Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zoning keeps Higgins Avenue an eyesore

A century ago, a lack of zoning was detriminental to Point Douglas, when loud and smokey industry encroaching on its established residential areas. Today, too much zoning is what impedes the neighborhood.

As the CBC reported today, Wayne Imirie, the man who has owned the gutted Able Wholesale building at Higgins and Annabella Street since last summer, was planning to restore it and "develop it into housing, renting the first two floors to businesses and renovating the top floors into condos, one of them his own home...

"If you're on the fourth floor, you have a perfect view of the river. You just see right across and see the whole river. It's beautiful," he said."
CBC Manitoba - "Long after fire, charred eyesore ignites complaints"

What stopped Mr. Imirie, the story said, was the munincipal zoning that the Albe Warehouse site, and much of South Point Douglas is under, which doesn't allow for such innapropriate uses of historical buildings such as condos.

Maybe if Russ Wyatt (and other Winnipeggers who Drive By That Building Every Day®) are so disgusted by this hulking building, they should demand that the City's Property, Planning and Development department start removing the antiquated M2 (Manufacturing) zoning that this part of Point Douglas is under. This may be slightly less counterproductive than the same old north vs. south, suburbs vs. inner city grandstand politics, of which the nauseatingly populist Councillor Russ Wyatt is the worst offender.

Under M2 zoning, Higgins Avenue, and the prime riverfront land to the south of it, will only continue to go unexploited. Waterfront Drive will be ineffective in spuring retail and residential development, because retail and residential uses will be illegal. Higgins Avenue will continue to be nothing more than it is today: a decrepit expressway to Transcona, lined with scrapyards, tow truck firms, U-storage lots, and other uses that Planning, Property and Development find suitable for the area.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Patience rewarded

With any amount of patience and cleverness, any developer (private, but especially public) can do whatever they want, where ever they want--even if it is in the most important neighborhood of the city.

Ken Zaifman's plan to demolish the Albert Street Business block--that little row of modest storefronts with an ancient house affixed to it--recieved approval by the Property, [Planning], and Development Committee today. (Free Press story here)

When Mr. Zaifman finally dropped the plan to build a driveway to the parking lot from Albert Street, which he said was essential to redevelopment, he recieved cautious endorsement from Heritage Winnipeg, once the crazy building huggers who for 30 years have routinely stood in the way of some C-list developer's plan to further suburbanize Winnipeg's downtown, particularly the Exchange District, which the Albert Street sits in the middle of.

Between a Property, Planning, & Development boss who takes lessons in urbanism from the Geritol Belt (City property boss under fresh attack - WFP), and a self-enfeebling Heritage Winnipeg (Heritage advocates support new plan - WFP), it should be no problem for any destructive idea to be approved by City Hall.

And if this is how a man with no development experience is ultimately treated, how much easier will it be for a bigger, respected, and experienced local development player comes along with a bright idea that involves destroying buildings in the Exchange District?

Still, it wasn't all rosey for Mr. Zaifman at City Hall today, the Committee stipulated that he must complete at least 50% of the renovation work in the St. Charles Hotel before he is allowed to demolish the business block next door.

This will be the tough part, because Mr. Zaifman will have to show that he actually has the will and capability to be a developer. While he has waited two years for the ability to demolish next door, he has sat on the St. Charles Hotel. Recently, he quietly re-opened it as a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel.

"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much." - Luke 16:10

But if the patience to jump through a few hoops is all that is required to win the right to punch a hole (driveway or not) in a historically intact streetscape, it should be possible to somehow show enough work has been done in the St. Charles to allow for demolition next door.

Keep those reciepts when you repair the rooms your SRO tenants trash, Mr. Zaifman.

Main Street, 4:00 A.M.

On the eve of destruction, April 29, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

No city for streetscapes

Fresh from fighting to save the footprint of Upper Fort Garry--a structure that was demolished in 1882, Heritage Winnipeg has just given the thumbs up to the demolition of the Albert Street Business Block--and the 130 year-old house that stands adjoined to it--because Ken Zaifman, the developer who has sought demolition now promises to not add a driveway from Albert Street to his parking lot.

