Friday, June 29, 2007

Centre Venture out of touch

On a post at a local internet forum, a "urban prince" had some dissapointing news and some keen observations:
"A friend of mine that works for Urban Affairs told me that they (the province) will be moving into the Avenue Building next year.
-There is NO attempt to build Portage based on a plan of what Portage Avenue could really become.
[or was even twenty years ago]
-Centre Venture is suppose to be a high-risk development agency. Snatching a 60,000 sq foot government re-location project that was coming downtown anyway is a slap in the face of the commercial realtors with ample office supply in the downtown and owned by the private sector. Anyone can do that job, so why is Centre Venture needed then?
-If Centre Venture passed on the new government office project it would have resulted on TWO new downtown projects. The government office would have gone elsewhere in the downtown (Maybe another private sector vacant building), and Centre Venture would do what is right. Build a mixed use project with rental housing, office space, and retail storefronts.
-I guess no one figured out how to use the new City housing program to stimulate more housing downtown. Imagine that. Another useless program that is not marketed and not used to the advantage of our Downtown.
-Centre Venture needs to do what it was mandated to. Undertake the hard stuff. The stuff that just might make a developer go broke. If CV looses money so be it. The City and Province gains anyways. And the Downtown too. That is why the City and Province funds the organization.
-This is an Amateur move. Maybe the new guy in charge is a bit timid, or his board is a collection of developers that only understand simple market driven development business models and perhaps do not even understand the mandate of their own organization."

Or maybe the new guy is like the old guy, the members of Centre Venture's board, and the staff and board members of other downtown-boosterism agencies: Forks North Portage, Downtown BIZ, Exchange District BIZ, etc., in that he most likely doesn't live downtown or its surrounding neighborhoods. If more of these people did, their organizations might not be so foolishly content with shooting for the middle.

There is a direct connection between the decline of urban centres and the decentralization of where its advocates live. (This was studied in Yale professor Douglas W. Rae's book City) It's hard to restore successful urbanism when you don't understand what that means. It's even harder when you have little interest or personal connection to it in the first place.

The Avenue block is the most crucial piece of real estate on Portage Avenue. Re-used properly, it could do much to turn Portage Avenue around--at least symbolically--from its present decline. If it is true that Centre Venture is simply giving it up to a provincial government agency so quickly, rather than approach it with the same gusto they did on Waterfront Drive a few years back, it suggests that they as an organization are no longer working according to their original mission, and are becoming just another bloated agency that serves no useful purpose.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And now for something of value...

News out of city hall in the past week or so has mainly been the heightened squabbling between the same two delusioinal camps--the union machine left, and the neo-liberal (so-called conservative) car-salesman types--that has characterized city affairs since the Depression.

So it was nice this morning to read of a plan to get back to actually adding value to our city, rather than just fighting to save a few unionized jobs, or conversely, to save a few pennies on the tax bill. The City will boost the tree-planting budget to a (still modest) $1-M, that will help stop the net loss of boulevard trees on city streets.

New trees on city boulevards, particularly in poor neighborhoods where the City has been allowed to skip calling the tree doctor and simply get out the chainsaw, will do much to re-adding value--both quantitatively and qualitatively-- to the city, which should be the foremost priority of City Hall.


The Manitoba chapter of the Seirra Club stated the obvious when they said that Hydro rates should be increased as a way for the province to conserve energy while allowing more electricity to be sold outside the province.

Energy Minister Jim Rondeau scoffed at the idea of raising hydro rates to above cost: "A lot of people think you need to raise Hydro rates to make people conserve... But that's not actually true in Manitoba's case." In Manitoba, basic principles of economics don't matter.

"He [Roundeau] said the incentive programs in place such as Manitoba Hydro's Power Smart loans, have led Manitobans to already cut back their electricity consumption by 450 megawatts."

And therein lies the true approach to things in Manitoba: incentives and awareness campaigns are a good subsititute to allowing real changes to occur, or even doing something yourself. Who needs to build bike lanes when you can have a "protect your noggin" advertising campaign? Who needs to enforce existing legislation on crime prevention when you can just print up pamplets?

Monday, June 25, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part four

Just about everyone sees the world in color, and thus we are able to relate to color photos, since they usually portray our visual reality more closer to what we see with our owns eyes than black and white photos do. That's why rare color photos of World War II, or the urban photography of Charles Cushman is so fascinating to me, because it brings to life past eras that seem distant and different than the present reality. That's why I'm presenting some color photos of lost Winnipeg architecture, because it makes it easier to imagine it still being there today, and for people too young to have seen these places ourselves, it hopefully provides a greater connection to them.

