Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The D's

"There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend--the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars--we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, grey belts that were yesterday's and day-before-yesterday's suburbs...

But look at what we've done with the first several billions..."

-Jane Jacobs, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", 1961

Quite often, I am reminded of this passage, since "more money"--no matter how badly yesterday's "more money" is being spent today--is the the usual solution for everything (Ie- City workers grossly unproductive? Hire more). Yesterday, I was reminded of it in it's specific context, that is, the context of demands for billions of federal dollars to build massive housing projects. I didn't read this in some ancient planning publication at the library, or on the Tribune microfilm rolls from the late 1950s, but from a column from Frances Russell in yesterday's edition of the Free Press. Story here.

It's surprising that Frances Russell would be advocating more social housing projects. Even though she was doing just that when she wrote for the Tribune in the 1960s, everyone thought they wre a good idea at the time. Although maybe it doesn't surprise me, since she uses the lack of new projects going up in Canadian cities the same way she uses every other topic she writes on: to bash the Tories of Stephen Harper, and, in this case, and Brian Mulroney, too, who "in 1993, cancelling all federal funding for new social housing."

What does come as a surprise (or maybe not) is one of the individuals whom Russell uses to academically back up her argument, Dr. Jino Distasio of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies, who advocates for top-down funding and projects from the federal government to go toward affordable housing projects:
"Right now no level of government is really building social housing... governments are relying on small community groups to launch housing projects. These organizations lack the capacity to add significantly to the availability of affordable housing and are struggling to finance escalating management, maintenance and operational costs."

This kind of top-down funding for the building massive public housing projects were almost totally rejected across North America over 25 years ago, not because of a Conservative conspiracy, but because they don't work. They increased crime, social dysfunction and a sense of hopelessness and ghettoization. (The notorious Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis is the most famous example of this.)

Here in Winnipeg, the best example of the federal government's role in providing a massive injection of public housing, is Lord Selkirk Park, known locally as "The D's", along Dufferin Avenue just west of Main. In the early 1960s, this neighborhood--which had been the Mitzraim, the Jewish Ghetto, in the early century--was demolished entirely, replaced by row-housing and a bulky "hi-rise" apartment block.

This development was built with the utmost attention to the Soviet-inspired urban planning principles of the day: the end of private property, private outdoor space, mixed incomes, mixed-uses, local commerce, small city blocks, and traditional architecture. Not only that, but the wholesale demolition of the Lord Selkirk Park neighborhood, displaced thousands of residents and dozens of businesses ("employment opportunities") to other quarters of the city.

(Like today, the advocates of these public projects almost always lived in neighborhoods that enjoyed the benefits of capitalism: traditional middle class neighborhoods south of the Assiniboine, or at least Portage Avenue. Capitalism for us, imposed socialism for the poor.)

By 1970, columnist Val Werier had deemed the Lord Selkirk Park a failure--eight years after he enthusiastically anticipated its construction. Today, even Prof. Jim Silver, in a report for the left-wing think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote that Lord Selkirk Park had been a failure over time.

If federally-driven public housing projects of this type continued, many other central and North End neighborhoods would be gone. There would be no North Point Douglas, the last affordable riverbank neighborhood in the city, which for a time was under the threat of urban renewal that froze investment, assisting its decline (which was discussed in an earlier post).

Thankfully, North Point Douglas and other neighborhoods were left intact, and are now able to revitalize themselves through progressive public policies working within a free market. Affordable housing is available through locally-led initiatives that (hopefully) fit within the context of the existing neighborhood--not seeking to wipe out the very fabric of the existing neighborhood. Massive public housing projects that Russell and Distasio seem to be advocating may be built today with LEED-certification, and whatever post-Modernist designs fads are in today, but these new projects would still be the same megalithic failures that Pruitt-Igoe, The D's, and Jigtown (Burrows and Keewatin) were. By their very nature, no matter what the look, they would still further isolate and ghettoize the poor, and stifle hope and opportunity among them to ever leave the ghetto.

Corner of Dufferin and King, c.1963--shortly before urban renewal wiped out this neighborhood

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Now there's an idea...

A new piece of infrastructure opened up in the city this week. Even though it was by all accounts "Green", and located in the Inner City, there were no tri-level funding agreements, and no flashy conceptual renderings gracing the front page of the Free Press' City section. No one--not even Transcona councillor Russ Wyatt--attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It was simply a few city workers taking some time (between their lunch break and afternoon nap, perhaps) to paint a few lines on a street.

It's a bike lane, located in Point Douglas on Annabella Street between Higgins and Sutherland Avenue, which serves as a link between the paths along Waterfront Drive to The Forks, and Scotia Street to Kildonan Park.

