that pawnshops can be an outlet stolen goods.
Even if a pawnshop is well-run, it can increase the perception of reduced safety in the neighbourhood. Rather than fostering community development, pawn broking is a business model that feeds off those who have fewer economic alternatives to meet their short-term cash needs. Pawnshops are mechanisms for extracting wealth from inner city communities, rather than promoting community led development.
As pawnshops and cheque cashers proliferate in a neighbourhood, it can become a signal that the area is under economic distress. In order to prevent clustering, the municipal zoning bylaw requires a 1,000 foot separation, but even this zoning rule does not prevent clusters from forming. Lower income areas have higher concentrations while very few pawnshops operate in wealthier parts of the city.
The proposal for another pawn shop on Portage Avenue points to the need for a positive community plan for our neighbourhood. Currently, the area is zoned as a mature community characterized by “employment opportunities, services, amenities and community facilities, such as grocery stores, banks, restaurants, community centres, schools and day care centres that are a reasonable walk or short transit trip from dwellings.” But a city planning report assessed the pawn shop as an appropriate addition to the neighbourhood. This suggests the need for more detailed secondary community plans that articulate positively what residents want and need.
Once again, neighbourhood residents demonstrated their capacity for collective community action. Ultimately, the Board of Adjustment heard residents’ concerns and turned down the proposal. Nonetheless, there is a possibility that the applicant will appeal the ruling for which residents will be watching closely.