Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How Starbucks Could Help Remove the Portage and Main Barricades

When it comes to Starbucks, I tend to agree with James H. Kunstler when he told Good Experience blog:
"Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space... You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it's wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place..."

For me, I know of better independent coffee shops that serve finer tasting coffee, have nicer decors, and don’t play Norah Jones ‘round the clock. Because of this, I don’t get to Starbucks much.

Most North Americans, though, don’t have the time and energy, or don’t care to be in the loop enough to seek out these places. Starbucks is what they know, and it works well for them. It’s a nice place to be. That’s why the company has done so remarkably well.

Starbucks has created a mass market for coffee shops that never existed before. Before them, only a few coffee shops operated in large cities (Winnipeg had several), and were the sole domain of the beats, the jazz crowd, and other segments of 20th-century subculture. In Winnipeg, Starbuck’s influence preceded their own actual presence, via places like Second Cup and The Fyxx.

Even in close proximity, Starbucks creates a market. The Fyxx shop at Broadway and Donald, kitty-corner to a Starbucks, is the small chain’s busiest.

Soon, according to the sign in the window, Starbucks will open a new location on the ground floor of the TD/Canwest building on Portage and Main. Not in the Concourse, or Winnipeg Square--that dingy retail bunker below the intersection, where there is already a Starbucks--but at street level.

Were Portage and Main not such a wholly forgotten, and deplorable place today, this could be seen as another example of Starbucks setting up shop at a city's landmark places, something they've done in major cities across the world. But Portage and Main is no longer a landmark, and no longer Canada's Most Famous Intersection. The city willingly gave that away 30 years ago this year, when it closed the intersection to pedestrians and constructed concrete barricades at the four corners. They now stand as a disgrace; a sick joke among urbanist circles around the world; Winnipeg's greatest example of misanthropy in general, with a particular hostility toward non-locals.

The addition of a Starbucks at the intersection may add more civic and commercial pressure on opening of the barricades than all the re-design competitions and (excellent) Val Werier columns in the Winnipeg Free Press combined. The reason why people--other than those who feel nostalgic, or who possess basic urbanist sensibilities--don't demand the barricades come down, is because people don't go to Portage and Main. There has been no reason to. Starbucks may be one reason for some to go there again, and spending time looking out the window to the unsightly view of nothing but concrete walls, cars and trucks, may give people the chance to understrand why closing the interesection was such a bad idea.

There should be no delusion that allowing people to cross Portage and Main will bring back the days seen in black and white (or in the example above, sepia toned) photos, or that it would possess the worldly thrill of Times Square or the sacred quietude of Piazzo San Marco --respective qualities humans cannot get enough of. The architecture at Portage and Main (save for the magnificent Bank of Montreal) just wouldn't allow for that, neither would the heavy car and truck traffic.

Portage and Main may not be made great with the barricades' removal, but it could function as a normal city intersection again. If nothing else, it could be a place where one could walk to Starbucks from Birk's Jewellers (opening on Main and Lombard this month) without having to enter the vexing and forbidding Concourse below. This alone, when 50 years of downtown decline are considered, would be great enough.

Starbucks may go a long way in allowing the needs of people, commerce, and for “agreeable public space” grow greater at Portage and Main than the need for people to drive through the intersection a few seconds quicker.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A silk hat

Here is the conceptual rendering for the Albert Street drive-way, proposed by the owner of the St. Charles Hotel (at left. Click to enlarge)

Vague illustrations that make the viewer unclear (Ie-"what is that?" "where is the green vapor coming from?" "why is that one person translucent?", etc.) are increasingly becoming staples of modern architecture--usually to hide how cheap the finished product will be when it's actually built. (The architect hired to draw this designed the Webb Site condos on Webb Place. The renderings for that looked nice, too, yet didn't show the mock clap-board vinyl siding that clads part of the building's extorior today).