This is significant not only because this is perhaps the first stretch of street in the City of Winnipeg that has a dedicated bike lane (for the exclusive use of cyclists, not cyclists and transit buses together), but because it was so simple and inexpensive to do. Winnipeg and Manitoba take particular interest in measuring things with dollar figures, and the more dollars spent, the better it must be--nevermind how much or how little all of that money actually benefits the public. There is a certain aversion to doing things simply, cheaply and practically, and things that should be fundamentals of road work in 2007, like painting bike lanes on the side of roads, can't seem to get done.

Two blocks of bike lane is also significant because it's actually a small recognition that bicycles carry humans who are going the same places cars are: to work, home, school, etc. Like the Bus-rapid transit advocates who think that abandoned rail lines that run through industrial armpits of the city can become the new transportation corridors of tomorrow, too many people are tragically preoccupied with bike paths on rights-of-ways, which usually aren't where people are or where they're going. How is it physically possible for a bike path to work for Winnipeggers who live around, say, Mountain and Arlington, Sargent and Balmoral, Morley and Osborne, or Sherburn and St. Matthews? How would they serve students at the University of Winnipeg, or office workers at Portage and Main? Can you think of any abandoned rights-of-ways nearby?

Bike paths for cyclists are like expressways for cars: they can bring people generally close to and from one macro-destination to another (ie- Fort Garry to downtown), but can't serve the tens of thousands of micro-destinations (ie- 123 Elm St to Gunn's Bakery, Bar Italia, Pho No. 1 restaurant, or the Duckworth Centre) people go to every day. That's why streets matter. And for cyclists, that's why bike lanes on streets matter.

For local governments, "we've added ten more kilometres of bike lanes and paths in the city this year" must replace "we've spent ten more millions of dollars on cycling infrastructure". For cycling advocates, bike lanes, not bike paths, are what are needed to be talked about most if Winnipeg is to be a better, safer, and more practical place to ride a bike.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Downtown’s new retail avenue

This article appeared in the Sunday, October 21, 2007 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.

In a recent article (“Portage Ave. slipping into abyss”), longtime Free Press columnist Harold Buchwald painted a bleak picture of the current state of Portage Avenue, namely, its one kilometre-long stretch between Main and The Bay, that for many Winnipeggers is (or was) downtown Winnipeg.

For my grandparent’s generation, the changes over the decades would certainly be immeasurable. Few traces remain of the halcyon days of streetcars, late nights at Child’s restaurant, Eaton’s window displays, or the throngs of elegant women in hats and gloves by Holt Renfrew, and stylish men in Biltmore fedoras. Portage Avenue has become dull, megalithic, and ugly.

Even at 25, I remember Portage Avenue of a decade ago, when several record stores lined the sidewalks, and Eaton’s was still operating--albeit under a palpable spectre of uncertainty--at Portage and Donald.

While Mr. Buchwald’s sobering portrayal of Portage Avenue is sadly accurate, it should be pointed out that the vitality that it enjoyed a half-century ago is coming back downtown. Not to Portage, but three blocks north, to McDermot Avenue around Albert Street.

Appropriately enough, this avenue is named after Andrew McDermot, the first Red River settler to engage in free market trade outside of the stifling economic monopoly then imposed by the Hudson’s Bay Co.

In the early twentieth century, the city’s three major dailies--the Liberal Free Press, the Tory Telegram, and the populist Tribune--occupied McDemot and Albert. This importance was brief, however, as the Telegram folded in 1920, several years after the other two papers moved away. The area became home to a gradually declining number of garment sweatshops and single-room occupancy hotels.

Few people in 1957, or even 1987, could have imagined scores of modish young people--often with their middle-class parents in tow--flocking to the heart of the warehouse district to shop on Saturdays in 2007.

But that’s what is happening. In the last few years, six new clothing boutiques have been drawn to the cheap rents and growing trendiness. In the window of the old Criterion Hotel, a sign proclaims a shoe store is coming soon. The boom is even beginning to spill around the corner to Main Street, where a hair salon is set to open up next to the Woodbine Hotel.

Meanwhile, Hilary Druxman’s jewellery boutique at McDermot and Arthur, is perhaps the closest a prairie city can come to capturing the essence of Manhattan’s SoHo district: subtle, sophisticated, but always hip.

Not by coincidence, this success is in a part of the Exchange District that’s mostly devoid of large surface parking lots. Intangibly, this adds to the pedestrian experience. Practically, it provides more places to set up shop in concentration with other shops. Former mayor Glen Murray was right when he said in 1998, “anyone that says parking lots are necessary for economic renewal, should explain Corydon Avenue where there isn’t a single parking lot... [while] downtown... is 50% parking lot and struggling.”

