Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Photos from the Tribune

One of the more unfortunate events in recent Winnipeg history was the sudden end of the Winnipeg Tribune in 1980--the city's other daily broadsheet newspaper. Never as much of a partisan paper as the Liberal Free Press (or going way back, the Tory Telegram) was, the Trib generally sat on the populist fence. In its day, it was typically viewed as the middlebrow paper, while the Free Press was more highbrow (at least by Canadian prairie standards). Today, the Winnipeg Sun and the Free Press share the duties of filling the void left by the Trib. Which is unfortunate, because the crass Sun tabloid has increasingly poor local coverage, and the Free Press could use some serious competition in the form of a second local broadsheet, which would help it to shape up and return to being more definitive in its politics, and better in its design and editorship.

In any case, before thier paper folded, Tribune photographers took some wonderful photos. Many of the pictures they took of downtown Winnipeg have appeared recently, on the TRU Winnipeg website, and in Russ Gorluck's book "Going Downtown". The archives from which these photos were taken is found here, where photographs can be searched by year, photographer, or keyword (ie- "crime", "transportation", etc.) It is useful and interesting to look through, particularly when it seems that the bulk of historical photos of Winnipeg available to the public don't post-date 1920 or so.

The Tribune building on the north-east corner of Smith and Graham Avenue, right where Canada Post parks their trucks today. The building was demolished a few years after the paper went out of business

Portage and Fort Street, c.1949. Jay-walking was a big concern of the Tribune's in the late 1940s and '50s, and Winnipeg was at the time called the "jay-walking capital of Canada." No doubt, the relegating of public transit from the centre of the streets, to the sides of them (where cars used to park), which was completed in 1955, was partially done with the hope of ending the subversive tendancy humans have to walk across streets

A view of Main Street from Market Avenue, 1959. The graceful building on the left is where the administration building of the 1962 Civic Centre is located today

Market Square c.1950s, looking east from the corner of Princess and Market Avenue

Greaser youth in the Logan Avenue neighborhood, c.1959

Like a scene out of a movie, 1960. The location is unknown, but judging from the age and condition of the houses, it would have be somewhere in the slums of the day, which were within a kilometre of Main Street between William and Euclid Avenues. Perhaps south Point Douglas, or Sandor Hunyadi's Henry Avenue, or Lord Selkirk Park. Wherever it was, it is almost certainly gone today

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” -William H. Whyte. Central Park, 1962

Police investigate a crime in the lobby of the National Hotel (today's ManWin) on Main Street, as a young man resembling a Mean Streets-era Robert DeNiro looks on, 1975

Apartment block at the corner of Portage and Carlton. In the late 1970s, a young entreprenuer by the name of Al Golden purchased this building, and even though it was the middle of winter--a terrible time to move--he promptly handed out eviction orders to the forty or so tenants, saying that he could not afford to bring the building up to code. Several years later, this building, along with most of the city block was demolished to make for Air Canada Centre, which, as we all know, stemmed the blight on the north side of Portage Avenue

Traffic engineer-led urban renewal at work: a disabled woman is led away from a demonstration against the closing of the Portage and Main intersection she was attending, 1978. When cities redesigned to be against human activity, it's always the marginal members of society most adversely affected

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


"Up above us all,
leaning into sky
our golden business boy
will watch the North End die
and sing 'I love this town' then let his arching wrecking ball proclaim:
-The Weakerthans, "One great city"

Somewhere between today’s “Heart of Gold” plan for Main Street, and the days when they backed Red River College's Princess Street campus and Waterfront Drive, Centre Venture Development Corporation lost it.

The plan Centre Venture has for the block of Main Street between Logan and Henry Avenue (available here in .pdf format) embodies the very antithesis of restoring urban neighborhoods, and is completely removed from Centre Venture’s own official mandate "[to] lead and encourage business investment and development downtown, and to enhance the use of heritage buildings and land in the downtown area." There is nothing about this plan that can be described as “restoration”, or “revitalization” or any other word that begins with "re--", save for, perhaps, "regressive”, or a certain derogatory slang.

Media reports have thus far been entirely misleading as to the scale of Centre Venture's plans, which can be aptly described as a vintage 1960’s-era demolition spree. Five buildings on a one-block stretch, regardless of their usefulness, or architectural and historical value--Centre Venture wants them all gone. Nevermind that small-scale development has been slowly (yet remarkably, all things considered) moving up Main Street from the Exchange District in the last couple of years. Centre Ventre's demolition plans would thwart this the same way dynamite thwarts forest fires: any flammable materials are destroyed before the fire can reach them and burn stronger.