But there's one thing that still shines through and through: if this were to actually be built (and I don't think it would, since it was only drawn up hastily to placate City Council, Centre Venture, Exchange District BIZ, and the public), it would be just another driveway across the sidewalk on Albert Street, with Modernist features added that only succeed at banality and at being completely out of scale with the Exchange District.

Let's see the technical drawings--the actual blueprint. How about the actual plans for the St. Charles itself?

Wait, more than a year later, the "developer" hasn't seen to those being drawn up yet.

Save Broadway-Assiniboine from everything

City Hall's downtown development committee did the right thing yesterday and threw out the appeal to stop the construction of a 15-storey condo and retail building on Assiniboine Avenue between Hargrave and Carlton, the Free Press reports.

The building is, judging from this conceptual rendering, positively disgusting in its design, and shouldn't be built to look like that. With better design, however, it should be be built, and could be a great addition to Assiniboine Avenue.

The appeal to stop it was made by the owner of the Bessborough apartment block next door to proposed development site, which is where a 106-year old house which houses Restaurant Dubrovnik stands, and by other residents of the Broadway-Assiniboine neighborhood. What were the reasons for opposition?

Was it because the proposed building is too tall for the surrounding neighborhood, as the owner of the Bessborough argued? Since the two buildings across the street from the Bessborough are nine and 17 stories respectively, and some of the tallest residential hi-rises in the city are on the surrounding streets, it's hard to argue this.

One thing people must understand, is that scale is not just a matter of height. Because of the small surface area the proposed condo building will take up--one city lot--it is actually more appropriate than some of the shorter yet more sprawling apartment boxes that were built in the area in the '60s and '70s. (The 11-storey building in the photo below, for example, on lower Broadway in Manhattan, built on a 25'x100' lot, demonstrates this.)

Perhaps it was because the condo units will be priced high, and the proposed ground floor retail uses will be a plastic surgery clinic and a sushi restaurant--decidedly non-conforming to the modest socio-economic demographic of the neighborhood, architect Mel Michener worried. (It must be nice to be a professional who shuns job opportunities.) Since the building will be built where Restaurant Dubrovnik--one of the most exclusive and costly fine dining establishments in the city--it's hard to consider this argument anything but redundant. "The rich can eat here, but they can't sleep here", the thinking goes...

If anything, a sushi restaurant is likely to be more "accessable" and attractive to the young, modestly-earning denizens of the neighborhood than Dubrovnik's is. It could add some much-needed life to what is now the city's most densely-populated bedroom community.

Was this project opposed because it is "a project driven by engineering ego and money..." and because "[t]he people behind this have no interest in this neighbourhood," as a Mr. Michael Clarke of Edmonton Street said? Since the construction of every privately-funded multi-family building in Winnipeg (or anywhere) was driven by money, including whichever building Mr. Clarke lives in, it's hard to say why this one in particular should be opposed.

From a historical perspective, the Bessborough Apartments--which rise three and-a-half stories, and nearly meet the property line on all four sides, would have been entirely out of scale in a neighborhood of single-family houses when it was built in 1931. The infusion of luxury dwellings is not new in Broadway-Assiniboine, either. The Dubrovnik house was once home to Joseph Maw, a member of the city's ruling class a century ago. At that time, Broadway-Assiniboine was a genteel enclave for the wealthy. Maw, like many of his neighbors, like H.J. Macdonald on Carlton, and J.H. Ashdown over on Broadway and Hargrave, had maids, cooks, and chauffers in their employ.

It seems that, really, this opposition was probably just a simple matter of NIMBYs gone BANANAs (from Not In My Back Yard, to Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), which seems to be rearing its head with every new construction proposal of any kind that occurs in an established residential neighborhood.

To be sure, the architecture for this building is hideous: think deconstructivism designed on a Commodore-64. If the downtown design review board had any teeth, it would prevent the building from leaning over top the Assiniboine River and Avenue, and demand that the architect Ernie Walter head back to the drawing board and come up with something befitting of Winnipeg's architectural heritage.

