Monday, October 26, 2009

Not a good sign

The newly-minted weed lot at 668-74 Main Street has a sign planted in it proclaiming it a "development opportunity" for sale from Centre Venture Development Corp. That this is available to any would-be developer suggests that Sun Wah Supermarket's plan to expand its parking lot at King and Henry Ave. east to Main, is now a non-starter.

One can't help but admire the unbridled optimism of this sign, but something tells me this property is going to sit as a discarded clothing repository for the local population, until it is paved over to store the Chevy HHR's of social workers.

Which, in spite of the sign, would probably suit Centre Venture just fine. After all, the cash-strapped organization is flying an architect to Vancouver on a week-long fact-finding mission to skid row flophouses that have been converted into "transitional" housing, so the same can be done with the Bell Hotel. Earlier in the year, Centre Venture (in what was the most depressing article for anyone holding out for a remotely performing city with a livable centre) joined the chorus of downtown property managers in the "race" for the "ideal tenant"--the government bureaucracy.

Bell Hotel, c.1980

Centre Venture does still quietly go about the business of helping small businesses get off the ground in downtown Winnipeg. Places like Berns & Black hair salon, who conducted extensive renovations of 468 Main did so with help from Centre Venture. They should be commended for projects like this, not only because this is the sort of thing the organization was created for in 1999, but because it helps bring about things badly needed (property improvements, coffee shops, grocery stores, small offices) that conventional financial institutions find too risky.

This is not just a matter of uses that better lend themselves to a more safe, interesting and livable downtown (which at one time was believed to be the whole point of this public effort at downtown revitalization), but of what is more practical use of public funds: an upstart entrepreneur renovating a deteriorated storefront on Main Street and opening cafe is a risky venture that is hard to borrow money for; a public social housing or a provincial government department's office is not. So while Centre Venture can be useful in bringing small private ideas to life, it is just another layer of redundancy in public projects like the Bell Hotel.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some good news

Here is a piece I wrote that was published in today's Free Press (which happens to be the paper's last Sunday edition), on Red River College's plan to convert the vacant Union Bank tower on Main Street into residences, as well as their culinary arts program (which will include several restaurants):

It's easy to get excited about the plans Red River College has for the Union Bank tower on Main Street. Built in 1904, it is a true example the early skyscrapers, not only by virtue of its height, but by its adaptation of classical orders to a tall building. Reaching 11 storeys from ground through the wonder of steel, it looks down on Main from a sharp bend in what had been, just a generation before, a muddy trail connecting two forts along the Red River.

When the tower became vacant in 1992, I was 10 years old, and I have grown into young adulthood seeing it as a heartbreakingly prominent reminder of Winnipeg's lost glory. And so, if nothing else, to one day see the lights on in the building at night will have a huge impact on the city's bruised psyche, sending a message that, for now at least, we no longer let prominent architectural treasures sit empty for years.

As a result of this good news, there is, however, a tendency that must be avoided, and that is to see educational facilities as the new panacea to downtown's all-too-obvious ills.

Early in 1946, consolidating the University of Manitoba with many of the city's other small colleges was a major consideration. More than 60 years later, one can easily imagine what downtown would be like under this different course of events: some 40,000 full-time students on any given day; the brick mansions of Kennedy and Edmonton restored as fraternity houses, department offices, or coffee shops; Broadway sidewalks filled with young and purposeful pedestrians well into the evening. The University of Manitoba would have practically rubbed shoulders with the University of Winnipeg, and downtown Winnipeg would be seen as the centre of a university town, and not simply a sprawling, patchy collection of government office buildings.

Sounds nice, but one need only walk along the south side of Ellice by the University of Winnipeg's campus, to see that just because thousands of students use a place, does not mean it will have a good effect on the surroundings.

While the Union Bank tower was an early landmark in highrise development in this country, it was not Winnipeg's (and Western Canada's) first skyscraper, as it is often called. The Merchant's Bank building, which was constructed between 1900 and 1902 at the southeast corner of Main and Lombard Avenue, was the first commercial building with a steel frame construction in Winnipeg. Though it was only seven stories tall, it's design accentuated its verticality. Remarkably, the Merchant's Bank is scarcely a footnote, since it was demolished in 1966 (to make way for the Richardson Building), a decade before any serious efforts were made at documenting the city's architecture.

Photo from the Flickr collection of Wintorbos, St. Vital's famous (and prodigal) son

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Red (and yellow) tape

Rendering of a new University of Winnipeg building, SW corner of Portage and Memorial Blvd.
There is, I'm sure, a perfectly good explanation for why this entropic hocus-pocus escaped from the pages of a first year Bachelor of Environmental Design student's project, and might actually rise to inflict Portage Avenue with more abhorent destruction masked as "renewal" (hey, what's another 25 years of the same old crap?).

The building's siding is affixed with all the yellow and red cards handed to the designers by the referees of architecture. Or, the Post-it notes are put there to give the building some distinction from a tannery in an Eastern Bloc backwater.

This makes the Duckworth Centre look positively Beaux-Artes.