Thursday, May 31, 2007

More on Upper Fort Garry

Some would have us believe that the City should plan according to cronyism and historical revisionism. My suggestion to them--the newspaper columnists, the dress-up groups, the local brahmin establishment, and the concerned public, is to read Alan Artibise's "Winnipeg: An Illustrated History" (1977), or spend some time browsing through the website of the Manitoba Historical Society. It may come as a surprise to them to find out that not only was Upper Fort Garry not the first fort built at The Forks (it was the fifth), it wasn't even the first Fort Garry (that one stood closer to The Forks) or the first seat of government in the region (again, that would be Fort Gibralter/Fort Garry, when the Council of Assiniboia formed in 1822--a decade before work on the new Fort Garry began. Or going back further, it was Macdonell's quasi-government of Fort Douglas in the 1810s). And while the importance of Upper Fort Garry shouldn't be understated. it was not the "birthplace" or "cradle" of the city of Winnipeg--politcal or otherwise.

It's interesting to hear the fort described as the birthplace of the city over and over again. This belief could probably be indirectly attributed to--in addition to historical ignorance or purposeful revisioning--Winnipeggers being deeply wont to socialist economics: where goods and services are administered by one body (ie- Hudson's Bay Co. prior to 1849; MTS prior to the 1990s; the present-day Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Liquor Control Commission; or the publicly-subsidised, zoning-choked nature of the post-war shopping arrangement.) They don't seem to understand that the city only came about after the HBC's monopoly was broken, when unbridled commerce occured north of the fort, at Portage and Main. And it's only when many of today's monopolies and regulations are broken, and ideas and commerce are encouraged again, that the city will be able to grow proper and true (and have its 154-year old fort gate not be surrounded by gravel parking lots and filling stations for decades).

This mindset is also a good explanation for the local fear and disdain of private ownership and development, which seems to forget that like the Walker Theatre or the Union Bank tower, the Upper Fort Garry gate is (quite rightly) a Grade I heritage structure, and cannot be torn down or altered no matter who owns it.

Anyway, here's two examples of what can happen when the City owns highly important heritage structures:

Monday, May 28, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part two

The 1960s were to North American cities what the 1940s were to European cities. Modernism, a line of thought that influenced Mussolini and Hitler in their sinister goals, came to have a similar influence upon architects and planners in the decades after World War II. In the swingin' '60s, Modernism's assailment on our cities reached a fevered pitch. In Winnipeg, it was demonstrated in text-book fashion with the building of the civic centre, which wiped out the neighborhood around City Hall in phases between '62 and '68. Out went the mixed-use apartment buildings (the largest concentration in the city), the shops, the old City Hall (nationally recognized for it's distinctive, "gingerbread" architecture), the public market behind it, the Romanesque warehouses. Six blocks in all (which were reduced to three super-blocks).

This view was probably taken from the Union Bank tower, and shows the roof of the Old City Hall. Behind it, you can see some of the neighborhood that existed immediately to the north.

Here is the north side of Market Avenue, looking west from Lily Street. The brown warehouse appears to be one of the finer examples of Richardson Romanesque architecture in the city. Beyond it, buildings at the NE and NW corners of Market and Main were home to shops and dwelling units.

The first failed mega-project
Like the Convention Centre of the 1970s, Portage Place of the '80s, and the MTS Centre and Hydro building of the present decade, it was hoped in the '60s that with the Civic Centre project--especially the Concert Hall, Planetarium and Museum of Man and Nature--revitalization would come to the declining surroundings. Cafes and hotels would spruce up their premises to serve the droves of the returning middle classes, and new retail and services would spring up in their wake. (Too bad the Civic Centre eliminated thousands square feet of commercial space.) It has become a familiar pattern, and every Winnipegger knows how much worse Main Street now, how boring the area around the Convention Centre is, and how dangerous and dull Portage Avenue continues to become in spite of over a billion dollars in mega-project funding.

And that is what happens with misanthropic design is used to draw people: they won't come. The postwar mega-project is designed like the suburbs they compete with--for machine, not man. In an increasingly suburbanizing city, where the majority of middle class people were beginning to (have to) drive a car to buy a litre of milk, why would anyone be expected to know how to stroll three blocks to Chinatown for dim sum after a show? With the inhuman new architecture built at inhuman scales, the hostile quasi-freeways that traffic engineers turned downtown streets into, and the increasing number of surface parking lots pock-marking the remaining urban landscape, why would anyone want to anyway?

How many 'birthplaces' does Winnipeg have?

[Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday May 27, 2007]
IT'S been discussed by insiders for months, and now the type of development that will occur at 100 Main St. has been decided by the city's downtown development committee.

There will be a historically themed park on the portion of the address on which Upper Fort Garry stood from the 1830s to 1980s. Next to the park, a new building will rise, though it will not be the 35-storey office/condo skyscraper that some were hoping to see tower over downtown. Instead, it will be a 15-storey apartment block that appears to be designed in a style that could aptly be termed Grant Avenue Moderne.

For a group called Friends of Upper Fort Garry, having no building at all would have been the best decision for 100 Main due to the site's historical significance, though hardly a word of this was heard through the years it sat drab and underused.

Today, people park their cars on the fort's site, but the Friends of Upper Fort Garry believe it would be wrong and short-sighted to allow people to actually live and shop there.

As ammunition for this agenda, Upper Fort Garry is being called the "birthplace of Winnipeg," which comes as a new revelation to this amateur local history buff. Just how many birthplaces does Winnipeg have?

The Forks is an obvious candidate, since the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was ultimately the reason why what is now Winnipeg has been a centre of trade and transportation for thousands of years.
Click here to find out more!
Portage and Main is another. The intersection of the Portage and Fort Garry trails led to the first store being built there in 1862, becoming the nucleus of a city. Going back further, today's eastern portion of the Exchange District could also be considered the birthplace of Winnipeg, since it is where settlers like Andrew McDermot and Robert Logan endeavoured in free-market trade in the years before commerce moved over to Portage and Main.

Historians also consider Point Douglas to be the city's birthplace, since Fort Douglas -- built in 1813 at what is now the foot of Galt Avenue -- was the centre of activity for the Selkirk settlers who arrived the year before to establish the first agricultural settlement in Western Canada.

Many other locales in downtown Winnipeg, St. Boniface, and elsewhere up and down the rivers, are extremely historically significant. Should development not happen at these places either?

While the proximity to Upper Fort Garry was a key factor in the future city being at Portage and Main, it would be inaccurate for the fort to be considered its birthplace. Indeed, until 1849, the Hudson's Bay Co. at Upper Fort Garry held a monopoly on all trade in the region, effectively limiting growth in the Red River settlement. No sooner had the monopoly been broken, than the number of enterprising settlers and traders briskly grew.

In 1872, the Hudson's Bay Co. was staunchly opposed to the founding of the city, and used their influence in the legislature to delay the incorporation process by a year. (Owning a third of the taxable land within the proposed city boundaries, they were not keen to pay new municipal property taxes on it.)

After the city was finally incorporated in 1873, it proved to be of certain benefit to HBC, and huge profits were made by subdividing and selling off their valuable land south of Notre Dame Avenue -- including the site where Upper Fort Garry stood, which in the 1880s HBC gradually demolished.

Because Upper Fort Garry was a historical seat of government, most famously for Riel's provisional government of 1869-70, it could be argued that it is the political birthplace of Manitoba. It is certainly not the birthplace of Winnipeg, though. Cities are borne of a concentration of people, ideas and exchange -- not politics. The more concentration, ideas and exchange are allowed to occur, the more the city grows.

The same is as true today as it was in the 19th century. While another modernist apartment building downtown is unlikely to be a catalyst for further revitalization, it will show that we are still willing to make our history while we preserve it, and years after the city's birth, Winnipeg is still willing to grow up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part one

An electric streetcar makes its way up Portage Avenue, between Carlton and Hargrave streets, circa 1953. For a few decades of the early 20th century, it was possible to ride street railway from the University of Manitoba in Fort Garry, up to Stonewall MB. In the North End alone, streetcars ran down Main and McGregor streets, and Bannerman, Mountain, Selkirk, Euclid, Dufferin, and Sutherland avenues. By 1955, however, car service had dwindled down to Portage, Main, and Osborne, as service on other routes was "modernized" by switching them to trolley and diesel buses. On September 18th of that year, regular service was discontinued. The next day, a ceremonial car rolled down Portage from Polo Park, then up Main to the transit garages at Carruthers, never to be seen on city streets again.

The process of replacing light rail (essentially what streetcars were) with buses began gradually in Winnipeg in the 1930s, particularly inter-urban service. Immediately after World War II, Winnipeg Electric Co., which controlled the transit system until 1953, set to work removing streetcars at a rapid pace. In doing so, they misinvested huge sums of money paving roads such as Corydon and Academy so that the buses could travel on them more quickly and smoothly. While this was done with funds generated by, and intended for, transit riders, it quite obviously made for smoother, faster rides in private automobiles, thus causing further decline in transit ridership. This possibility may not have been thought of at the time by transit officials who felt this would save public transit, or by the public at-large who simply shrugged their shoulders at what they were told was progress. But the ever-powerful cabal of traffic engineers, they knew all along that getting rid of the streetcars for buses was not for one second about improvements to transit, but about enabling private cars to get in and out of downtown as fast as possible.