In the proposal submission criteria (pp.3), Centre Venture stipulates:
"4. THE PROPERTY The developer will be responsible for the demolition of all buildings currently erected on the land. CentreVenture will provide the developer with any due diligence that has been done on these properties. 5. HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS The former Starland Theatre and Epic Theatre located on this site are currently on the Historical Buildings conservation list/inventory. Once a development proposal is finalized, CentreVenture will undertake to have these buildings removed from the list/inventory to allow for demolition."

Shooting so remarkably low, this is short-sighted development at its worst, that is not worth the public dollars Centre Venture recieves. Most developers put more care into new subdivisions. Historical considerations? Centre Venture has about as much historical considerations for North Main as the pillaging Visgoths had for Rome.

These demoltions include not only the Starland and Regent/Epic theatres, but also the four-storey "Jack's Place" block; the two-storey block that is presently home to one of the last commercial enterprises remaining on this strip, Main Meats & Groceteria; and a one-storey commercial block. One has to wonder how can any of the presumably bright and qualified people at Centre Venture think that demolishing two perfectly good mixed-use heritage buildings can benifit a historical neighborhood,

Thirty years ago, the Canadian Bank of Commerce had plans to demolish two of the finest buildings in the city, their namesake banking hall and the Bank of Hamilton building next door to it (located between Lombard and McDermot). Their plan was to erect a parking garage in their place. The opposition that arose among a small group of citizens gave birth to the preservation movement in Winnipeg, and suceeded in saving these two buildings. The parking garage was instead built around the corner at Rorie and McDermot.

Today, a new generation of citizens are forming opposition to the destruction of our historical streetscapes. (As I write this, the "Protect Heritage Buildings from Demolition by Neglect" Facebook group has 372 members: politicians, entrepreneurs, developers, journalists, artists, students, professors, etc.) No longer having to save the biggest and best of Winnipeg's buildings (it is now taken for granted that the Grain Exchange and Confederation Life are not going anywhere), they are setting their sights on the rest of downtown. Not because of a building’s individual value related to Winnipeg’s history, but because of their beauty and usefulness today.

This is a generation that grew up in a city where the downtown parking problem of the 1950s and '60s was effectively solved, and have had to live with its effects: barren landscapes pock-marked with Modernist megaprojects; streets that are boring at best and dangerous at worst; a loss of storefront commerce and livable city districts. We can't afford to lose any more buildings because we can’t afford to lose any more potential for decent downtown neighborhoods and commercial strips.

Ask anyone what the best commercial streets in the city are, and they will tell you the ones that are the most built up with old buildings and little stores: Osborne and Corydon, or more recently, Albert and McDermot. Perhaps Sargent, Academy, or Provencher.

It will pain Centre Venture to know that this is what more and more Winnipeggers think. Worse still, many Winnipeggers travel. They visit Europe, and vibrant historical neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, San Fransisco, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Not too many--and I am only speculating here--seek out the dull, suburban-style offices and parking garages of bloated health authorities.

Centre Venture may also feel a twinge of regret for their role of the Red River College campus on Princess Street, since that greatly heightened the expectations people have for reusing heritage buildings in Winnipeg--even ones that sag in a state of disrepair for years, as the buildings on Princess did, and the Starland or Regent theatres on Main (or the King Building on King) do today. If anything, their facades can be retained and incorporated into a new structure.

It will also hurt to remember that the Exchange District--encompassing much of Winnipeg’s historical warehouse and business district--is largely intact, and every building, from the soaring Bank of Commerce, to the most non-descript little brick edifaces, is what makes this District.

Today, people are not impressed with tokenism, or using buildings as bargaining chips (“Hey, we’re saving the Bell Hotel aren’t we? Isn’t that enough?”), since more and more people are realizing the truth when it comes to historical neighborhoods, or neighborhoods of any kind: the whole is always better than the sum of its parts. It’s not about being a “building hugger”, but about preserving some semblance of an urban neighborhood. Essentially, leaving something we can work with.

Jane Jacobs wrote a chapter of her most famous book, ”The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, entitled “The need for aged buildings”. It states:
"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets... to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings... but... a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.

...[H]undreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction."

On Winnipeg’s North Main, which enterprises will occupy any proposed new commercial spaces that Centre Venture will "favorably consider"? On Albert Street, certainly downtown’s biggest commercial success story in the last decade, the new commercial spaces on the ground floor of the parking garage are empty, while nearly all the spaces in the old building nearby are occupied.

