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?


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