Monday, November 30, 2009

Downtown reborn, again. And again...

More troubling, though completely unsurprising evidence that public megaprojects are not a means to an end, but are the end themselves.

"Downtown Winnipeg BIZ executive director Stefano Grande said that $1.2 billion has been invested in downtown since the MTS Centre opened.

"Red River College, the revamped Millennium Library, Manitoba Hydro Place and The Forks Skate Plaza have all been finished since 2004.

"The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is also going up at The Forks, and the downtown walkway system will soon be a closed loop."

And how much money from this straw-grasping list has been paid through private sources? This is a bit like measuring a city's crime rates based on the number of police officers on the payroll.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Parking is the problem, not answer

This article was published in the Free Press today, on the subject of a growing preoccupation with creating more parking facilities in the East Exchange District, and the delusional theory that new parkades cancel surface existing parking lots.

This seems more pertinent of an issue today, when I learned that Centre Venture Development Corp. is in meetings with Man-Shield Construction about building more parkades in the Exchange District. Maybe this is the one planned for around James Avenue, maybe it's a different one, but one thing is certain, it is obvious that none of these people charged with "revitalizing" the Exchange District live there, or in a neighborhood anywhere remotely close to it.

Bill Redekop's story on streetcars that the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission sold off in 1955 (and likely earlier), the year when the last routes the city: Portage, Main, and Osborne (which were also the first routes to be built) were converted to buses. Since no other city was in the business of buying aging cars for use in transit systems, they were sold for other uses. Steven Stothers, who out of his own interest has done more research on Winnipeg's street railway than anyone else, has photographed numerous cars that once rolled down Winnipeg streets, but now sit out in the country in various stages of disrepair. These photos, along with an extensive collection of archived photos of Winnipeg transit, are available on his Flickr page.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Don't fear the chain store

Here is an article I wrote that appears in this week's edition of The Uniter (which will be on stands tomorrow):

[...] With more done to make Sherbrook an enjoyable place to walk along, and less of an obnoxious funnel to speed south-end commuters through, there would be more pedestrians and businesses, not to mention an increase in the quality of life for the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Still, destructive traffic engineering does not seem to be the biggest concern amongst local residents. One commenter on my blog recently pointed out that Subway will be the first chain store on the corner of Westminster and Sherbrook, a fact that is “getting everyone down.” While I don’t want to depress moods further, isn’t the Salvation Army thrift store across the street a continent-wide chain? Possibly, but maybe not the type Naomi Klein warned you about.

What gets me down is seeing what many of Winnipeg’s once viable commercial streets have become after years of abandonment. Ellice and Sargent struggle, Provencher snoozes on its potential, and North Main and Selkirk Avenue have practically ceased to exist.

A Subway opening up on Sherbrook is good news. While Mom’s Deli or Pop’s Hardware often add colour to a neighbourhood where chain stores simply add sameness, most neighbourhood strips in Winnipeg’s centre don’t have the luxury of choosing between the two. Any meaningful commercial establishment that wants to open up is something of a small victory against urban malignancy. Continued...]

Soul-destroying globalized capitalism touches down at the corner of Graham and Kennedy St., giving pedestrians another place to walk to. Photo by Wintorbos

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

For what it's worth

"Few set up shop in mixed-use buildings" proclaims yesterday's Free Press Business headline, noting the continued presence of "for lease" in the commercial spaces on the ground floor of condominium developments along Waterfront Drive, as well as in Osborne Village and in the "French Quarter."

In spite of these slow starts, commercial space on the ground floor of new developments should continue to be de rigueur, certainly in any commercial district, or one that strives to be.

A better (and much more novel) idea is to not tear down old mixed-use buildings where retail space tends to be cheaper. This article makes it sounds like storefront retail was seen as something valuable and sought after, yet almost every significant off-Waterfront project in the Exchange District and north of it to Higgins Avenue--actual or conceptual--has involved tearing down old commercial buildings that would have been had a better chance of attracting retail tenants than the new, expensive shopfronts that affix parking garages. United Way headquarters and WRHA on Main, Sport Manitoba on Pacific, Grain Exchange Building on Lombard, St. Charles Hotel on Albert, and Ryan Block on King... How is it that so little can be built or redeveloped without small commercial buildings first being destroyed?

A walk down Albert Street shows that population density does not necessarily precede some kind of commercial developments. In spite of its success, the Exchange District is still a fledgling, risky commercial market, and so retailers are going to carefully search for spaces based on price and location. Theoretically, however, enough of these independent enterprises operating in cheap old spaces will add to the desirability of the immediate area, and make higher rents in new buildings an easier sell (or lease, to be less metaphorical).

Perhaps a re-read of Chapter 10 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs is in order. And I mean really read the chapter. This whole old building-hugging that has been a dominant theme of this blog ad nauseum, is not just for aesthetic reasons--because some building is a good example of late Romanesque Revival; or for historical sentimentality--because some moustachioed gent built a dry goods empire there back in 1911; these buildings are an economic necessity if downtown districts of "grocery stores, bakeries or coffee shops and restaurants" are truly hoped for. (However, if an unlivable, unattractive, disconnected and sprawling collections of lone non-profit heritage buildings surrounded by parking lots and "for lease" signs is what you want, Winnipeg, keep going: you're half-way there.)