That's good enough, isn't it? I mean, if he's going to not build a driveway--something the Downtown Zoning Bylaw wouldn't allow anyway--why fight for anything better, like, let's say, "promot[ing] the restoration, rehabilitation and preservation of Winnipeg's built environment?

2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for Downtown Revitalization in Winnipeg.

First Main Street's remaining theatres at Logan and Main, and the commercial buildings north of them.

Then the Albert Street Business Block.

Then, as I learned of recently, the Smart Bag/Prosperity Knitwear building at 145 Pacific Avenue near Lily Street. Built in 1884, it is one of the older warehouse buildings in the city. It is threatened by a plan to replace it with a giant parkade.

It seems the ones that will benefit the most from all this Downtown Revitalization will be Paragon and Imirie demolition companies.

Winnipeg Free Press: Heritage advocates support new plan

The secret's out, if only too late

Thankfully for Centre Venture Development Corporation, the condition of the Epic Theatre is only being revealed to the public less than a week before its rubble, and that of the Starland Theatre next door, will be shipped off to the Brady Road landfill.

"The building no longer embodies distinct or unusual architectural or design characteristics, and does not possess its historical or architectural integrity..."

"There are really no features left inside because of water and other damage due to lack of proper care and attention."

"I am surprised to hear about the condition of the Epic as everyone (including Centre Venture) has told me that it was irredeemable or gutted."

"I agree about the misinformation--if people knew what was in there, there would've been a protest. At least I hope so."

Photographs taken by April 23, 2008, by Christian Cassidy
Click to enlarge

Monday, April 21, 2008

An epic mistake

I am not a building inspector, but I was surprised by how good of shape the old Rex/Regent/Epic Theatre on Main Street is in. From what the City of Winnipeg (who have owned this theatre since 1992) has been saying about its interior, I was expecting sunken roof and water-soaked plaster everywhere, but there was very little water damage that I could see, except for one spot above the balcony, where a patch of the ceiling had fallen in.

There were many pigeons on the balcony, which was unspurprising, since the building's owner for the past 16 years, the City of Winnipeg, has neglected to cover the upper windows. Pigeon excrement is a daunting and expensive thing to clean up, but nothing that bothering to affix placards to window frames could not have prevented. (I hope that one winter with an opening on the third floor of the Bell Hotel, another building owned by the City of Winnipeg via Centre Venture Development Corp., won't end up adding cost to future redevelopment of that building--or serve as an excuse to demolish it.)

In March, Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, fresh from fighting tooth and nail to save the First Church of Christ Scientist in her home ward of Fort Rouge, shrugged off the Regent Theatre being removed from the City's Buildings Conservation List, saying "the elements [of the Regent] that were considered of heritage significance were destroyed." Surveying the building from the stage, it was hard to know what in the world she was talking about.

The interior is stunningly ornate, looking largely unchanged from when it opened as the Rex Theatre in 1912, only the second theatre in Canada to be built specifically for showing movies (rather than Vaudeville) . Many of the original, leather upholstered seats were bolted to the hardwood floor. Ornate mouldings ran up the walls and across the vaulted ceiling, the British coat of arms above the stage. Brass railings led up to the balcony, where a very old film projector sat.

Again, I am not a building inspector, but there is no reason to not believe that with any will, the Regent Theatre can be saved and restored. Unfortunately, there exists within the City of Winnipeg and the public revitalization industry, about as much will to preserve Main Street as there was in 1998, or 1968 (in spite of the undeniable historical significance of the neighborhood in general, and the second oldest movie theatre in the country in particular).

If there was any will, "pro-heritage" and "pro-urban" councillors like Ms. Gerbasi--who has held munincipal office for 13 of the 16 years the Regent Theatre has declined under City ownership--would not simply shrug off its impending demise.

Of course, there is also no apparent recognition of the several recent, privately-led improvements on Main Street, or how it is only by the existance of modest old buildings that this true re-vitalization is possible. The Main Street Strip has a sushi restaurant; Waterfront Drive does not.

