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.


Anonymous Paul Hesse said...

Amen brother.

Now, how can we incorporate a little common sense back into planning?

Does the city's recent comprehensive by-law review help at all?

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any contradiction between your opposition to Zaifman's proposed streetscape demolition and redevelopment and this post?

Because here you're saying loosen up the regulations and let vital projects go forward, but there you're saying don't let Zaifman break the rules and put more parking in the exchange...

I happen to think you're right in both arguments, but I think there's an inherent tension to what you're saying.

2:01 PM  
Blogger The Rise and Sprawl said...

Paul -
From what I've seen of the revised by-laws, there is still such an absurd priority on "accessory parking" and other automobile considerations. And it is far too broad in that, aside from the special downtown zoning, the same rules apply in Charleswood as they do in Osborne Village or the West End. This makes the continuation of building up these urban neighborhoods in their compact, mixed-use nature--something that is needed if we are to have more vibrant districts--is impeded. Secondary plans with different by-laws for specific neighborhoods would be a good start.

Anon -
It has crossed my mind before this does condradict many of my recent posts (like the ones regarding the St. Charles Hotel development). The trouble with leaving planning to the market in Winnipeg is that Winnipeg's market is poor. Land is dirt cheap, and so parking lots and patios on Albert Street make economic sense. If the market was better, the ASBB site would make way for a multi-storey building, or at least be renovated.

It is true that while a lack of planning a century ago is what created the Exchange District, a lack of planning could compromise its integrity (and future economic viability).

The point I was attempting to make was that planning sometimes impedes decidedly positive developments, and that planning should be more localized and responsive to changes, trends, and a neighborhood's existing built form.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Ernest de Cugnac said...

Interesting. In my small English village (I live in France now) there was a "listed" (i.e. protected because it is something special) building with a corrugated iron roof and dormer windows. But in this village you could not use corrugated iron for love or money because the planners would not allow it. Ironic, huh?

1:47 AM  
Anonymous zubaz joe said...

There is a Plan Winnipeg review scheduled to take place in the next year. I sincerely hope you convey these thoughts to council. There are a lot of us who agree, but unfortunately there is no one on council to speak out on our behalf.

2:14 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home