From the research I've done, I can see no conspiracy to eliminate the Winnipeg streetcar systems, like GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, etc. did throughout the U.S. at mid-century--it was instead simply a matter of the pseudo-scienctific "needs" of traffic engineering trumping the real needs of people and commerce; and Winnipeg doing things because other cities were doing them therefore it must be a good thing.

Today, it would be of tremendous expense to re-build even a fraction of the tracks that covered Winnipeg streets. In true Modernist fashion, not only was service discontinued and the old cars scrapped in 1955, but the tracks were ripped up entirely.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Missing the Point

While it is sure to generate much less discussion in the media or public at-large than the infamous Jets thing did, a recent announcement made by the PCs in what are thankfully the dying days of the provincial election. The plan calls for a major redevelopment of Point Douglas: reclaiming industrial lands, particularly on the south side of the Point and replacing them with new affordable housing (in a neighborhood where a decent houses can still be had for less than $65,000, "affordable housing" is not the first thing Point Douglas needs), new businesses, and (here's where it gets goofy) a man-made lake which would be at the eastern tip of the point, land that is currently owned by Point Douglas' biggest land owner, Gateway Packers. This will be, they say, a way to help keep the young and urbane from leaving the province.

As pleased as I am to have positive attention bestowed upon my neighborhood, this idea isn't going to send my (Liberal) vote the Tory's way. (I'm sure it won't do anything to loosen the NDP's strangle-hold on the neighborhood's voting population, either.) While it sounds like a good idea overall, but it totally lacks substance.

It's a little like the "bring back the Jets" announcement which, as the notorious Black Rod blog pointed out, could and should have been about how Manitoba under the PCs would be so much more booming and optimistic than it is under the NDP. It could regain lost prominance nationally, and we could even see NHL return to Winnipeg. What happened, of course, was that the idea seemed novel and goofy, and the Tories delusional. In the same way, when it comes to the Tory's plans for reviving downtown Winnipeg (certainly something that is essential to Manitoba's economy), no one will be able to get past the man-made lake shtick.

A truely progressive, conservative party, one that wasn't seemingly trying in ernest to ape the Manitoba NDP, could help shed Winnipeg's tragic megaproject-will-save-us mentality, and instead focus on creating ways to add both quantitative and qualitative value to downtown neighborhoods like Point Douglas, so that developers, entrepreneurs, and residents are lured to it. The best way this could be done is through building a better transit system, but also through reforming (or doing away with) Modernist zoning and traffic engineering, which have for sixty years wrought immeasurable damage to Winnipeg's urban quality; enforcing smart growth; re-working the tax system. The value added to Point Douglas' existing character and proximity, would mean that the private sector, rather than governments, would gradually begin building condos, houses, apartments, boutiques, grocery stores, and sidewalk cafes of their own initiative.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Cheaper isn't better

There are plenty of good reasons not to vote for the NDP next Tuesday the 22nd (or ever). One of these (and one that hasn't been mentioned during this entire election campaign) to not vote for Gary Doer's NDP, is because they got into the real estate business when they concocted Waverly West; thinking that massive urban sprawl makes for good city planning. This was done to purposefully attempt to de-value Winnipeg's real estate market (which had only recently resurrected itself from a decade of dramatic deflation) for the purpose of keeping the inner city economically comatose and socially ghettoized. As they proudly announced on their website:
"...real estate prices keep rising based on the growing demand for quality housing, especially in urban centres. The development of Waverley West will provide more than 11,000 new homes, apartments and complexes. The Manitoba government's share of the profit from the land sale will be used to improve inner city housing in Winnipeg. The result will be more variety and greater housing choices for people at all income levels."

Waverly West is not the free market at work, Waverly West is government tampering with the free market to keep it de-valued; an attempt to essentially keep downtown and central Winnipeg "on assistance", thus ensuring that it will not be financially lucrative for private developer's dollars to fully invest in housing downtown or anywhere north of Portage Avenue without some kind of publicly-funded assistance or tax-tweaking. (The toney Ship Street Village condos on Waterfront Drive, while decidedly a good thing, received funding from Winnipeg Housing and Homelessness Initiative.) A market where property is worth something, might give people other than slumlords a reason to buy a house in the North End, or for Exchange District property owners to do something with their heritage buildings besides letting them rot as they dream of demolishing them for parking lots.