Lest it be forgotten what one city block can hold, here is what existed on this block sixty years ago, in 1946; copied from the 1947 Henderson Directory:
620 Liggett, Louis K Co
622 Mall Meat Market
624 Jordons Lunch Bar
626 Stein, Harry jeweler
630 Starland Theatre
632 Starland Shoe Shine
632 Starland Billiard
634 Colonial Theatre
638 Narvey's Stag Lunch
638 Stag Billiard Room
640 Stag Barber Shop
644 Regent Theatre
648 Nadler's Deli
648 City Billiard Parlour
648 City Barber Shop
650 Stone block [twelve res. tenants]
652 Club Hotel
652 1/2 Dentist
652 1/2 Photographer
654 Faintuch Clothing
656 Ukranian Booksellers
660 Winnipeg Musical Supply

Sixty years econcomic changes (on top of sixty years of urban decline on Main Street) made all but one enterprise disapear on this block. It's true that barber shops, shoe shines, and neighborhood movie theatres may never come back to North Main, or any other street in the city. But new types of enterprises, such as Asian restaurants, coffee shops, and small art galleries certainly can. (Indeed a Japanese restaurant has aleady opened on Main and Rupert this year, and a cafe is set to open at Main and Logan soon, next door to an art gallery.) Centre Venture's clear-cutting plans will ensure that none of these things will ever come to this block for decades.

One can only hope that no one steps up to answer Centre Venture’s call for urban destruction, and that the natural process of revitalization can continue at a greater speed on Main Street.

Ross McGowan, President & CEO (CentreVenture)
Loretta Martin, Director of Development (CentreVenture)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Economic principles

Yesterday, I had a conversation with someone who, in addition to being a very wise man I have always looked up to, is a regular reader of this blog. While he himself probably hasn't been a regular rider of public transportation in Winnipeg since streetcars powered by clean and renewable energy wooshed and clanged down Portage Avenue, he offered some logical insight into today's proposed fare hike of an astonishing 25 cents.

If you want more customers, he said, you lower the price. You don't raise the price. In the private market--which Sam Katz and his grovelling host of sycopants on city council fancy themselves emulating--sharply increasing the price on anything will put you out of business in a hurry. Businesses that offer lower prices stay competitive. Transit can stay competitive, and lure potential part-time riders: citizens who own cars [or are regular cyclists or pedestrians] by lowering the flat fare. [This could be done by subsidizing public transit more, and depending on fare box revenue less. Winnipeg's fare-box revenue is around 52% of it's total operating budget, while in Vancouver, fare box revenue is only 37%] "It's an economic principle," he said.

The Goldeyes' ball park is a prime example of this, he explained. The stands are filled not because Winnipeg is neccessarily a baseball town, but because ticket prices are low: it's good value for your money. Many people who go to Goldeyes don't even know who the visiting team is. They just go because it's a decent little park that can offer a fun night out that won't break the bank. As a baseball club owner, Sam Katz is able to understand this. As a mayor, he doesn't seem to get it.

[If the Goldeyes ball club raised ticket prices by 12.5%, and justified it with vague, unsubstantiated talk about bringing a major league franchise to the city one day, would people believe it enough to pay the higher ticket price?]

The difference between the Goldeyes and transit, I replied, is that Sam Katz actually cares about the Goldeyes. Public transit, meanwhile, is something that is there to be milked to death. The less money the City has to invest in transit, the more it can spend on expanding roads like Chief Peguis Trail and Kenaston Boulevard.

Anyway, for those who are Facebook inclined, I invite you to join the "Stop Winnipeg Transit's Proposed Fare hike" group that was founded today.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Making things up

Imagine that you live in a rented house or apartment. One day, your landlord comes by and says: "I'm thinking about raising your rent by 12.5% next year because I might make some major improvements to the property one day--I don't know when. I know I've consistantly ignoring and cancelling plans for major improvement for 49 years now, and three years ago, I cancelled the most recent plan--even though it was only a minor touch-up compared to what's needed. Today, I have no definate plans for the most paltry improvements, but the point is, one day I might, and I know how much you'd like to see that finally. So I'm raising your rent by 12.5%"

A rational tenant would say: "Sorry, I don't believe you when you say 'you can't start planning something without saving money', because it's obvious you don't care about making improvements. So why not be more honest about it? Just tell me you're raising rents because you don't care about this property, and simply want to milk it."

Let's hope that the Winnipeg transit riders that Sam Katz is trying to dupe, see through his nauseating talk of a phantom rapid transit system, which he is attempting to use as a placebo to raise transit fares, from $2.00, to $2.25. (Story here.)