The city has to resume growing upward (not just outward) at some point, and cannot stay static forever. Let's oppose buildings with informed opinions, not just desperate opposition for opposition's sake.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Here we go again...

Last winter, when City Hall said they were not interested in letting Mr. Zaifman bring the suburbs to the finest little street in the city's most distinct and important neighborhood by demolishing a strip of businesses and the remnant of a 130-year-old house for a parking lot, Zaifman warned he would regroup and try again. Here he is.

At first, it would seem he's now more sensitive to the Albert St streetscape, and to the house he wants to turn into a driveway. On CBC Radio this morning, he said that he would take down the house and build an open-air "interperative centre" built to the scale and form of the house, with benches, etc. (Think: a highway rest stop with a replicated shallow pitched roof). Lest a way-station sitting beside a parking lot sounds less than desirable to anyone but the leisurely indigent making the walk from Portage Place to the North Main soup lines, Zaifman says that historical pictures of the house will be added, though he admits he has not found any. (As someone who has done extensive research of Winnipeg's history, I have yet to come across any photograph showing this house.)

Anyway, once you listen to Zaifman for a while, you find out that he isn't the reformed parking lot developer who's ready to look for a compromise [to the historical and physical integrity of the Exchange District...], but an even more cantankerous individual who's upping the ante, stooping further to extortion-like tactics to get his parking lot and driveway.

He continues to hold the integrity of the Exchange District hostage. On CBC Radio, he admitted that in spite of him owning the building for more than a year, he has done no renovations to the St. Charles. Renovations, he said, are pending the approval of his planned parking lot and driveway.

He concluded his interview on CBC Radio with a warning: "This is an important part of what we want to do. I can't predict what people are going to do, but this is sort of the last go I'm going to have at it.. If it works, it works. And if it doesn't, we'll bring back mud wrestling to the St. Charles Hotel." (A nod to the St. Charles' recent past as a rough flophouse hotel with a beverage room that featured striptease acts and mud-wrestling.)

In other words: give me what I want, City Council, Exchange District BIZ, Heritage Winnipeg, and surrounding businesses, and I won't turn the clock back ten years for Albert Street by bringing a new flophouse and a rowdy bar to the corner Notre Dame and Albert St.

It's not even about having enough on-site parking spots for his yet-to-begin boutique motel venture, it's the principle--however warped and frustrated that principle may be. If it was a simple want of more parking spots, he would have agreeed to sit down and talk with Daren Jorgenson, the new owner of the Royal Albert, and a man with enough acumen to realize that a gap-toothed streetscape is bad for business. Mr. Jorgenson has recently engaged in exhaustive email correspondance, trying in vain to negotiate some of the Royal Albert's parking spaces to Mr. Zaifman.

In the emails, Mr. Zaifman sounded at least tepidly receptive to the idea, but in the Free Press today, he told reporter Bartley Kives:
"Jorgenson's offer is irrelevant, Zaifman countered, because his neighbour does not own the Business Block. "We're talking about something that will never happen," Zaifman said."

Were Jorgenson successful in his attempts to acquire the threatened Albert Street Business Block, the shop in front of the 1878 house would be demolished, and the house restored or re-built as a tourism centre and coffee shop. The other one or two shopfronts would be renovated and continue to be used for commercial purposes. Currently, these two spaces house an excellent tailor's shop, and a Chinese restaurant, who, when they are open, serve some of the best Wonton soup in the city (though the Yale Hotel's cafe certainly gives them a run for their money).


"I don't think it is fair to say that the owners of the business block have neglected their building and it serves the purposes of its tenants quite adequately. In fact they have gone out of their way not to lease the remaining space to tenants that would be detrimental to the area." Zaifman is reported to have said, defending Globe Properties, who currently own the Albert Street Business Block.