And so, for the "pro-downtown", "pro-transit", and "pro-smart growth" politicians like the NDP-backed Councillor Jenny Gerbasi or mayoral candidate Marianne Cerelli; or the young, aspiring urban planners out there who will vote for the NDP (or work as their hacks) because it's the "just" thing to do, what defense can they come up with for a party that thought massive urban sprawl in Winnipeg is good urban planning?

That is, besides "b-but, the Tories woulda' done the same thing."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Flats

When work begins on Antoine Predock's addling Post-architecture jumble of a Canadian Museum of Human Rights at The Forks (form represents function?), will workers dig up bones from the Native burial ground they stand on?

"There is substantial evidence that an Indian burial ground existed in the area bounded by Water and Main to the north and St. Mary's and Fort Street to the south and west. This was formerly a portion of the Hudson's Bay Reserve...

According to one 1876 account, an old resident stated that burials had taken place in the area as late as 1851. Furthermore, the area seems to have been centered in the space now falling between Water and Wesley Streets. Ham acknowledged this location by citing "tradition" in his book. While the western portion of this burying ground has been built and rebuilt upon with substantial structures, the section known as the East Yards has remained virtually untouched, save for the construction of rail lines since the 1890s. While the Indians had abandoned their burial ground with its shallow graves at the time of the beginnings of the village of Winnipeg, the area known as the "Flats" (now the "Yards") was known as a rather out of the way and disreputable part of the city. This reputation probably stemmed from the latent memory of a cemetery being there, and the area developed accordingly."


After so many years, it may be unlikely that remains will be found. The article above speculates that burials may not have taken place so close to the river, anyway. However, since nothing more than the shanties of what was considered Winnipeg's earliest slum of the 1870s, followed by roadways and railways of followoing decades, themselves succeeded of course by today's illustrious gravel junk pile (that is regularly defended as "threatened green space") has been built on that portion of The Forks since the time when the Natives camped freely there. In short, nothing that required major excavation work. There could be anything under that ground.

On such a historic site, will an archeological dig precede construction (or would that be Deconstruction) of Winnipeg's preƫminent testament to the dark age of architecture that is upon us? Since this museum is apparently all about learning from the past, let's hope so.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Another conference on keeping young people? Whatever

It's that time of year again. The time when civic leaders dump another sum of money into finding ways to stem the brain drain that Winnipeg suffers from. This year, it's the Chamber of Commerce's turn, and they're hosting a one-day conference at CanadInns Polo Park. Maybe we can all drive across the parking lot to the nearest chain restaurant afterward.

This week, an expert, Joseph Cortright was flown in to state the obvious:
"According to Cortright's research, by a two-to-one margin, people choose where they would like to live and then try to find work, rather than the opposite....
Another finding is that the "Creative Class" is increasing interested in living within three miles of a city's central business district.
Creating vibrant urban neighbourhoods is a major magnet for the types of young professionals who will stay permanently in a city and help its economy grow."

Or, as one Toronto resident wrote me in an email a few months ago:
"I would like to add that as an educated 27 year old professional who is considering relocating to Winnipeg, the lack of a rapid transit system is a serious concern for me. It is perhaps one of my biggest considerations.
Winnipeg will never achieve its natural potential if it does not build a reasonable rapid transit system of some kind, and Winnipeg has lots of potential. Not potential to become a Toronto or a Chicago with it's excessive rents and crowded everything, but a medium sized city with access to services, a healthy downtown and a reasonable cost of living.
In short, Winnipeg needs to better and more intelligently fill up and use its existing space and urban fabric and a rapid transit system will greatly aid in this.
This is a city with lots of character and culture capable of attracting both new investment and new people, but it will not do so until it starts acting its age. The time for a rapid transit system began at least 2 decades ago. It's time that Winnipeg caught up."

(For more, see a previous Rise and Sprawl post.)

You know what young people live in cities for? Dense, cool downtowns and nearby neighborhoods; unbridled sidewalk commerce; walkability; cosmopolitanism; good arts and music scenes; decent transit; streets that are designed for walking, and not drag racing. Much to the bewilderment of local politicians and professional cheerleaders, young people (at least the creative ones) don't stay for new suburbs, a sterilized downtown, impoverished ghettos, cheap parking, power centres, or hog plants.

Winnipeg could never keep all of its young people from moving to bigger, coastal cities. but actually listening to, and acting on, the words of the next keynote speaker who says that good urbanism is important, might alleviate the need for hosting these conferences year after year.