Few however would be too young to remember Winnipeg's most recent experiment in bulldozer-driven urban renewal: The destruction at Main and Higgins leading up to, and proceeding the 1999 Pan-Am Games. (I've written on this event here.)

Political correctness is to urban destruction today what "modernization" was to it in the 1960s (while "being green" is probably tomorrow's excuse), and no better example of this exists than in the levelling of North Main in the 1990s. In the '60s, politicians and developers were at least honest that their plans were a top-down enforcement on a neighborhood they did not live, shop or do anything in, save for drive through with disdain. In the late '90s, that sort of brazen hostility toward a neighborhood wouldn't have happened so easily, and thus the fluffy posturing of Neeginan.

Once that is cut away, you see most of the development--like all modern renewal plans--was just another triumph of traffic engineers, who could do all the things they wanted to do in their undying quest to turn streets into highways. In North Main's case, fences on the boulevard that discouraged jay-walking was done through "cultural street-scaping"; Closing Henry Avenue at Main was done through "pedestrian walkways"; Building an exit ramp at the NW corner of Higgins and Main was done through demolishing the Savoy Hotel (which, like the demolitions of the Patrcia and Brunswick hotels at the same intersection, displaced scores of people).

This photo shows the east side of Main from Henry avenue, circa 1969. (The large building that dominates the background is the Royal Alexandra Hotel, which stood at the NE corner of Higgins and Main, and was demolished by its owner, CP Rail, in 1971. It would have recently been closed at the time of this photo, but in it's day, it was a preƫminent centre of the city's social establishment.) The smaller buildings on the right are what were demolished in 1997 to make way for the Thunderbird House.

In the shadow of the eight-storey Royal Alex, these buildings don't seem like anything fancy, but their size and relative plainness is precisely what makes them important. As Jane Jacobs so famoulsy said, "cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them..." Look at North Main today. Where is change occuring? Not on pointlessly meandering gravel-and-shrub paths, but in small, old, shabby commercial buildings where butcher shops become art galleries, banks become offices, furniture stores become neon manufacturers, and apartments become apartments again.

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray is sometimes inaccurately portrayed as an urban defender in some circles, but--even when he was still a young Fort Rouge councillor who sat on the Historical Buildings and Planning Committees--he approved and cheered on the destruction of North Main. Clearly, this was before he took to name-dropping Jane Jacobs, because everything about the North Main redevelopment was the opposite of what Jacobs favored.

But that is an attitude in local contemporary urban thinking that unfortunately seems to prevail just as much today as it did a decade ago: that the rules of urbanity don't apply to anywhere north of the Market Avenue. Corydon and Osborne need small, cheap commercial buildings, (some) urban design principles and a dense, mixed residential population, while North Main and the North End needs anti-urban architecture and useless "green space" where a city used to be.

Monday, June 11, 2007

How slums are made

An interesting article was found in the July 11, 1959 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune, about the condition of the neighborhood I call home, north Point Douglas, which in 1959 was faced with the same looming threat that hundreds of North American neighborhoods were facing at the time--the threat of Modern urban renewal.

"Here, most houses show signs of poverty--they could do with paint or a new gate, but they are neatly kept.
The reason these homes are going in need of attention, said Mrs. Olga Fedink of Stephen St., is that people don't know whether their houses will be torn down for slum clearance next week or next year.
'Up to a few years ago people 'round here took pride in their homes,' she said. 'Then there was all this talk of it being a slum, and this sort of thing happened...'
As dusk softened the ruggedly industrial Point Douglas skyline, ragged children ran shouting down a street. Their voices faded, and the only sound was the regular whirr of a man mowing his lawn.
Another day was passed. The people of Point Douglas did not know whether they were 24 hours further down the road to slumdom--or a day nearer rejuvination."

Point Douglas was thankfully not razed for modernist housing projects (though a portion of the neighborhood, including much of the city's small black neighborhood dissapeared from space and memory with the construction of the Disraeli "freeway"), but the threat of them certainly put a freeze on investment from property owners in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. The consequences of this are obvious, and today North Point Douglas is still gradually working at "unslumming" itself.

A Mr. Greg Petzold of Winnipeg sums up succinctly in a letter to the editor, the disconnection local self-important columnists and dress-up preservationists seem to have to actually preserving something that's still here. Could it be that this disconnection they have is brought on by their being golfing chums with the (thankfully shrinking) number of backwards-thinking, unnappreciative derilict property owners in the Exchange District like the Reiss family?