Nevermind that broken shop windows go unrepaired (nevermind unplacarded) for months--a direct violation of the City's Vacant and Derilict Buildings By-law. And nevermind that the most recent tenant Globe Properties leased the vacant shopfront and 1878 house to, was a store that sold little else but merchandise for an outlaw motorcycle gang (the businesses name can still be seen through the window). Before that, the space was a tattoo parlour.

If this is what Ken Zaifman considers to be not neglecting the property, and not being detrimental to the area, do we really want more property owners like him in the Exchange Distict? With property owners like that, maybe mud-wrestling wouldn't be so bad after all.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The process of unslumming

This article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008

Walking down its streets today, it’s hard to imagine that Point Douglas, the neighborhood I call home, once faced the threat of demolition in the name of urban renewal.

In a 1959 story, the Winnipeg Tribune quoted a Mrs. Olga Fedink of Stephen St: “[P]eople don’t know whether their houses will be torn down for slum clearance next week or next year.’

“’Up until a few years ago people ‘round here took pride in their homes... then there was all this talk of being a slum, and this sort of thing happened.’”

What happened was owners stopped investing in their properties. When expropriation is likely just around the corner, every improvement--from painting the picket fence to modernizing the plumbing--is put on hold. As a result, decline increased at a greater pace as families fled the beleaguered neighborhood and negligent landlords bought up the properties for quick profits.

In 2006, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in their State of the Inner City report, warned of a new threat looming in Point Douglas. Gentrification--gentry classes moving in and changing a neighborhood’s socio-economic character--could begin pushing out poor inhabitants.

If people of certain income levels (or colour) continue to renovate houses, the report suggested, it could pose as great of a risk to the neighborhood’s well-being as slum landlords or drug dealers.

To imagine droves of yuppies (or fauxhemians, to borrow from a Sonic Youth song) moving in, is enough to induce fits of anger in a city that has become pretty good at despising wealth. But for Point Douglas, the reality is something quite different.

The changes happening in the neighborhood suggest that Point Douglas is not moving toward gentrification, but toward unslumming itself.

Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that unslumming “hinges on whether a considerable number of the residents and businesses of a slum find it both desirable and practical to make and carry out their own plans right there, or whether they must... move elsewhere.”

Unslumming stems population decline and transiency. People take pride in where they live. Parks and streets are safer and tidier. Because of this, upwardly mobile residents may choose not to move out of the neighborhood the minute their personal financial situation allows, opting to renovate instead. Poorer residents may choose to stay for the increased safety and quality of life they and their children enjoy--even if it means paying more for rent, as Lance Freeman of Columbia University discovered in his book There Goes the ‘Hood.

This stability in turn attracts newcomers. In Point Douglas, occasionally billed as the city’s next cool neighborhood, some have been the young hipsterish types, coming from other parts of the city.

More recently, some of Winnipeg’s growing number of new immigrants are moving in, helping Point Douglas once again become one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Across the street from me, a large family from Africa is renting a house where a woman from the former Yugoslavia lived for many years. In another house, which in the 1880s was the residence of Premier John Norquay, and in recent decades a sordid rooming house, a family from the Ukraine has moved in, renting the renovated apartments to other newly arrived Ukrainians.

Some fear that unslumming is just a step toward total gentrification, but in traditionally working class neighborhoods in slow or moderately growing interior cities, this is almost unheard of. It would take an economic boom and the creation of thousands of high-tech jobs to send Point Douglas entirely upscale.

And while real estate values are indeed rising in Point Douglas, they are rising up from the depreciated values of the 1990s. As they do, community groups continue to put a priority on providing housing for low-income residents--an issue governments will have a harder time ignoring than they did when values were low, and private market slum landlords were in greater abundance.

The neighborhoods in Winnipeg’s inner city that are currently improving are not gentrifying, but simply reassuming the character they had before the years of abandonment and disinvestment. Wolseley, for example, is simply returning to what it was when Nellie McLung and J.S. Woodworth lived there 90 years ago: a tree-lined haven for the city’s progressive Anglo-Saxon middle class.

