Thursday, October 26, 2006

No plans

The Winnipeg civic election is now over, and incumbent mayor Sam Katz largely got what he wanted: more yes-men and women to fill council chairs.

The big news from last night, of course, was in St. James and North Kildonan, where a couple of old fossils were replaced with young fossils who promised to build and repair roads in thier wards, but will end up building roads in whichever yet-to-be-built new developments their boss tells them to. In River Heights, an articulate but unfocused incumbant was replaced by a stage prop so servile, that she will make Mike Pagtakhan look like Joe Zuken. In St. Boniface, the great francophone hope among progressives in this city (a leader of the opposition who actually dresses good, gets a haircut once in a while, and is able to formulate convincing arguments), replaced Katz' right hand man, Sam Losco (for the Trailer Park Boys fans out there)... I guess our city's active passenger rail terminal (Union Station) won't be turned into a gambling casino after all. And while Vandal is seen as the consolation prize for the civic-minded, it remains to be seen whether a man with eight years of being an ally can be an opposition. Anyway, the Katz Party is a ever-growing hydra, and a new head will quickly replace Magnifico's.

As for what the next four years will bring to Winnipeg, clues were found among the pages of the Free Press' election coverage today. Not in the actual post-election stories filed by bored reporters, but in two City of Winnipeg notices of public hearings, posted below the election stories. One was for ND Lea's planned first phase of Waverly West, complete with a map that shows that it is--surprise!--a low density island of cul-de-sac suburbia that is no more progressive, mixed, or transit friendly than Whyte Ridge.

The second notice was for the implementation of the Osborne Village secondary plan, which would support mixed-use development, design guidelines, and pedestrian orientation. All's fair in love and war--some people can take Waverly West, and some can have Osborne Village; so what's there to argue about? Well, for one, the Osborne Village secondary plan (part of Plan Winnipeg) took eight years to get to where it is today, while this first phase of Waverly West (not part of Plan Winnipeg) took less than two.

Secondary Plans can encompass an entire neighborhood or a single block, on land built up or unbuilt. They are implemented by council and are second only to Plan Winnipeg. The work to ensure that the character of a neighborhood is maintained, and that growth follows appropriate patterns; to keep strip malls off Albert Street, and hi-rise towers off Oak Street. (In the Village, it would likely have prevented disasters like the new Safeway/Starbucks/MLCC at River and Osborne Village from being built.) Every one of Winnipeg's old neighborhoods is in dire need of them, and when it takes eight years for Osborne Village--affluent compared to other urban neighborhoods, and with an active councillor--to have their secondary plan reach the council floor, it shows the ignorance and feeble attitude to progressive city planning that exists. We have half as many city planners at Edmonton does, and most are kept busy rubber-stamping the same old garbage for Ladco and Shindico, rather than working at keeping neighborhoods quality places people would want to visit and live in. Those planners that do strive for quality are mitigated, muzzled, and eventually move away.

With a council that has no plans, how can we expect City Planners to continue to be anything but poorly equipped and ignored? Will political will exist to ensure Sargent or Selkirk Avenue have secondary plans that stop the dilution of their urban character? Will Higgins Avenue--the obvious "phase two" of Waterfront Drive--become anything more than a dismal at-grade freeway? The answer is a resounding no, and city council will continue to serve the men and women who coaxed Sam Katz into seeking re-election in the first place: suburban developers.

With a council that takes a small town approach to planning and development, their big city approach to crime prevention will not be enough to control the effects of depopulation and sprawl in the coming years. Meanwhile, the days of $2.00 bus fares and frozen property taxes will be looked back upon with fondness by Winnipeggers going to the polls in 2010.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Wishing on Dumb Growth

In an op-ed piece in the Winnipeg Free Press, this week, David Witty--Dean of the U of M's Faculty of Architecture--seemed surprised and dismayed that Waverly West looks like it will end up amounting to nothing more than dull, disconnected tracts (or cells, as the developers are calling them) of automobile suburbia (as if it would be anything but).