Around Albert and McDermot, restrictions of on-street parking are lax compared to other parts of downtown. This is what attracts shoppers travelling by car. Like on Corydon, even if a spot right out front of your destination cannot be found, you’ll still drive around the block three times looking for one.

Albert, Arthur, and McDermot have also been fortunate enough to have largely escaped the voracious pursuit for fast automobile movement, which as Mr. Buchwald points out, assisted in the dilution of Portage Avenue’s pedestrian experience and commercial vitality. The parked cars along the street calms traffic and buffers the sidewalks.

Agencies like Centre Venture Development Corp. should start taking note of why McDermot or Corydon is working, rather than preoccupy themselves with finding new ways to do what was done in the ‘60s: build massive parkades with public money, and demolish old commercial buildings (and the cheap rents they could offer) on North Main--which undoubtedly could be the next frontier of urban restoration.

To attract people and money, an urban district must be interesting, beautiful and human-scaled; with many businesses, buildings and property owners. This is what McDemot and Albert St. is today, and what Portage Avenue once was. People will seek out these places--no matter how much of a hassle finding a parking spot may be. What other choice is there? To not go where the action is?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Archeologist Sid Kroker, who I can remember hosting a field trip to the site of Fort Gibralter at The Forks as a kid, and his team have been digging up the surface parking lot that stands where the north-west corner of Upper Fort Garry--the so-called 'birthplace of Winnipeg'. From the photo in this CBC story, they've found the circular outline of the north-west bastion of the fort.

The outline of the north-west bastion is seen at the dig

The rounded bastions of Upper Fort Garry are shown in this photo c. 1878

And to think, we almost allowed a building to be built near this parking lot.


Winnipeg First is thankfully back in action. Well, sort of. Here's hoping for more coverage.

Yesterday, they had a story on the Demolition By Neglect campaign, that is headed by Exchange District property owner (and former internet pharmacy tycoon) Daren Jorgenson, who recently purchased the Royal Albert Arms, among other properties. The campaign is to encourage tougher enforcement of heritage building by-laws, so that negligent property owners (like Bedford Investments) can not get away with systematically destroying buildings over the course of years. Develop, maintain, or sell... you shouldn't own property if you are not willing to do any of those things.

Winnipeg First's story here.
Demolition By Neglect Facebook group here.

"I feel that if a war came
to threaten this, I would throw
myself into space, over the city,
and protect these buildings
with my body."
- Ayn Rand

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Suburban growth funds Inner City stagnation. Again

No matter how many times it's announced, it's still bad.

On April 13, 2006, the provincial NDP government annoucned that "LEGISLATION WOULD DIRECT MHRC LAND-SALE PROFITS TO HOUSING IN AREAS OF NEED"
Then Family and Housing Minister Christine Melnick said: “By continuing to develop Manitoba Housing and Renewal’s land banks and also redirecting profits into needy areas such as Winnipeg’s older neighbourhoods, we can further strengthen families, while helping to build vibrant communities.”

This press release also points out that "Manitoba Family Services and Housing, through MHRC, has a number of significant land holdings in the city, such as Waverley West in southwest Winnipeg, to help create more housing."

This time, it was new Family and Housing Minister Gord Mackintosh's turn to provide the cheesy soundbyte: “We can build vibrant new communities while renewing existing neighbourhoods,” said Mackintosh. “This legislation will allow us to direct suburban land development profits to support areas in need such as Winnipeg’s older communities.”

The last paragraph of the press release simply regurgitates what was said a year and a half ago, and causes one to wonder if this new announcement will be acted on anyway: "The proposed amendments to the Housing and Renewal Act would establish a new housing and development fund which would utilize a criteria-based approach to support housing projects in areas of need."

Not that it matters if it does or not, since new immigrants and a healthier real estate market are doing more to revitalize old central neighborhoods than all the billions of dollars that could be mustered to feed the city's masive Affordable Housing Industry. It is deeply ironic and offensive that the provincial government will use money from the very thing that caused the central core and North End to become so de-populated and de-valued--suburban sprawl that greatly outpaces growth.

This isn't to say that no public money is needed in poor neighborhoods. After decades of disinvestment, there are many properties in need of improvements (and I am grateful to the exterior fix-up grant available that this summer helped me pay to replace the ancient window panes on the main floor of my house). But to rely on growth patterns that de-value and de-populate existing neighborhoods; to profit in the suburbs to pay for the welfarization of the Inner City--which only makes the need greater--is insulting. Its insulting not only to middle class tax-payers accross the city (even those that live in non-Inner City neighborhoods in the inner city, like Wolseley or Crescentwood), but to tax-payers who live in poor neighborhoods that want to see them succeed by way of tangible changes, not by way of the same old funding announcements every year.

Wouldn't it be better to have property in the centre of Winnipeg be worth something, to be able to pay for its own improvements? Wouldn't it be better to get to the point where it makes financial sense to invest private money into fixing and building properties?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reading what's not reported

For those of you that still get your news the old fashioned way--getting your fingers dirty whilst turning the pages of the city's last remaining broadsheet, you would never know that a man was stabbed on Portage Avenue at Carlton, outside the unsavory doors of the colussus Portage Place, under the hulking skywalks that did as much to destroy the visual quality of the once attractive one-kilometre stretch of Portage Avenue as it did the sidewalk vitality.

Anyway, a brief on this noon-hour stabbing was available on the website as an "web extra", and is nowhere to be found in the actually pages of the newspaper itself.

You have to wonder how much of the Free Press' defence of downtown--even the failed megaprojects that boy-wonder Lloyd Axworthy signed the cheque for under the Core Area Initiative--that goes so far as to not report a day-time stabbing at the corner of Portage and Carlton (I find Main and Logan at night to be just as uneasy), has to do with the newspaper moving their entire operations to the suburbs from that very corner some 15 years ago, leaving it almost exclusively to packs of menacing thugs.

Anyway, more info on the stabbing can be found with these guys.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The beauty of coherance

Architecture writer Ian Tizzard of the Winnipeg Free Press tackled architecture in Winnipeg's residential neighborhoods in Saturday's paper, and seemed to bemoan the lack of unique residential neighborhoods in Winnipeg. (Story here.)

When speaking of River Heights, Dean Syverson of Syverson Monteyne Architecture states the obvious: "It's a safe generalization that the bigger the house, the more likely it was built with an architect or designer directly involved."

What should be pointed out is that houses in River Heights north of Academy Road, are the oldest in the neighborhood, most of which were built not only in a golden age of architecture, but at the crescendo of Winnipeg's wealth, prominence and appreciation for aesthetics. From an economic perspective, no matter what city, town, or neighborhood, it makes sense that homes built in 1912 were finer than those built in the Depression.

Just the same, I happen to find River Heights south of Academy quite appealing, and enjoy the houses built in Tudor or Georgian Revival styles, and especially those influenced by the Craftsman movement. I even find the postwar River Heights--that is, between Corydon and Taylor--to be quite nice, thanks to the continuance of gridded streets with Elms planted on the boulevard.

The article suggests that even the city's popular old neighborhoods lack distinction, and the charm of increasingly popular neighborhoods like Wolseley, Luxton, or Fort Rouge, is caused by a "few truly distinct houses and lots of big trees." (Trees that are, incidentally, the same kind and size.)

No one visits Park Slope in Brooklyn, or Boston's Back Bay--19th century suburbs that are today considered the finest residential neighborhoods in North America --and criticises the fact that all the houses look the same, or that the neighborhood's grid patterns are too boring.

Left: Park Slope, Brooklyn

In the same way, no one walks down Winnipeg streets like Harvard, Lanark, Ethelbert, Sherburn, Noble, or Bannerman and proclaims: "all these mature American Elms are nice, but this street would be much more better if some Scotch Pines, Birches and Weeping Willows were planted on the boulevards to break the monotony."

In good architecure and urban design, the whole should always be greater than the sum of its parts. The difference between coherance and monotony is quality of design.

Unfortunately, conformity to tradition and surroundings is the antithesis of principles of the contemporary school of architecture and planning, and--typical of an age where there is no longer right and wrong--encourage architects to build whatever they want. (This is why, for example, today's architecture students spend more time playing with Play-Dough than they do studying The Ten Books on Architecture.) The tragic outcome that we suffer from, is new megaprojects built in central cities that defy and degrade the surrounding built environment (nevermind 2,500 years of traditions). And when it comes to the less glamourous task of building new residential neighborhoods, the ability to design a place where beautiful houses form an even more beautiful whole has been lost.

(Another reason why today's neigborhoods do not match the cohesive beauty or Park Slope--nevermind Wolseley--is because contemporary zoning by-laws prohibits them. That is for another post.)

Thankfully, Winnipeg has many countless beautiful streets, even those where the houses were not designed by an architect personally commissioned by a leading citizen of Winnipeg's Edwardian era. Like the row of trees that stand out front, these streets are better not for each houses individual style, but simply because they stand beside eachother and make the street.

Left: Austin Street North, Point Douglas