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)


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