Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The story of the Unicity/Duffy quasi-monopoly's latest attempt to stifle the taxi market--this time by fighting to have the Taxicab Board reject Spring Taxi's proposed expansion--reads like something out of an Ayn Rand novel, where no one is allowed to go out of business, but no one is allowed to prosper.

If the taxi industry is so terribly unprofitable, where cab drivers make no money sitting on their brains for 16 hours waiting for a call, why should it be protected?

And if Spring Taxi thinks there is money to be made in the cab business, and that the essence of Say's Law--where supply creates demand--may be right, they should be allowed to find out. If there isn't any money to be made, they will scale back their operations or go out of business. The last five centuries of Western Civilization's progress says that it's worth a shot, and that Spring has the right to take it.

Predictably, the fear of competition was justified in the name of "the public good," as Joan Wilson from Unicity Taxi told the Winnipeg Sun:

"It would be devastating to the industry. It simply wouldn't be in the public interest," Wilson said, noting Christmas is among the only strong revenue periods every year."

Imagine if other sectors of the service industry were governed by such anti-market principles. Corner stores are a marginal business: their proprietors work long hours for slim profits. Should a quasi-judicial board defend their interests and forbid new stores from popping up on neighborhood street corners?

So far, the only public support for constraining the cab industry comes from the provincial belief that "Winnipeggers don't take cabs anyway." While there may be some truth to that, you have to wonder why. Could that fact that hardly any new cabs have been put on the road since the Andrews Sisters were on the top of the pop charts have anything to do with it?

I haven't ridden in a Winnipeg cab for more than a couple of years, either. It may have something to do with the last time my wife and I rode in one (on a Sunday night in the "off-peak" Autumn season it was) we had to stand on Corydon Avenue for more than half an hour after we called for one, waiting for it to arrive.

Again, Monsieur Say may have been right, a greater supply would create a greater demand--even for the protectionist drivers at Unicty and Duffy's. The Taxicab Board should allow Spring Taxi to see if they can make it happen.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Locations white people like

At a party on the weekend, the new Stella's Cafe on Sherbrook and Westminster came up in conversation, which led to remarks on how Winnipeg has some excellent local chain stores, Ie- Stella's, The Fyxx, and McNally Robinson.

Stopping in there on Sunday, every table in the large restaurant was occupied, and the line went back to the front door. Opting out of standing in line, I instead went to The Nook down street, which also happened to be packed. I've been to this new Stella's a few times before, each time arriving early enough (before 9 A.M.) to avoid the line.

As far as white people in this city are concerned, there is nothing better than Stella's, and the owners deserve credit for capitalizing on what is perhaps the "whitest," but completely unassuming, location in the city.

While Corydon, Taylor or South Osborne are in the centre of South End neighborhoods, three middle class goldmines feed into Sherbrook Street. It may seem far, but Sherbrook and Westminster is very much in power-walking distance of Crescentwood across the river. Then of course, there is the Trotskyite yuppies of Wolseley, and the denizens of Armstrong Point, not to mention the hipsters (and the more adventurous yuppies) of West Broadway--the former "Murder's half acre." (North of Portage, meanwhile, is decidedly the domain of the Black Sheep Diner.)

Stella's success on Sherbrook serves as a good affront to Winnipeg's tepid entrepreneurial spirit, and the insular local commercial logic. It is still comparatively "inner city," and directly across the street from the Sherbrook Hotel--a landmark of West Broadway's dangerous and seedy past. Many would have been surprised that Stella's chose this location over the supposedly "safer" (financially and physically) Taylor or Corydon as a third location, but many people also didn't give Yuki Sushi at Main and Rupert much longer than three months (which, in spite of slow service, does a good business after 11). The keen enterpriser will smile all the way to the bank, while the insular locals are proven wrong as they wait for a spot in the latest cool place to eat.

(Check out Stuff White People Like, a blog that gets almost as much traffic as mine does)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The best plan is to not have one

In the Metropolitan Winnipeg Planning Commission’s report of 1947, a photograph shows a rather whimsical view of Simcoe Street in the West End. A well-kept house sits between a walk-up apartment block and a small grocery store from where a shopkeeper keeps a watchful eye on a group of kids walking down the sidewalk. This illustrated, the Planning Commission wrote in the caption, everything wrong with unplanned cities: mixed-uses, insufficient side yard allowance, lack of related setbacks, etc.

It is a perfect example of the disdain for the mixture, chaos, and dynamism of thriving urban environments that inspired city planners in the post-war years to attempt to implement the ordered automation of Modernism upon the city.

While city planning and zoning bears a more altruistic pretense today, arbitrary standards still rule. Contemporary planning tells us that there must be 3.86 acres of park space per 1000 people in an urban setting. It matters not where this park space is located, how it is designed, or how it is used or not used. What matters is that every 1000 citizens have 3.86 acres.

By this rule, the Spence neighborhood, with considerably less than 3.86 acres for its citizens, is considered less liveable than other neighborhoods--say, those of the suburbs.

Reality suggests otherwise. Spence’s increasing density allows it to thrive in other ways, and it has become a magnet not only to students and small businesses, but to young families. Shedding much of it’s reputation of decay in recent years. It is frequently cited as a local urban success story--ironically, among planning proponents.

City neighborhoods can be good places on their own terms, and change and grow organically (or decline) according to the actions of their inhabitants and users. Spence should not have to conform to the same planning standard that Charleswood or Whyte Ridge has.

Popular urban neighborhoods like Wolseley and Osborne Village, championed (and sometimes even lived in) by planners, owe their compact form, scale, mixture and viability to a lack of centralized city planning and zoning. Wolseley and Osborne Village would be illegal today: Tall Grass Bakery doesn’t have any accessory parking, while the Roslyn Apartments lack proper setbacks. Under planning’s byzantine regulations, the Exchange District could never have been built: the Artspace building exceeds maximum site coverage.

Centralized city planning can be slow to change and adapt to market and social trends, particularly when forces of changes are small and privately led. It is ultimately overseen and driven by value judgements of the powerful. In this way, it often stands in the way of organic and individual plans for revitalization so badly needed in Winnipeg’s centre.

On Sutherland Avenue in Point Douglas, a woman faces roadblock after roadblock from the City’s Planning department in her attempts to open a coffee shop. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is happily permitted to replace a handful of heritage buildings for a boxy monstrosity on Main Street.

On Higgins Avenue, a plan to restore the burned out Able Warehouse with condos and commercial spaces would have been illegal because all of southeast Point Douglas is zoned M2 (manufacturing) under Plan Winnipeg, that sacred text of local planning, and residential uses are disallowed.

While most local planning enthusiasts would be quick to point out the damage industry and railways wrought upon Point Douglas, and would side with residents who for decades have been at odds with scrapyards and heavy truck traffic, it has been sixty years of zoning that has stringently upheld this industrial dominance over much of the Point.

Under the antiquated M2 zoning, Higgins Avenue, and the riverfront land to the south will only continue to go underdeveloped. Waterfront Drive will be ineffective in spurring new retail and residences, because retail and residential uses will be forbidden beyond it. Higgins will remain little more than an expressway to Transcona, lined with scrapyards, tow truck firms, and U-storage lots.

Just as a healthy free market economy is better regulated by the rule of law rather than by state intervention, obnoxious and detrimental land uses can be mitigated through the enforcement of specific by-laws and very localized plans rather than by wholly constraining zoning and master plans.

This week, the Able Warehouse is being demolished entirely, and its owner plans to sell the lot. A tough sell, since demand for M2-zoned land is low in Point Douglas.

If that doesn’t work, he may use the site as the headquarters of his business, Imirie Demolition Co., where instead of a restored heritage warehouse with a mix of commercial and residential uses, sheds might be erected to house demolition equipment and trucks. Under the unfounded pseudo-science of Winnipeg city planning, this would be more suitable for the area than businesses and residents.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Comments Open

I have re-activated the commenting feature of this blog, so feel free to comment on posts, you thousands upon thousands of readers. I hope to recieve slightly less tactless personal-attacking drivel from anonymous trolls this time around, thanks.


It appears that urban explorer and amateur photographer 1ajs found part of the original facade of the Rex/Regent (Epic) Theatre on Main Street, which has been hidden from view since the 1930s, when it was covered by the Miami-styled late Deco facade we see today.

Window detailing

The underside of the arch

For their own sake, and their wish to not be seen as ravaging philistines, Centre Venture and the WRHA should hope that the tenative plan to briefly expose this facade briefly--for documentation purposes, prior to demolition--does not go through: it would be so much easier for the public to watch the Epic Theatre be destroyed if they never knew the ornate beauty that lay behind the pastel-painted stucco.

For the second day in a row, the Business page of the Free Press features a story of how the draconian nature of centralized urban planning is currently prohibiting renewal in Point Douglas. This time, it is the story of the roadblocks erected by officialdom facing a North Point Douglas woman who is in the process of opening up a coffee shop in a mixed-use building on Sutherland Avenue near Annabella Street. (I would add the links to these stories, but the FP's website seems to be down currently.)

Way to go. A storefront coffee shop would do more to improve the social health of troubled central neighborhoods like Point Douglas than any socially-motivated government funding scheme could, yet this woman faces roadblock after roadback from the City's plethora of zoning regulations and parking requirements.

Maybe she should have "practised due dilligence" before jumping into this venture. Right, planners?

Or better yet, maybe she should have never bothered with trying to bring commerce back to Point Douglas, and instead asked for a job at a Tim Horton's Drive-Thru in the suburbs--which successfully meet all the City's zoning and parking requirements.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Good luck with that

The usual suspects were on the front page of the City section of the Free Press today, heading up the recently formed Winnipeg Citizens' Coalition, which describes itself as "a broad-based, progressive, democratic, socially and environmentally conscious collection of individuals."

In spite of such a, um, diverse group, the WCC "recognize that we are more likely to effect change in our city when we work together. Hence the coalition.

(Left-wing civic group plans first meeting - WFP)

While socialism is a spectre that indeed haunts the city and province (if it doesn't bury it alive), the longest-running of all leftist traditions in Winnipeg continues to be the inability to coalesce (or to remain coalesced for any lenght of time) to to actually be effective.

Even at the height of the General Strike of 1919, when the strikers literally controlled the city, they just couldn't keep it together. They squabbled along ideological and ethnic lines, and their fragile solidarity was stressed by the overwhelming task of running a city and continuing its production. Power was theirs, but since no one was making food, their brothers and sisters in the North End began to go hungry, and they gave up.

In the civic election of 2004, with the fear of Sam Katz being mayor for another four years, the progressive vote against him was split between two mayoral candidates, representing old and new versions of the left respectively. At mayoral debates, these two candidates squabbled between eachother, while Sam Katz didn't show up. He should have, but he didn't need to--he handily beat even their combined votes with an incredible lack of effort.

In fact, there has been only two successful Labour-backed mayoralty candidates in the city's history: John Queen at the height of the Depression; and Glen Murray in the 1990s--a credit to his skill at being, as someone once described, "a mile wide, but an inch deep."

I have my doubts that this latest cabal of citizens will have better luck. That is, of course, unless they do what the socialist movement has always needed to do to reach its goals of creating that better world: finding a strongman--someone who can get things done.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Putting my mouth where my money is

There is sometimes the sentiment that I should, in effect, "put my money where my mouth is" and buy a derilict commercial building and restore them if I think its such a good idea, rather than just whine from the sidelines when someone comes along with a plan I don't like.

This argument was recently presented to me in the case of Centre Venture's plan to demolish nearly all of two blocks of Main Street to make way for an office building, a parkade, and a surface parking lot. (Main street getting multi-million dollar makeover - Global News)

I am not in the business of telling private individuals or organizations what they should or should not do with their money, but the destruction on Main Street is not market-driven. It was concieved and facilitated totally by a publicly-funded agency.

Centre Venture does have money, but it is public money. It's not theirs, they did not create it, they did not earn it. They simply recieve it--from me and other munincipal and provincial tax-payers. Citizens have every right to crticize what they do with that money, and Centre Venture has every obligation to be transparent with the designs and plans they choose, and to consult the neighborhood(s) that are going to be so greatly affected by their plans--two things that have simply not happened.

If that process is too cumbersome to undertake, then they should be dissolved. And if the City and the agencies they fund are unable maintain buildings they own in accordance to the Vacant and Derilict Buildings By-law, or ensure that the character of historical neighborhoods are kept intact as much as possible, according to Plan Winnipeg, then they should forever get out of the real estate development business. Either that or repeal these pesky by-laws.

I don't have the money to purchase and rehab derilict heritage buildings on Main Street, or to conduct other costly developments that I would love to see happen. (And even someone were willing to purchase and develop, say, the Jack's Hotel on Main, would the owner, Centre Venture, have sold it to them? Not if it interefered with their ultimate plan for the block, which included razing Jack's Hotel for a parkade.)

I was, however, able to afford the purchase of a house nearby in Point Douglas, and for two years have volunteered too many hours to improve the qualitative value of this neighborhood. I live and work nearby, and walk down this stretch of Main Street almost every day. The plan for Main Street will aversely affect the potential revitalization of the area, and, by extension, the quality of life for me and my family, and the investment I made when I purchased (and continue to renovate) this house.

Recognizing and opposing the obvious failure in this plan was never, ever just a matter of sentimentality.


One thing that I've noticed in this whole process, has been that, as far as I can tell, the people (all three of us) who have been critical of this plan in the media, all live in the Main Street area. A large, more "empowered" residential population could prove to be a thorn in the side of more bone-headed pipe dreams of men and women of the downtown renewal industry, who invariably reside in far-flung suburbs.


Thanks to Free Press city reporter Bartley Kives for the mention in his column in the Detour section today. (Comfortably numb - WFP)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."
- "Farewell to Penn Station," New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963

Related: I, Ectomorph - "So much for Main Street"

[insert pun about signs here]

Another iconic sign disappeared from Winnipeg's streets yesterday. Thankfully, it was will be saved from destruction by the Neon Factory down the street.
(Photo by Christian Cassidy)

As this photo of Main Street shows, the Starland Theatre's sign (framed) had been around since at least 1935.

Everything about this photo exemplifies a much more humane city, a city that was a much, much larger place than the Winnipeg of today.