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


Blogger urbandude said...

good article.

But there are no guideliness in place for any developer to follow your point.

And developer good will only goes so far.

Its time the city start talking about putting in place the right planning tools and stonger design guidelines, with teeth.

Until this happens, placemaking will mean nothing to this city.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Educational Facilities are an industry and possibly one of the biggest going in the province.

Add in to the mix Centres of medical research being contemplated or built in the core area and you would truly have an identity you could sell.

Yes Yes and yes, relocating the UofM downtown would have been the smart thing to do.

The Uof W was in disrepair for the longest time. Now finally, money is being injected and the whole are will benefit, including the South side of Ellice ( check the realestate ). Same can't be said of the black hole out in fort garry.

Find me a better catalyst other than, if we clean up crime we'll attract small business mantra.....for sure.

6:49 PM  
Blogger urbandude said...

^ you completely missed the point of the editorial.

Crime is just an excuse for stupid planners and development agencies not doing thier job.

9:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

think about what you say's one of your comments

"Its time the city start talking about putting in place the right planning tools and stonger design guidelines, with teeth."

It is so lame it makes plain toast look exciting. What exactly do you want them to talk about. Without a catalyst you can talk all you want. Where are you going to get the traffic. its not design that brings traffic. Its a concept , design and planning follow.

The article hits the right note when it comes to catalysts. An educational center in the core attracting 40K people a day to it would give the Core a jolt it required. Once you know where the traffic is coming and where its going, perhaps, thats when design planning and incentives can be looked into.

Or, you can have all the teeth you want and no one will build anything because ....there is no reason to go there.

11:45 PM  
Blogger ecodesigner said...

Good post...
... completely unrelated, however, i would seriously like to initiate some serious discussion on the new subway going up on the otherwise completely chain-free sherbrooke and westminster intersection. I think it is getting everyone down, and no one is really talking about it.

8:50 AM  
Blogger The Rise and Sprawl said...

Ecodesigner, thank you. Yes, I have noticed that construction has begun on the commercial building that will house a Subway, on Sherbrook and Westminster. Isn't Salvation Army thrift stores a chain store? Anyway, I am excited about Subway opening up. I don't really like Subway and hardly ever eat there, but obviously many people do. If chain retail/dining estblishments want to open up on traditional shopping streets in Winnipeg NOT in a strip mall or with a massive parking lot adjacent to it, I'm all for it: Starbucks, American Apparel, Burger King, The Gap, whatever.

These stores usually improve the commercial desirability of the area--they send big signals to potential investors, entrepreneurs, and residents. They also can improve business conditions for existing independant stores. Ask Osborne Village clothing stores if they've suffered since American Apparel opened up; ask The Fyxx on Broadway and Donald if they are hurting because Starbucks is across the street.

I am sure are many young urbanist Winnipeggers who would bristle at the idea of chain stores opening up in old neighborhoods: I am not one of them (provided of course they have entrances from the sidewalk and no setbacks for parking or shrubs, etc.).

4:43 PM  

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