Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where does it end?

Local blog Anybody Want a Peanut had an excellent post on the increasingly ridiculous Upper Fort Garry circus, as St. Boniface Councillor Dan Vandal has now gotten in on the act.

Coun. Vandal explains his weighing in on opposing an apartment block being built near the Upper Fort Garry footprint on his website:
"I was always uncomfortable with building a condominium near these historically important lands."

If condominia going up near historically important land makes Vandal uncomfortable, then watching the hulking 55+ condo (shown above) go up on Avenue Tache in 2006 must have been positively torturous. The site is at ground zero of Francophone and Roman Catholic history in Western Canada, wedged hard between the second oldest dwelling in modern-day Winnipeg, the Grey Nuns Convent, and the ruins of the St. Boniface Bascilica, (which happens to host the resting place of many prominent St. Bonifacians, including Mr. Louis Riel).

Of course, Vandal was not councillor during the construction of that building, and the wicked pro-business Katz sycophant Franco Magnifico ruled St. Boniface then. I don't know, however, who was councillor when it was approved, Vandal or Magnifico, but I do know that Mr. Don't-even-build-near-historical-sites was himself still living a few blocks away.

Funny, I don't remember him expressing discomfort caused by a condo project that would impose on the most historical land in the former city he represents--in his own backyard--then. Perhaps it was because opposing the Tache condos was not an embarrassing cause-celebre.


As the owner of a 126 year-old house, I find it hard to feel any sympathy for Ben Haber, the owner of the Christian Scientist church at River and Nassau Street, who purchased the church building several years ago, only to discover now that developing it would involve the expensive task of removing mold. Maintaining old buildings is costly. Renovating them is more costly still. It is only dilligent to have an understanding of the property you are purchasing.

As one local architect noted:
"The owners came to [our firm] a few years ago when they wanted to turn it into million dollar condos. They wanted... some flashy renderings of the suites and work out the floor plans, but they would only offer us a couple thousand dollars for months of work. We said no thanks."

It is clear that the hapless Mr. Haber was ill-prepared to own such a significant structure (and if he cannot afford to remove mold, or pay architects market value for thier services, one can be sure that he won't be able to afford the cost of building anew). The question is, why do we continue to allow incompentent, disinterested, squatter-owners get away with gradually destroying the quality and character of our best neighorhoods?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Feb. 18th

In honor of a megalomaniac with a god complex--who felt justified in overthrowing the region's governing body, close down newspapers and imprison men who disagreed with him, and in not preventing "his" courts and execution squad from using one of those men's life as an example to the Canadian government and other Protestants of European descent--Happy Louis Riel Day!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Transit improvments on a shoestring

Dallas Hansen over at TRU Winnipeg came up with seven improvements for Winnipeg Transit: night owl service; increased frequency; tighter schedules; automated stop annoucements; shelters that work; lower fares; more emphasis on urban service.

These would go a long way in getting city dwellers to use public transit with greater regularity. Many don't right now, including most of the city's biggest transit advocates. Service in the city's traditional urban areas--where streetcar tracks were laid more than a century ago, is where ridership remains the the strongest--has been continually emaciated as more and more transit dollars are wasted so that empty buses can run on new bus routes in new subdivisions.

One example Hansen uses sums up clearly why a car (or walking) is still a better option than the bus, even in densly-populated urban neighborhoods:
"The Corydon-Main bus runs every 21 minutes at night—nearly the number of minutes it takes to walk downtown from, say, Corydon & Daly. Prior to cuts made by the Susan Thompson administration after 1993, the Corydon bus ran every 13 minutes in the late evening."

Were Winnipeg Transit to act upon any of these seven ideas, it would do much, not only boost ridership, but enhance the livability of Winnipeg's urban centre. Calls for the City to use common sense with regards to transit, however, can sometimes be harder to hear than calls for a "vision" for it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Maybe posting about cycling will bring summer quicker

One thing that can be said about Winnipeg in all certainty, is that it has among its population the most hardy breed of year-'round cyclist in the (as yet) free world. As a fair-weather cyclist, my touque goes off to every cyclist I see as I trudge down the wind-swept sidewalk, or as I sit hunch-backed in the cold car. They continue to defy the elements and ride their bicyles through the winters, even this particularly brutal one. Add to this the conditions of the diminished roadway space that snow and ice bring, and the increased hostility of some motorists (ie- "there oughta be a law that says you can't ride a bike in winter..."). For that, I stand in admiration for the cyclists who tough it out.

For wimps like me, I can only write posts about cycling in the dead of a Feburary deep freeze, not because this is a cycling advocacy blog per sé, but because I hope that writing about cycling will help bring summer a little quicker, and with summer, the thrill of wisking past those poor suckers (all while obeying all traffic laws, mind you) stuck behind the wheel in rush hour traffic on hot Friday afternoons in busy downtown streets; and the enjoyment of friends and I riding anywhere we want--from Norwood to Redwood--on cooler nights.