This kind of deception that Sam Katz is using should not work with free and able-minded people, but amazingly, it is tried fairly often. In an op-ed piece in the Free Press today, Shauna MacKinnon of the left-wing think tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, pulls out all the usual, tired growing-gap-between-rich-and-poor sing-song, and concludes with an absurd scare tactic: "A better use of the huge government surpluses would be to invest significantly more in housing for low-income people. It is estimated that the average household will have approximately $200 extra dollars as the result of the tax cuts. Few Canadians will take comfort in receiving this trifling amount knowing that its cost is a greater risk of homelessness for 1.5 million Canadian households, many with children."

While it would be nice to consider a $200 saving spread out over a year a "trifling amount" (maybe I should get a job with a socialist think tank), that is besides the point. Money does not end poverty. All the taxes in the world cannot end homelessness. If it were that easy, why not advocate for a tax increase, so that Canada can finally do away with potholes, violent crime, heart disease, global terrorism, and bad CBC dramas once and for all.

Fortunately, like transit riders who don't believe Mayor Sam "roads are our rapid transit" Katz when he talks of a rapid transit system he is clearly disinterested in; citizens do not believe any government or lobbyist when they say that they can eliminate poverty with higher--or maintained--levels of taxation. Canadians would rather see the money they earn go toward a better life for them and their children--not to give it away in the name of delusional ideas.


The King Building fiasco continues...
"Jim Paterson, acting head of the planning and property development department, said crews are removing pigeon excrement from the inside of the building, adding once that's completed work will begin on stabilizing the floors and walls and a new roof will be installed."

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pigeon excrement.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Don't need a weatherman...

Leave it to the NDP to develop a keen sense of economic timing. On the same day it was announced that the first houses in Waverly West will begin early next year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 360 points amid growing uncertainty. Today, the New York Times reports that crude oil prices have risen 42% since August of this year, presently trading at around $95 a barrel.

Like sartorial trends, it takes a while for the economic trends of the North American to reach Winnipeg, but they do come eventually. By the time Ladco builders starts gluing the particle boards together on Waverly, oil companies will have long given up on trying to absorb the rising crude prices rather than pass the cost on to consumers. Banks won't be able to hold interest rates at their current low levels, and the Pent Up Demand For New Homes Particularly in the City's Southwest Quadrant® will have vaporized significantly.

Even with the current levels of sprawl going on within the City and in the capital region, the real estate slowdown could be ridden out fairly smoothly. With Waverly West, a massive glut in the supply of suburban housing will be added, bringing down the value of real estate further still.

Right now, there are young families who live in places like West and East St. Paul, who go without the luxury of furniture because so much of their income goes towards mortgage payments. For them, rising engery prices and interest rates could this into an especially long, cold, and hard winter.


I guess all that work Winnipeg Transit has recently put in to removing heaters, benches and walls from busy downtown bus shacks doesn't pay for itself...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Banks vs. the City

I'm not always a fan of everything they do, but much credit is due to Centre Venture Development Corp., who are bringing up the issue of banks who maintain the decades-old practise of red-lining by refusing to lend money to would-be developers on Main Street. If there's anything that stands in the way of Main Street ever clawing its way back to life (which a few property owners are valliantly attempting to do in spite of these barriers), this is it.
Free Press story
CBC story

This example of the Dominion Bank's attitude towards cities is from an advertisement in the Winnipeg Free Press/Winnipeg Tribune (the two papers were published together at the time because of a labour strike a the Free Press), from January 1946:
"Cities replanned and beautified in their central areas to reverse the trend that has drawn the city worker to the suburbs, leaving slums and ugliness to flourish in his wake--that is part of the vision the coming years must make a reality.

The most populous parts of our cities must be made liveable again, by clearing away the debris of a past age, opening congested areas to light and air, and providing elbow room for the city dweller.

Scientific planning, a co-operative community spirit, wise direction of financial resources, can make this possible. In such progressive developments as this, The Dominion Bank, with a tradition of community service covering three quarters of a century, will be proud to play its part."

The big banks seemed to have no problem lending money to the destruction of our cities sixty years ago. Today, they refuse to help with the rebuilding of them.


This interview in the latest issue of The Manitoban is, *ahem* in my opinion, well worth the read.


Recognizing this blog is in dire need of some (intentional) humor, this clip by the Flight of the Conchords explore the pitfalls of inner city life, via Pet Shop Boys-esque synth stylings: