Tuesday, October 25, 2005

CEC chair cuts ribbon on suburban road-widening

Yesterday, St. Vital Councillor and Chair of the City's Civic Environmental Committee Gord Steeves, officially opened a newly widened stretch of St. Annes Road south of Bishop Grandin. In a news release put out by City Hall, Steeves said this road widening will "significantly reduce the traffic congestion that has resulted from the rapid growth we’ve seen in south St. Vital.”

He is refering to, of course, the "rapid growth" that has resulted from the City's lack of environmental policies, and its encouragement of auto-dependant suburban development in South Winnipeg.

In the news release, Steeves' words were backed up by the 'science' of traffic engineers. Bill Larkin, Director of Public Works for the City, went so far as to say that this one kilometre stretch of road will "improve safety for motorists and pedestrians, as well as the aesthetics of the roadway." I don't know how allowing cars and trucks to travel at greater speeds will improve safety for motorists or pedestrians. As for aesthetics, well to me, a widened traffic artery is far less aesthetically pleasing than a narrow country road. But what do I know; I'm not a traffic engineer.

Steeves' excitement over this road widening in the suburban hinterlands reeks of irony, and acutely demonstrates this city's ingorance and inaction on environmental issues. As Chairperson of the Civic Environmental Committee, Steeves can talk a good game. He can run off some fuzzy platitudes of the City's commitment to blah blah blah, and try and promote environmentally and economically sustainable development with the best of 'em. But when he puts on his Councillor hat again, things change.

The encouragement of auto use, and of further suburban development around the wider artery (including along the nearby Seine River) is no way environmentally sustainable. Just as importantly, it is economically unsustainable. To twin this one kilometre stretch of road cost $3,000,000... Roughly the amount the City is proudly claiming to save on privatizing garbage collection. And as any motorist, transit user, or cyclist can tell you, $3M for roads in Winnipeg might be put to better use in more intensely used portions of streets within the centre of the city.

It all really starts to hit the fan when the suburban developers, who are attracted to new, wide roads like flies to you-know-what, build out around this new road, and the congestion grows greater as more residents use St. Annes to drive to work or play in "their downtown", or to buy a litre of milk at the Safeway on Fermor. When this happens, we can expect the Bill Larkins of the City to call for 'improvements to safety and aesthetics' on St. Annes all the way up to the Main Street Bridge and widen the road to eight lanes instead of six. And we can expect the Gord Steeves of the City to get behind this in spite of what would certainly strong opposition from residents of Norwood, St. Boniface, St. Vital. (This widening proposal will most likely occur as part of phase two of the Rapid Transit Task Forces' "Bus Rapid Transit" plan that will turn St. Annes into a "quality corridor".)

When that happens, we can all look forward to paying for many more $3M 'improvements' even further into the South.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Waverly Waste

Remember Waverly West? In January of this year, I wrote a letter to members of Winnipeg's Excecutive Policty Committee in opposition to the approval of this suburb being built on the SW end of the city. Back then, gas was selling in Winnipeg at an average of $0.76 per litre then, instead of the $1.00 it is today. Back then, the federal government was not financially assisting people with heating their homes with natural gas, as they are preparing to do this coming January.

No doubt the opposition to Waverly West, futile as it may be, is just as important today as it was 10 months ago.

Today, we are still bombarded with regular fear-pieces written by Murray McNeil in the Business section of the Winnipeg Free Press. They warn of "rising property values" (ie- houses are not selling for $1000 in Winnipeg anymore), and a sprawl industry that has slowed because of a "shortage" of tracts of land within the perimeter. (Less proclaimed, is the slowing of home construction outside of the city, where tracts of cheap, vulnurable hinterlands abound).

And once in a while, we hear from the Provincial NDP government, the ones who stand to make some quick spread from Wavery West in the short term. They remind us that some the "excess revenue" of Waverly West will go towards supporting social programs in the central city of Winnipeg. I would be interested to know how a low-density suburbs in a slow-growth city will be able to pay for itself, nevermind other neighborhoods. (The total "excess revenue" accumilated in sixty years, according to the CBA's done on Waverly West, would barely pay for a Waverly Street underpass, or the widening of Route 90, nevermind pay for social programs in the old city.

As a home-owner in what the press likes to call The Core, The North End, The Inner City, or just "Downtown" when they are feeling particularly lazy, I would like to see my neighborhood continue to renew to the point that it can "pay for itself". Yet, I am somehow suposed to be happy (and silence any concerns on WW) because it will somehow help deal with social problems that arise in my undervalued neighborhood. I am supposed to feel good about essentially being "on assistance" from suburbia.

Anyway, here is a large portion of the letter:
"...There are two ways you can look at the decision regarding Waverly West: One, it could be seen as simply a means to alleviate the shortage of building lots facing conventional developers, (I say it is facing the developers, because as of yet, I have not heard a John or Jane Homebuyer demand this suburb). Or two, it could be looked at from every other angle, from a few steps back. If Waverly West is not outright folly, it is certainly questionable. The private citizen has no idea what benefits these developments will offer him as a taxpaying citizen Amendment must be delayed until those benefits are clearly seen and understood by all Winnipeggers. It is unclear who has a say in the planning in Waverly West and further development in the Capitol Region as a whole. (I mean overall development; beyond “put a cul-de-sac here, a juniper bush there.”) Who will be paying and building services? And which services? And what is the Province doing pretending to be a developer in Winnipeg in the first place? Are the provinces’ development plans (Waverly West) undermining the City’s own growth plans (Plan Winnipeg)?

Plan Winnipeg stands to be abandoned for a plan that isn’t really a plan. Certainly not a plan drawn out by and for the City of Winnipeg. Amending Plan Winnipeg for Waverly West at this point in time is putting whatever “vision” this city has on hold for the short-sighted ideas of a few. Look at how little these developers have done for the civic well-being of their suburbs of the last 20 years. Is this going to be any different?

And of course, the existing City of Winnipeg -where most of us already live and where newcomers are moving to- must be considered. For the much of the older neighbourhoods, recent economic growth and low interest rates have got people buying homes, creating a demand, which has in turn raised property values in areas which were undervalued for decades, thus making commercial and residential investments profitable. Will Waverly West have an adverse effect on property value in central neighbourhoods? If interest rates and energy costs remain low for the next three to four decades, the answer might be “No.” But neither you nor I, nor Ladco or the Province can guarantee that low interest rates, cheap oil, and the good times will stick around that long.
At its worst, letting Ladco and the provincial government have a go at a City without vision and certainty will be detrimental. It will drain the cities’ resources by building tracts of homes and strip malls and leaving the rest for us to do. At its best, it will have no effect on existing neighbourhoods. Who knows for sure? And if there is no negative effects, why bother to amend plans and make such an effort to accommodate it?

To be sure, developers may be correct when they warn that high prices are bad news for brand new developments and their “billion-dollar industry,” but that is only a small part of overall urban growth, which the City should focus more on. And if higher real estate prices deter growth, then why did many of the people I went to high school with move to Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, where they are paying $1-2000 on rent or mortgage payments? If it is bad for growth, then what have all these construction cranes been doing Downtown lately? Why is the Exchange District becoming less and less vacant? Why isn’t the West Broadway neighbourhood as dangerous and run down as it was 2-3 years ago? Why would someone like me planning to raise a family in Point Douglas? I mean, let’s be honest, being the “Bargain basement of Canada” hasn’t exactly been a real drawing card for Winnipeg over the last 20-30 years. So perhaps, at the risk of “losing homebuilders and developers”, we could work at building up the city we already have. With vision and concise concentration on allowing and planning sustainable growth. (I do not use that term lightly.) Perhaps then there will be less young people moving to Calgary, Toronto or anywhere else that offers them a little more than cheap homes.

One example of building up the city, is to look no further than out your office window, to the Exchange District. Countless people my age love the area, and hope that one day they can live there when affordable and mid-priced (under $200,000) units become available. This will not happen until much more of the land in the Exchange is re-zoned from commercial to mixed-use residential. (Some have already purchased or leased units to live in, but are prohibited to do so.) The primary cure to Downtowns’ ills is an established population. Anyone can tell you that, and part of Plan Winnipeg was a pursuit of that. To now rush and rezone what is outside of Plan Winnipeg, when so little has been done to rezone in accordance to it appears unfocused and unsure. The City of Winnipeg deserves something better than unfocused and unsure leadership. What faith can it put into the implementers of the city’s 20-year plan, when that plan fluctuates and wavers with the economy, or when any new idea comes along from any such group looking to make a profit off an unfocused, unsure City Hall?"

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

I promised I would start talking more about the positive things going on around town, and this sure is one of them. This gets me more excited about the state of our city more than the MTS Centre, the Hydro office, CKY News, and the Library (how many years does a reno job take?) combined. It is something I have never seen in my lifetime. It is something that five decades of studies, schemes and scams tried (and subsequently failed) to do: It is the restoration and re-use of an old building on North Main Street.

Above the restored Norman's Meats shopfront, which will soon serve as offices and galleries, will be rental units for artists who work in the area.

Up the street, the fixed-up Main level of the Occidental Hotel serves as a great music venue. Meanwhile, across the street, on a nice row of late Victorian and Romanesque buildings, a group of kids have opened up a bike repair shop.

Together, visionary property owners and the creative young can do much more to enhance urban districts than even the most well-studied and well-funded revitalization plans.