For Point Douglas, it is a resumption of urban health and diversity, free from the denigrating pall of slumdom.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Will more problems fix the problem this time?

An interesting report in the Free Press on that problem that for sixty years just hasn't gone away, the downtown parking problem.

Today, this is being tackled with more vigour than we've seen since the early Juba years in the 1960s--which everyone knows ushered in a second golden age for Winnipeg's central business disctrict.

And who better to take on the parking issue, than a host of suburbanites who commute to their jobs downtown by car?

"CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan said he has three more locations on his parkade wish list: North of Portage Avenue...; on the west side of Main Street north of Logan Avenue...; and on the east side of the Exchange District, where there are not enough new parking spots to meet the demand from new condominium owners."

Not enough new parking spots? What about the hundreds of old ones that have sat there for decades?

All four major condo projects in the Exchange east of Main right now have sufficient on-site parking spaces for its owners. Are condo owners really demanding more on-site parking spots than the average suburban driveway? I doubt it.

These folks should be more honest about their efforts to create more and more publicly-funded parking facilities downtown. Drop the pretense that it is about making downtown more enjoyable for people who use vehicles to live and shop there. This is all about having an overly high (and thus remarkably cheaper) supply of off-street parking spots for people who only drive downtown to sit in their office all day.

There was no mention of finding ways to make the process of paying less byzantine to the casual visitor to downtown (the suburban dweller, the out-of-towner). Nor was there a practical solution that would enhance business conditions and the pedestrian experience: reforming Winnipeg's on-street rush hour parking restrections and the often arbitrary loading zones. But such a simple, low-cost measure doesn't result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and more funding your particular agency. Worse still, it might end up slowing down the drive home.

Anyway, I just hope these experts can fix the parking problem soon. Downtown might decline if they don't.

Off-street parking spots in downtown Winnipeg, 2006

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Keep spandex out of "our" Village

Even when you’re doing the right thing, you’re not going to please everyone. Some people are just too upset to see that the right thing can work.

If American Apparel followed the lead of every other garment manufacturer in the U.S., and outsourced thier manufacturing to China, they would be thousands of miles from the regular criticism of American garment unions and their sympathizers, who accuse American Apparel of “treating their workers badly” (which usually translates into simply discouraging unionization).

Instead, they keep their manufacturing jobs in the U.S., specifically, in their factory located in downtown Los Angeles. They pay decent wages, and offer an assortment of benefits that even the most powerful unions could not (or will not) fight for. According to the The Economist, they offer subsidized health insurance (costing the company $4-5M a year), subsidized meals (another $500,000 per year), and shares in the company to all their employees.

The company also provides free English lessons to their employees, many of whom have just arrived in L.A. from Mexico.

Still, American Apparel can’t escape backlash. This may have something to do with them being non-unionized, or because they exemplify how corporations can succeed while being fair and generous to thier employees.

Maybe, it’s just because they have “American” in their name.

In any case, this disdain for the company has reached violent levels in Winnipeg. Since opening thier first Winnipeg location on Osborne Street in December of last year, the store has had their shop windows smashed, and tagged with the words “soul destroyer”. When I visited the store yesterday, the windows were pock-marked by gobs of frozen saliva.

If American Apparel were to follow the local lead of every other trendy retail chain store that has opened in Winnipeg in 50 years, they would have opened up in one of the city’s shopping mall or big-box wastelands.

Instead, they moved to a traditional pedestrian shopping street, and in the process, gave a badly-needed facelift to 108 Osborne’s decripit exterior.

That the sale of 108 Osborne resulted in the end of one of the city’s small dance clubs and rock venues, the Collective Cabaret, may have alot to do with the anger expressed in hurled rocks and saliva, as well as the near-comical comments posted on this Facebook group.

People of my generation tend to bemoan at length, the lack of vibrancy found in Winnipeg’s urban neighborhoods. When it comes down to it, it seems they enjoy wallowing in the mire of Winnipeg’s decline, prefering the peeling paint and tattered awning of a nightclub that featured an ear-shatteringly bad sound system, to a trendy yet moderately priced retailer that operates in a renovated heritage building.