"Recent Free Press coverage has detailed concerns ad nauseum about development adjacent to the Upper Fort Garry Gate. We are assured that people are lined up to give millions for an interpretive centre for a structure which sadly is long gone. Meanwhile, existing heritage buildings are in danger; buildings that are still standing but perhaps not for long.

The turn-of-the-century red brick King Building at Bannatyne Avenue and King Street anchors one corner of Old Market Square. Its owners have let it rot, apparently neither willing to restore it or sell it. I get angry every time I walk past it. This building is part of an important public space and deserves just as much concern as the Fort Garry Gate. Need I remind you Upper Fort Garry was demolished in the 1880s?

Why is it that people are always offering to throw up new monuments but can't be bothered to work to maintain existing ones?"

Sunday, June 03, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part three

No one really knows the reason why the McIntyre block, which stood on the west side of Main between Portage and McDermot Avenues for 81 years was demolished, but it was, uncerimoniously so, in 1979. In its place is a seldom-used gravel parking lot.

When the McIntyre block was built in 1898, it was the first office building in Western Canada: that is, the first building erected for the purpose of letting out its floorspaces to multiple firms. That didn't matter to Council (which then featured some Friends of the Upper Fort Garry...) and whoever owned it 1979, nor did the fact that the ground floor appears fully occupied by small businesses when this photo was taken the year before.

Around the corner, on Notre Dame Avenue, the CanWest company dismantled a non-descript four-storey building last month, in a plan to extend their existing plaza--itself the site of a stunning Art Moderne Toronto Dominion Bank that was demolished in 1989 because the entrance of the TD building had to face away from Portage and Main. David Asper may have talked a good game about how business and people need concentration, and thus he keeps his company at Portage and Main, but Portage and Main hasn't looked this barren since the 1860s.

So when a newly-released survey reveals that Winnipeggers don't like downtown, it's not for lack of flower planters, polished pavement, or officially sanctioned public art, it's for a lack of downtown. So much of downtown's physical integrity has been razed, it's commerce put in skywalks and malls, and it's bustling streets that my grandparent's generation dressed up to visit turned into vacuum highways. Seeing this from a car window isn't enough to stir up a newfound sense of civic appreciation in citizens, and on foot, it's often not much better.

Little things like litter and vagrants go unnoticed on good streets. Is there a reason why two of the most popular streets in downtown, Broadway and Albert--to say nothing of Osborne and Corydon in Fort Rouge--are the ones that are filled up with buildings and devoid of surface parking lots? How many more surveys and decades will come and go before we figure that out?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

More still...

Of all the commentary on the Upper Fort Garry site in this morning's Free Press, it was Bartley Kives' "Up the river without a paddle" that seemed to have the best grasp of the current reality. Mr. Kives may be wrong about the popular notion that the fort was removed to straighten Main Street--planning was for better or worse, an afterthought in the 1880s, thus the city's delightfully quirky grid (MHS)--he is correct when he states, at the end of his article:
"It would be great if the fort still stood...
Then again, the traffic jams on Main Street would be brutal."

For Hartley Richardson and other Friends of the Uppper Fort Garry who travel up St. Mary's Road to get to and from downtown, a rebuilt fort doesn't make for a pleasent commute. Nor would traffic-calming measures that would see South Main become a street again, and not just a voracious quasi-freeway, and re-connect the gate to The Forks, and make a trip to the gate something a pedestrian would actually want to do.

But like another of the city's "birth places"--Portage and Main--and the rest of Winnipeg's historical downtown in general, the easy flow of automobiles trumps heritage, culture, commerce, and the needs of humans. Things like reducing the speed limit, allowing unrestrected curb lane parking on Main, installing a traffic light at Assiniboine Avenue--all inexpensive, practical ways to bring human traffic to the fort gate and out of the presently isolated pod that is The Forks--have not been mentioned, and would probably not elicit a flurry of supportive letters to the editor if they were.

But practicality has not been applied to downtown renewal for sixty years, and people like Hart Malin--who today took a break from "advocating" for the demolition the 103-year old Avenue Building and the rights of the surface parking lot owners, to wax poetic about "heritage"--continue to the think the condition of the street has nothing to do with getting people and businesses to return to it. And while every new project has being dreamed up in the name of naive hope of renewal, the one-dimensional, pseudo-scientific needs of traffic engineers always win the day.

Care about heritage? Fight to have crossing Main Street be more enjoyable, and less of an excercise in attempted suicide; defend the integrity and quality of the built environment; fight to give people the right to cross Portage and Main, the true nucleus of the city.