One architecture professor at the U of M told me over beers this past summer, that Mr. Witty is probably the only dean of any respected architecture faculity that would support such massive sprawl in the face of such miniscule population growth. In his op-ed, Mr. Witty advocates for "good design" in Waverly West, but states that New Urbanist design principles would be too "narrow", and in the name of "choice", believes that a middle-of-the-road approach to design would be a good compromise. For example, garage-faced house builders need only set the garage back to the facade of the house in some parts of Waverly West. By taking this approach, perhaps Mr. Witty hopes that both his social networks and his credibility as an architecture dean would simultaniously remain intact.

"Snouts" or not, garages in the front are decidedly bad design

Anyway, the key thing that Mr. Witty's article left out, was the fact that Winnipeg is not Phoenix, Markham, Dallas, or Calgary, who work to create urbanism from scratch--we have an untapped wealth of true urban design inside a four kilometre radius of Portage and Main. If you want good urban design, Mr. Witty, you won't find it among the cul-de-sac fringes, you'll find it in the city's heart, where hundreds of city blocks were built up prior to 1920--a golden age of urbanism. These were, and remain (to varying degrees), diverse, walkable neighborhoods built for urban living patterns: the two storey house that faces the front street; the front street that leads the corner store and further on, to the neighborhood shopping street of two-four storey mixed-use storefronts; the transit stop that takes you to a bustling downtown, where the mixed-use storefronts are five-twelve stories. The scale humanized, the space defined, the architecture pleasing. Today, we need only fill the holes that suburbanization left in these neighborhoods.

Rather than wasting time wishing for pigs to wear silk hats in patternless neighborhoods (a sea of residential sameness separated by a sea of commercial sameness by a ditch and semi-freeway), why not focus on the fight to restore the dozens of urban neighborhoods of Winnipeg, many of which continue to face population loss, and physical and social decline. Why advocate for a cartoon while ignoring the real thing that exists right in front of you?

North Point Douglas, Spence, William Whyte, Centennial, Lord Roberts, etc: these are the true "smart growth" neighborhoods, and without fully restoring them to their potential, Winnipeg will continue go without any kind of growth to speak of.

Friday, October 13, 2006

If you ignore them, maybe they'll go away

Incumbant mayoral candidate Sam Katz seems to approach candidate forums like he approaches his shirt buttons: do a few, and leave the rest. Among the nine mayoralty debates, Katz has, or plans to, skip five, included two last Wednesday--one hosted by the city's student's associations, another by the William Whyte (a North End neighborhood) Residents' Association--and one next Tuesday, hosted by the IUS, Planner's Network Manitoba, Architects without borders, etc.

The official word was that he could not attend these because of previous engagements. Usually, his daily itinerary is posted on in the "Where is Sam today?" column. On Wednesday, the day he missed two mayoral candidate forums, it was not updated; we don't know where Sam was that day, we just know where he wasn't. (The only update to his website that day was a posted press release ironically entitled "Katz taking nothing for granted.)

But is it any surprise that even without an apparent scheduling conflict, Katz did not show up? It was, after all, only interested students and concerned "inner city" residents last Wednesday, and city planners and urbanists this Tuesday--neither of which could be considered his core support. The thing that we all know is, that whether or not he snubs these people, he'll still win the election. And while Sam Katz might not need their support to succeed on the 25th, but the city of Winnipeg needs them to succeed in the future. This city cannot afford to lose its educated young people, its urban neighborhood stalwarts and pioneers, or its city planners. They might be the thorn in the side of foolish developer-propped mayors, but they are an immesurable part of this whole city's progress as a place to live and do business.

The Sam Katz Party's attitude towards students, urbanites and planners is "if you ignore them, maybe they'll go away", but it would cost us all--from the poorest Central Park immigrant family starting out, the the richest "taxpayer" suburbanite--if they did.