Thursday, August 30, 2007

Save us, government parking lot!

The Forks North Portage Partnership, the great white hope that would save Market Square from the City's own deriliction and ineptitude, has bowed out of the plan to save the (facade of) the Ryan Block by converting it into a parkade. This is something the property owner, Bedford Investments boss Ken Reiss talked about doing for years, but given the lack of return on investment from fixing his self-imposed pigeon's nest (and his obvious wish to demolish it all anyway), it becomes a government agency's job.

But what happens when the undertaking is too small a financial priority for the government? Can we really sustain Winnipeg's heritage buildings by governments coming up with eleventh-hour development schemes anyway?

No one questions the City of Winnipeg's newfound love of heritage buildings, but this doesn't change the fact that they could have very easily prevented the Ryan Block from facing demolition in the first place. Coun. Russ Wyatt talks a good game when he says "If we only save the heritage buildings that are convenient, that's easy to do... It would be an absolute shame if we lost the King Building, but until the City's Planning Property and Development department starts enforcing their own by-laws, Mr. Wyatt can look forward to many more decades of buildings being destroyed.

It wouldn't have taken much for PP&D to enforce their own rules upon Mr. Reiss, and after all, that's what they're paid for. Instead, they have for years allowed him to purposely neglect his building, until the City has to come along with along with $5-M "win-win" plan to keep it from falling onto Bannatyne avenue. Now that that fell through this week, Mr. Wyatt hopes, city council will begin peddling the parkade scheme to other levels of government. A true "made-in-Winnipeg" solution: spend millions of dollars and months of wrangling to fix the problem that could have easily prevented with an afternoon of work and an ounce of cajones.

The City shouldn't have to be in the business of developing buildings, but it must always be in the business of ensuring that buildings are around to be developed. No matter how appreciative of the Exchange District our city becomes, it doesn't change the fact that our by-laws don't do anything to keep its buildings standing.

Free Press story.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

One down, five more to go

At the end of this month, the fifty or so tenants of the Bell Hotel--many who are elderly, or suffer from mental disorders and addictions--will no longer be able to call the 101 year-old hostillery home; it will be closed. This is reported on page six of the August 14 issue of Grassroots News. (Story available in .pdf format.)

The booming economy of Winnipeg in particular and the exploitation of Western Canada in general gave reason for the impressive Bell Hotel to be built at the corner of Main and Henry in 1906, and to thrive through it's heyday of the 1910s, when a young Sam Bronfman of 60 Lily st owned it, and would famously carry guest's luggage to the hotel from the CPR station around the corner. It survived the curtailment of immigration in the 1920s, the Depression of the '30s, and the decline of railway use into the post World War II years, until the CPR discontinued passenger service entirely in 1978. By that time, the Bell had a new lease on life, thanks to Manitoba's draconian liquor regulations and gambling (VLT) racket, and thirty years of de-institutionizing policies. No longer were vulnerable people the responsibility of the provincial government, they were the responsibility of Main Street hoteliers who depended on liquor sales to pay the bills.

Unfortunately, operating a century-old building in need of repairs with money garnered from social assistance housing allowances, beer sales and slot machine revenue, is not exactly a sustainable enterprise, and so the number of single-room occupancy hotels of this sort are dwindling. Preceding the Bell, the St. Charles on Albert and the Patricia, Brunswick and Manor hotels at Main and Higgins recently were closed or demolished. At the end of the month, the number of S.R.O.s on "Winnipeg's Bowery" will be down to five: the Woodbine, the McLaren, the Occidental, the ManWin, and the Mount Royal.

So far, the NDP government has done little to address the living conditions of people who live in Main street hotels (even as they are "displaced" from their accomodations), such as raising shelter allowances for people on social assistance (to say nothing of getting out of, or reforming their liquor and gambling racket). But with another hotel-cum-government dumping ground about to close, they have one less excuse.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Gentrification: an economic reality

In a recent article, Dr. Jino Distasio of the Institute of Urban Studies discusses the prospect of old Exchange District hotels like the Royal Albert Arms and the St. Charles being converted from low-income single-room occupancy hotels to higher-end boutique hotels for the haute bourgeois. More broadly, this touches on an issue thus far rarely been discussed in Winnipeg: that of urban gentrification.

In a city with so little of it, it’s amazing how much objection there is towards gentrification. In some circles of the local clerisy, it seems to have come as a surprise that years of the Exchange’s rising trendiness has resulted in increased property values there.

American author James Kunstler explained the strange logic of the anti-gentrification movement in the Christian Science Monitor in a 2002 interview: "If you're against gentrification, you're saying... we don't want the well-off to come up and fix up this property in the city. Are you simply going to say, the well-off have no business fixing up urban property at all? Are they morally restricted to living somewhere else? Where is that somewhere else? The suburbs?"

Or in Winnipeg’s case, it’s acceptable for the wealthy to park their cars, buy antiques, and (especially) patronize the local arts scene in the Exchange, but it’s somehow not acceptable for them to sleep there.

This line of thinking has ignored the extremely favorable economic conditions that allowed these buildings to be built in the first place. Today, it’s what’s needed to renovate them so they may survive beautifully into their second centuries.

Also ignored is the reality that urban gentrification is an unavoidable consequence of simple supply and demand economics. As the supply of traditional city neighborhoods--built in a quality and scale unmatched by current architecture and planning--becomes diminished by decades of Modernism, the demand for remaining quality urban places increases.

More and more, people, usually members of the younger “creative classes”, eschew the postwar pattern by trading in chain motels surrounded by parking lots and a highway strip for boutique hotels surrounded by interesting cafes, galleries, shops and pubs.

The reason for opposing gentrification has typically been that it displaces poor residents who can no longer afford the increased living expenses. But in the case of the St. Charles hotel at Albert and Notre Dame--poised to become a boutique hotel--it was closed down not because of the Exchange District’s recent success, but because of its decades of failures. The hotel was insanitary and ordered closed in 2004, its tenants hastily vacated.

Were it not for the recent success of the Exchange District, the once fine St. Charles would likely have sat vacant for years more, or worse yet, have met a similar fate as the Leland hotel, which stood on Market Square, vacant and uncared for, until it burned to the ground in 1999.

Including the St. Charles and the Leland, there are four or five less hotels in the Main Street area than there was ten years ago. If that trend were to continue, there would be no SROs left between Portage and Higgins Avenues within twenty years. Urban decline has so far displaced hundreds more people that urban gentrification has.

The local approach has been to not do anything significant about housing the poor and vulnerable, but to suppress real estate values in the central city so that that rooming house landlords and SRO hoteliers end up being the ones who provide affordable housing to the poor, who are sometimes elderly, and often facing a variety of mental disorders or addictions.

This is how the Manitoba NDP attempted to justify their instrumental role in the development of the massive Waverly West subdivision: to flood the market with new suburban housing in order to keep city housing “affordable”. In downtown neighborhoods, this means keeping property values near the same undervalued levels they sunk to in the 1990s.

A more constructive approaches to the affordable housing issue, would be to raise shelter allowances--something the NDP government has not done in years. This would give people on social assistance an option to moving up to better accomodations, while giving their (former) landlords greater incentive to upgrade their run-down properties.

It is the government’s responsibility to provide housing for poor people, not the responsibility of the real estate market or hoteliers in particular. Responding to the results of growing urban economics, not attempting to suppress them, should always be the government’s role.