Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A tougher sell

Sport Manitoba's planned destruction of the Smart-Bag Co. Building has left a city wondering just why they have a historical buildings committee and building conservation by-laws anymore.

The 126-year-old warehouse will not be making way for a fieldhouse (essentially, a gymnasium) any time soon, but a surface parking lot where a fieldhouse might go in the future. Currently, Sport Manitoba does not have any money to build any kind of fieldhouse. They do, however, apparently have the funds to tear down this building and use its site as a temporary surface parking lot. (But as photographer Bryan Scott reminds us, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary parking lot in downtown Winnipeg.)

As far as optics are concerned, a surface parking lot in a mostly-vacant corner of the city isn't quite the "public amenity" that a fieldhouse would be. But just as demolishing a perfectly fine building that was totally occupied a year ago isn't as easy to justify as one that is "unsafe," it isn't easy to demolish buildings for parking lots as it would be for a new gym that Exchange residents could use. Sports Manitoba might be a non-profit, but they sure know how to sell.

The map below shows the extent of Winnipeg's built up area in 1884, the year that the first part of the Smart-Bag Building was constructed on Alexander Avenue. In 1884, the city only expanded as far west as Isabel and Kennedy Streets, as far north as Point Douglas, and "South End" meant Broadway.

The map is only to put into perspective the age of this building in relation to the rest of the city. But history is not reason enough to keep old buildings from falling, and surface parking lots from proliferating throughout the city centre. While the Smart-Bag is (or was) a heritage building, this is not a heritage issue. It is an issue of what kind of centre Winnipeg will have: a downsized, decentralized wasteland dominated by parking lots and "new unurban urbanization (thanks again, Jane Jacobs)," or a modest city that still contains the seeds of its own, slow regeneration, wants to one day see people on the sidewalks again, and doesn't destroy itself quite so willingly.

Courtesy of Manitoba Historical Maps. Click to enlarge

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Good idea seeking champion

Since November of 2006, a recommendation has been bouncing around between different committees at City Hall, that the Winnipeg Parking Authority, the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone, and the ward Councillor (Mike Pagtakhan) "work together... to explore" converting the short block of Arthur St. from Bannatyne to McDermot to angled parking instead of the current paralell parking allowed on this street.

Arthur Street stands as a symbol of the proliferation of idiotic traffic engineering: the street is only two blocks long, in the centre of the Exchange District, has low traffic counts (without even the daily evacuation that the TD Centre inflicts on Albert St.) Given its unimportance as a traffic route and the width of its roadway, the entire length of Arthur St. could (and should) be converted to two-way traffic and have angled parking on both sides of the street without hurting anyone's commute times.

Currently, this recommendation sits on the shelf of the Standing Committee for Downtown Development, and was last brought up May 4, 2009. It would not be hard to turn this recommendation from inspecific fluff to quick and easy action, if someone only started the process. For the parking authority, angled parking would mean more parked cars to collect money from, for the BIZ it would offer more places for visitors to park (that are free evenings and weekends), and for Councillor Pagtakhan (who faces the re-election fight of his life later this year) and everyone else, it would be good publicity.

What's the hold up?

Angled parking and two-way traffic on Albert Street, c.1925

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

City learns to say no

And now for some good news.

After the City broke their agreement with Rubin Spletzer's plan to build an apartment at the corner of Fort and Assiniboine Ave., the developer looked to build on an acre of City-owned land down the road, on the south side of Assiniboine Avenue and just east of the Midtown/Donald Bridge.

This new development is a 24-storey tower with 12 townhouse units at the tower's base, but the first two floors (ground level and second storey), would be a parkade, with only one pedestrian entrance from the sidewalk.

The density wasn't a problem, but the design. In March, the Downtown Development Committee sent the Spletzer's company, Assiniboine Landing, back to the drawing board to get a design that will "provide a more appropriate interface with the public realm."

As it was, PP&D said in their report to the DDC that the design was "highly vehicle-oriented and pedestrian unfriendly. There is serious concern that this development, which abuts public space on all sides, is to be wrapped by a 20-foot high parkade wall. This will create a stark, unfriendly sidewalk that feels less safe. The public park spaces on the east and west sides would also be affected by the parkade wall and lack of casual surveillance to discourage crime. No amount of landscape or fa├žade detailing can mitigate this problem. Even the townhouse units, that were included to extend active uses and eyes on the street, have no direct connection to the sidewalk and are located 20 feet above grade (on the third storey)."

Someone in PP&D gets it (well, I think a few people do), and more importantly, are starting to be able to act on that. They are still working within a philosophically and functionally broken system, where the arbitrary junk science of traffic engineering and the 'aristocracy of pull' still rule decisions (I wonder if SPC-DD or PP&D could tell the WRHA, Manitoba Hydro, or some other public entity to go back to the drawing board), but this is a start.

The neighborhood between Broadway and Assiniboine is proof (and fair warning to Exchange District boosters) that a strong, socio-economically mixed residential population doesn't make a neighborhood any less anonymous, boring, or dangerous. Broadway-Assiniboine needs new development that creates street life, not repells it, and the Downtown Development Committee and PP&D were right to turn down this design.

