Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What comes next?

Demolition fencing went up around an Exchange District warehouse known as the Smart-Bag Building near Pacific Avenue and Lily Street. This is in preparation for Sport Manitoba's athletic fieldhouse, or gymnasium.

Of course, only a cynical, acid-tongued ogre would dare oppose Badly-needed [secular] Recreation Facilities in the Inner City, but as of February, Sport Manitoba's own website notes that the fieldhouse is far from a sure thing. The construction timeline is "TBD," and funding has "yet to be secured." This, says a source involved in the project, continues to be the case now, and that where once a building stood (and remained occupied) for 126 years, only banners and a surface parking lot will stand quite soon. (Banners and parking: two things downtown Winnipeg just does not have enough of.)

Commenting on this blog on April 20, City Councillor and Historical Buildings Committee Chair Jenny Gerbasi noted emphatically that the site of the Smart-Bag Building will not be used as surface parking, as the HBC worked an enforceable clause into the agreement to remove to building from the Conservation list, so that surface parking would not be allowed to used on the site of the building.

Parking or not, there is going to be another formless void in the Exchange District, to be replaced by little more than a nice idea with no timeline or funding. That and two dollars will let you park downtown for an hour.

Appropriately enough, the City of Winnipeg thought that next door to a doomed heritage building was a good place to host a review the final draft of their Heritage Resource Management Plan. This is next Saturday, May 29, from 12:00 to 4:00 pm at Sport Manitoba, 145 Pacific Avenue. Thanks to Gord for pointing this out.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cause to symptom: it's your fault!

While I applaud any effort to get Mr. Herman Holla to clean up the junk from his property at the corner of Higgins and Annabella (which, incidentally, was the home of the Ackland family), I wonder: since when has the City of Winnipeg, at any point in its tragic 137-year history, cared about visual order and livability in Point Douglas?

After all, a junk pile fits quite well in Plan Winnipeg's vision for Mr. Holla's neighborhood of South Point Douglas as a commuter corridor flanked by heavy industry. What is wrong with his little patch of blight--what has raised the righteous action of the City of Winnipeg bureaucracy--is that Mr. Holla didn't ask for the correct permits, variances, or pays the right taxes to keep it.

Large scrap yards and industrial storage lots that encroach residences persist elsewhere in Point Douglas. All of Mr. Holla's neighborhood is zoned exclusively for heavy industry. The City is essentially re-building the same Disraeli disaster that quartered the neighborhood in 1959, and is set to turn Higgins Avenue and the Louise Bridge into even more of an obnoxious truck route that races mere feet past Mr. Holla's front door.

For the City of Winnipeg to say to one property owner that he is degrading South Point Douglas is a little like Joseph Stalin calling Hugo Chavez a totalitarian monster.

Proven quite capable of bringing the heavy hand of by-law enforcement down on lone, slightly eccentric property owners in the name of neighborhood livability, the City should perhaps next attempt to their own stifling impediments to quality of life in South Point Douglas.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wherefore art thou, gentrification?

The story goes that the artists that have been found in the Exchange District west of Main for the last 30 or so years are being pushed out by the more recent surge in new developments and rising rents. (Ironically, this surge was caused by the artist's presence in the first place; since they added to the area's very marketable cool factor.) As a result, artists have been forced to migrate north to Chinatown and Point Douglas in search of studio spaces that offer that same dusty beat character that attracted them to the West Exchange in the good old days of Mondo Trasho and draft night at Wellington's, available at the same low price points.

No doubt, there has been an increase in artists north of City Hall: for years, artists have shared the hallways of the Kou Ming Tang Building with Chinese nationalist societies and Judo clubs. There's the Edge Gallery and studio apartments on Main and Logan. Wanda Koop works out of a building on Henry Avenue, and Jordan van Sewall and others live as self-proclaimed arts colonizers on Curtis Street. Across Higgins, people like Eleanor Bond have worked in the Watkin's Building, and north of the tracks, North Point Douglas has quickly become a commuter suburb for the art scene.

But is this migration caused by gentrification in the Exchange District? Probably not. The commercial upswing in the West Exchange over the past five or six years still hasn't extended higher than the ground floor, and upstairs from the dress shops and hair salons popping up on Albert, McDermot, and Main, there is still a strong concentration of artists living and working, perhaps in greater numbers than ever before.

The feared displacement the West Exchange art scene experiences in the near future won't be caused by push factors (gentrification), but by pull factors (better opportunities elsewhere).

Two longtime anchors of the West Exchange's art scene are poised to take flight. The 38-year-old Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, which will be moving from the corner of King and McDermot Ave. to their new Post-It note bunker at Portage and Memorial sometime this year. Meanwhile, Cinematheque is rumored to either close their Arthur St. movie house, or relocate to somewhere in St. Boniface. This owing to a Winnipeg Film Group board that is increasingly unhappy with Cinematheque continuing to be a money-losing operation.

Whatever shifts in the geography of the Winnipeg art scene are occurring, the West Exchange seems poised to remain its centre, in spite of a loss of two big institutions, and droves and droves of the neighborhood's new phantom gentry. How this reality fits in the Marxist narrative is yet to be determined.