Here is an exerpt from a publication from 1925, entitled Winnipeg's Early Days:
"On March 19, 1883, a meeting of bicyclists was held, at which a resolution was adopted, protesting against the bylaw which had been passed by the City Council prohibiting the riding of bicycles within the city limits. The resolution pointed out that 'doctors and even clergymen ride wheels in other cities.' The increase in the number bicyclists after the advent of the "safety bicycle" led to bicyclists having the freedom of the streets. In time, bicycle paths were made on Portage Avenue, from Main Street to Deer Lodge [just west of Assiniboine Park], on both sides of the car tracks, and on summer evenings hundreds of bicyclists, women as well as men, including some on 'bicycles built for two,' used those paths."

In the earliest years of the 20th century, as these two photographs of that time show, bicycles were a popular mode of transportation for downtown workers.

The old Grain Exchange building on Princess Street at Market Square, c.1903, now part of Red River College's Princess Street campus (click to enlarge)

McDermot Avenue, looking east, c. 1910. Note the number of bicycles parked on the curb and alongside the building on the left foreground (click to enlarge)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A once fitting tribute

Here is an advertisement from Holt Renfrew in the official programme for the City of Winnipeg's 75th anniversary celebrations in 1949. (Click to enlarge.) While HR has always had fine advertisements, it is hard to imagine that the text of a clothing retailer could offer words of such grace and formality--a mere 60 years ago. It is harder still to imagine that they were bestowed on Winnipeg.

Winnipeg, of course, is no longer the fourth largest city in Canada. Worse, it doesn't seem to posess enthusiasm, busy streets, a proud and important stature, a genius for industry, thrift and happiness, or a desire to regain any of this.

What Winnipeg has also lost, of course, is Holt Renfew itself, who moved from Portage and Carlton to Portage Place in the 1980s. After down-grading to a discount outlet (under the name Holt Renfrew Last Call), they've recently abandoned the increasingly marginal and violent Portage Place, leaving downtown altogether.

I had initially thought the mention of the year 1783 was in reference to the year Fort Rouge--the first fort in modern-day Winnipeg--was built on the south side of the Assiniboine River at The Forks, but Fort Rouge was actually built there years earlier, in 1738. I am unsure of the significance of the year 1783. Perhaps it is a typo, and the year 1873 was meant to be used.

Another thing Winnipeg has seemed to have lost in great numbers, are sartorially proficient young men. Here are four dapper guys walking in front of Holt Renfrew circa 1915, when the store was still located on Main betwen Portage and McDermot.


Here is another ad from a trade show in 1934, advertising the Royal Albert Hotel. (click to enlarge) The Latin phrase in the coat of arms, ne plus ultra, translates into "nothing like it", which for different reasons, rings just as true today as it did then.

Friday, February 01, 2008

What's the matter with Old Tuxedo?

There's nothing the matter with Old Tuxedo--that neighborhood that sits between Kenaston Boulevard and Assiniboine Park. It's an excellent example of 1910s and '20s suburbia, when craftmanship and beauty still mattered in house construction. One who lives there today would be fortunate enough to be in easy walkling distance of Assiniboine Park to the west, and easy cycling distance (down the winding, semi-bucolic Wellington Crescent) from the shops of Academy, Corydon, Osborne, and Downtown to the east.

For some of the people that live there, however, it seems that it isn't a nice place to live: it's too crowded with houses, and any attempt to subdivide a double-sized property into a normal-sized one--roughly the same size as every other lot in the neighborhood--would be too much. As the Free Press reports today, a handful of neighbors were successful in appealing to the City to cancel one property owner from doing just that.

Or, as one local architect said of the situation:
"How about this one….a resident in river heights owns a lot that is 100 feet wide…when you walk by it, you think that it is a double lot…a large historic home sits on one side and the other is empty….the owner of the property has been trying to split it to build a small home for his family on the empty side….they met all the requirements for density, setbacks, everything…. he was keeping the old house and all the trees on the lot……the planning department approved it but today 20 people came out to the appeal and bitched about noise, sunlight, overdevelopment and everything else on the earth….bill clement came out of nowhere and voted against it eventhough he had been approached to get involved for the last 6 months.

So….now the owner is going to bulldoze his historic house, cut down all the trees and build a three storey monster in its place."

When the house was built (in 1912, according to the City's Property Assessment), this property probably was two properties, with the vacant one managing to not be built upon, it would have been purchased by an owner of the house next door sometime between 1912 and today. Anyway, so long as the architecture, scale and setback of the new house was coherent with the architecture, scale and setbacks of the surrounding neighborhood, it wouldn't be any different than any of the rest of the lots nearby that are half the size of this double lot.

Perhaps these concerned citizens would volunteer their own houses to the wrecking ball, so that more double lots could be created, and Old Tuxedo's "character" and "way of life" can be enhanced further still.


In an email commenting on my last post, my Grandfather wrote about Portage and Main:

" could my generation be so stupid and let the city get away with this! Not only that, they are still getting away with it without fixing this stupid decision. Adding to this is the disgrace that the Mayor and the Council have shown that they lack vision. They are too busy wasting time behind the screens of their computers. I can well imagine what this does to the overall communication when they rarely look up.

Portage and Main used to remind me of the of the song "Standing on the Corner" and I could remember in the old days "watching all the girls go by" and wondering whether that corner inspired the song."