Link. Click on Standing Policy Committee on Downtown Development, then Minutes, and then on the March 1 meeting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The hub without spokes

This past week, the University of Winnipeg stepped closer to this goal of "creating an active transportation hub on campus", with the City of Winnipeg saying it will spend $1.2 million to renovate the former bus depot space at Portage and Balmoral (the Rice Building, 491 Portage). Plus, Transit will "chip in $50,000 a year [paid 50/50 between the City and Province] to share the cost of security, lighting, cleaning and maintenance inside the terminal [with the U of W]," who lease the building from 4306946 Manitoba Ltd, a company that the U of W's Community Renewal Corp. has a 25% stake in.

In August, 2009, the U of W claimed that "[r]enovation and operating costs for the ANX will be covered by rental leases and savings from lease reductions as part of the University's efforts to consolidate its facilities and programs on the main campus." Not only will the building "pay for itself," the University believed, but their "operating budget will benefit from these renovations both through increased revenues from retail services and a return on rents owing to the fact The University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation (UWCRC) owns 25% of the 491 Portage Avenue complex."

And if it doesn't pay, if the debt/service coverage ratio falls below 1.0/1.0 (in other words, if the property owner starts to lose money on this agreement), the university is required to either start paying market-rate rent on the property or find another tenant. (Link, p.26)

Or, possibly, find someone dumb enough to pay the cost of renovating a big chunk of the building, and chip in with the property's operating costs.

And what does the City and Transit get from this? Eight transit routes will converge on the Balmoral terminal, plus whatever 'bus rapid transit' routes are developed in the futre. What are these eight routes? According to Winnipeg Transit, they are:
- Route 3 Downtown Spirit. Daytime hours, Monday to Saturday
- Route 42 Plessis Express. Weekday P.M. rush hour only
- Route 46 Transcona Express. Weekday P.M. rush hour only
- Route 47 Transcona Local. Runs full daily schedule (approx. 5:30am-1:30am) Monday - Sunday
- Route 48 McMeans Express. Weekday P.M. rush hour only
- Route 49 Dugald Express. Weekday A.M. rush hour only

The remaining two, which I believe are the 40 and 41 express routes, are not running on Winnipeg Transit's Spring 2010 Schedule.

Even if a few 'rapid transit' routes terminated here sometime in the next century, they are still removed by at least a block from the major transit routes that U of W students use: 11, 14, 16, 18, 24, etc. What is the point of getting dropped off in front of an indoor station if you're just headed back outside to cross Portage and Memorial and go around The Bay to catch a transfer?

A hub is only as good as its spokes, and one major city route, a downtown shuttle, and a handful of barely-there express routes to Transcona don't make for much of one. For transit users, this poorly-located terminal is only one minor (but costly) improvement, and looks more like patronage to 'the godfather' than it does good transit planning.

Photo of Fort St. at Portage Ave. c.1950 courtesy of Buflyer2000

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Inaction in action

Manitoba is, according to Prof. Allen Mills' piece in the Free Press today, under "soft despotism," and governed by bureaucracy.

I should know: I live in North Point Douglas. Here, as in the North End (where between Selkirk and Redwood, conditions are becoming so deplorable that they would make villages in the third-world blush with embarrassment), there is no representation at either the Municipal and Provincial level. This is because the Councillor and MLA for the area, Harry Lazarenko and George Hickes, are both speakers of their respective government assemblies. And also because they both happen to be disconnected dinosaurs.

Of course, Manitoba's despotism isn't so soft everywhere, as anyone would quickly learn if they chose to engage in trade of bottles of scotch, automobile insurance, or hydroelectricity, or dared to set their own price on cheese and milk. Or, if their sanctioned, more "socially responsible" activities got in the way of the plans of the Province and their subsidiary City of Winnipeg, such as owning property.

This is happening to Mike Gobiel , who last week told the Free Press he heard from PCL Construction that he was losing the building that he moved his hobby shop business into recently, to make way for a curve to the northeast in Waterfront Drive at Higgins. (This is to make way for the new span which will rise alongside the existing Disraeli, but also to prepare for the enhanced Higgins Avenue and Louise Bridge project later in the decade. Pleasant waterfront roadway to commuter artery in less than 20 years. Way to go, Winnipeg.)

Anyway, the City eventually did get around to contacting Mr. Gobiel about the expropriation of his property--by email. And this only some three months after twice saying he could could go ahead and renovate the place, go ahead and occupy it, because the building would not be affected.

As Mr. Gobiel wrote in a letter sent April 1: "We bought this building in Dec 2009 and got occupancy. When we did our due diligence in November I was told 120 Higgins [Gobiel's business] was not affected at all by this Disraeli project by city planning so we proceeded to buy and was allowed to start renovations inside. We applied for occupancy in December 09 and again asked about the bridge and was again told no worries not affected and was given occupancy on the 24th of Dec 09.

The offer the city has made in the letter we finally had emailed to us [is] peanuts to what we invested."

Well, whaddaya gonna do? Who is John Galt, right? It's not like the rest of us have businesses on Higgins Avenue or bought houses in Elmwood.

But for those who are concious enough, there are two open houses hosted by the City and Plenary Road consortium next week, one on Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at Bronx Park Community Centre (131 Chelsea Pl.), 4 - 7 p.m. The second is Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at Norquay Community Centre (65 Granville St.), 4 - 7 p.m.

These "Information Open Houses" are billed as having detailed information on "one of Winnipeg's most attractive and innovative engineering projects." Representitives from the City and Plenary will be on hand to offer spin and calmly direct your concerns to computer-generated pictures of cyclists and flowers.

I've been to about five or six City open houses in my life, but that's enough to tell me they are a joke: a pointless excerise in manipulation; not a consultation, just a con.

And that's exactly why people need to go.