It would be of some comfort to know that we will one day learn from this tragically brain-dead attempt at urban renewal, but even though the Civic Centre on Main is regarded almost unanimously as a failed experiment, and Portage Place is not far behind, we still obviously believe that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is somehow not insanity.


Under the peeling Art Deco-ish exterior of the Regent, added in the late 1930s, does the original facade that bore some resemblance to the famed Chicago Theatre still exist? I suppose if we ever find out, it won't be until after the wrecking ball begins to swing against it.
(photo of Chicago Theatre by Christian Cassidy,


Related: 'Revitalization by obliteration', Uptown Magzine

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The elephant in the fort

At a fundraising luncheon for Heritage Winnipeg held at Hotel Fort Garry on March 28--mere hours before Mayor Sam Katz announced he had convinced the developer to back away from building an apartment adjacent to Upper Fort Garry’s site--Garry Hilderman, landscape architect and decidedly close Friend of Upper Fort Garry, gave a presentation on the fort’s past, and the future the Friends envision for the site.

Along with the Grain Exchange Curling Club and the building at 100 Main Street which both sit within the fort’s footprint, the Petro Canada station at Main and Broadway is eyed for removal by the Friends. This is not so it can be developed into a building that better serves the prominence of this intersection than a gas station, but so it can become greenspace--part of the heritage park.

Even Assiniboine Avenue between Fort and Main would be converted to greenspace so that Bonnycastle Park could be merged into the scheme.

With these buildings and roadway allowing for a heritage park, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that the Manitoba Club’s house at Fort and Broadway is the only property on this block not threatened by the Friend’s plans. When one considers the fact that many of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry are current members of this venerable club, the unquestioned occupation of this site stands out even more peculiarly.

While the Manitoba Club’s house is certainly the most impressive building on the block (aside from the fort’s remaining north gate of course--beautifully primitive and looking centuries older than it really is), it is also what obstructs the north gate the most. Were the clubhouse not standing, the gate would emerge from its hiding spot and face directly out to the intersection of Fort and Broadway.

Through much of the 19th century, before urban development began in ernest south of Notre Dame Avenue, overland travellers coming west to Upper Fort Garry would turn off the Portage trail at around modern-day Carlton Street, heading southeast for the fort, entering it through the north gate. With the Manitoba Club’s house out of the way, this ancient entrance way could be reclaimed.

But to demolish such a fine heritage building would be a mistake. Built in 1904, the clubhouse is the oldest building on Broadway east of Osborne, and it could be argued that just as much was done to shape the destiny of the city and province within the club’s oak-panelled walls than within the old stone walls of Upper Fort Garry.

In public hands, the clubhouse could be a showpiece of the park second only to the Fort Garry gate itself. The interpretative centre could be located there, and the lush garden terrace overlooking the ancient gate could be used as an observation deck. Should the Manitoba Club choose to move, there would be no shortage of sprawling mansions in Crescentwood or pristine banking halls on Main Street that would serve their purposes most suitably.

Over the last few months, Winnipeggers buckled at the idea that on a vacant parcel of land adjacent to Upper Fort Garry’s site, an apartment would rise (or as many were led to believe condos--a synonym for yuppies). City Hall was heavily criticized for what was seen as a total lack of vision, and an attempt to desecrate the sanctity of an immensely historical site with crass commercialism and cronyism.

Would Winnipeggers, indeed all Manitobans, be affronted by an exclusive and private club being enveloped on two sides by a public park--mere feet from the so-called birthplace of Winnipeg--any less than they would by an apartment built in a city with a lack of new affordable housing?

Speaking against the proposed apartment building Mr. Hilderman speculated that not only would the smell of barbeques emit from the balconies, but so would the sounds of tenants yelling at their kids. (Who is to say that apartment dwellers would not also hang their laundry from clotheslines between Fort Garry Place, or let their kids play hop-scotch and stickball in the middle of Fort Street?)

Expecting the Manitoba Club pack up and move after 104 years at Fort and Broadway might be fanciful, but so is believing that the private club at its current address--with no high-rise neighbors to pollute the future tranquility--would not be the ones benefiting the most from a largely public-funded park at Upper Fort Garry.