What is most confusing about the young hipsters that revell of Winnipeg’s, gritty, gap-toothed and bruised state--and take any commercial success as an affront to it--is that many of them will eventually move to the gentrifying quarters of more dynamically growing cities: Montreal’s Mile End, Toronto’s Parkdale, or Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. The latter is half-seriously refered to as Winnipeg’s fastest growing neighborhood.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once famoulsy said that “nobody knows how to make a pencil,” illustrating the complex systems manufacturing and distributing of pencils, and the extraction of its materials: wood, graphite, and rubber.

Nobody, it seems, knows how or why buildings in Winnipeg were built at one time, or how and why old buildings are being restored and preserved beautifully--continuing to serve the city’s aesthetic, social and commercial health.

It may seem unsettling to young Winnipeggers today, but it wasn’t because of feelings, soul, people, or music. It was money and the desire to create it. Mrs. Cameron, the wife of Douglas Cameron--one of Winnipeg’s many self-made millionaires of the early 20th century--recalled that “no one came to Winnipeg because they had money. They came to Winnipeg to make money.”

This is how the Osborne Theatre was built in the 1920s: someone wanted to capitalize on both the growing popularity of the movies, and the growing population of the surrounding Fort Rouge neighborhood.

Wayne Towns, the former owner of the Collective Cabaret, has bought the 126 year-old Winnipeg Hotel on south Main Street. He plans to book musical acts in the beverage room. Those who see the loss of a decrepit night club on Osborne as the death of “everything the Village is about”, will pressumably feel right at home on Main Street.

Other long-closed neighborhood theatres, like the Rose at Sargent and Arlington, or the Palace on Selkirk Ave. seem currently unoccupied and decidedly untrendy enough to become new small-sized rock venues. But get them before they’re demolished, however, because even though “decline” doesn’t have “American” in its name, it has still done more to destroy Winnipeg’s soul--whatever that may be--than success ever could.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Calling the stops

Earlier this week, Winnipeg Transit introduced what is probably the most progressive transit policy in my lifetime: forcing bus drivers to call out the names of the approaching stops (ie: "Portage Place", "MTS Centre", "Fort Street", "McDermot Avenue" and so on. This is something the privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Co. did in 1948, according to Margaret Laurence's "North Main Car" poem, and the merits of re-introducing this on the city's transit vehicles are pretty obvious. Somehow, remarkably, some see this as debatable.

One group opposing calling stops is some bus drivers themselves, who, in the tradition of people over 25 or 30 of age who work low-to-medium paying shift work jobs, frusterated as they are by their lot in life, tend to piss and moan about absolutely any new policy that management--the people that hire them and pay their wages--introduce.

The other group is some citizens who think hearing the driver's voice at the arrival of every stop will be "annoying". At, one student at the University of Manitoba said: “it would be pretty damn annoying if I’m trying to sleep…I guess it’s a good service, but they should only do it if people need it.”

Personally, I find it annoying when I'm sitting across the aisle from today's slovenly excuse for a student who thinks its appropriate to sleep on the bus, but hey, that's the nature of public transit: you make sacrifices in your personal preferences for the common good. Sometimes you have the share the bus with people who have poor eyesight or are blind altogether. Sometimes--and this may be hard for the insular local mind to grasp--you may even have to share the bus with someone who is new to, or visiting, the city.

As someone who has in the past taken the bus into parts of Winnipeg that are unfamiliar (The Maples, East Kildonan, Windsor Park), having the stops identified would have been greatly beneficial. And as someone who is paying $2.25 for the priviledge of riding aboard the supposedly public transit system, calling out the stops is the least that can be done to improve the quality of my trip. At that price, bus drivers should very well fetch me a cup of coffee and a newspaper. They, after all, are working for me.