Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In praise of normal city spaces

Converting downtown streets to "pedestrian malls," a trend that came and went in the 1970s (sometime between the trends of demolishing everything for public housing, and demolishing everything for a convention centre), should stay in that dustbin of history where it belongs. Essentially from the same anti-urban school of thought that dominated city planning through the postwar years, pedestrian malls were an attempt saving the city from itself: purification by diluting the messy mixture and concentration that great cities produce. Just as business and residences do not belong in the same building, cars and pedestrians do not belong in the same public spaces.

An idea for closing Albert Street to car traffic follows that same thinking. People can walk on this street, cars can drive rapidly everywhere else. The Driveway merging off Main Street to connect with the Canwest Parkade on Albert--a key component of the Asper/Jorgenson pedestrian mall idea--is another bad move that would kill future development and street life on this sorry spot at Portage and Main.)

Are neck scarves due for a comeback? I saw one in Ottawa recently, so why not?

Were the City to act on this idea, it would not be the first time it has tried to tamper with Albert Street. In the early 1990s, the block of Albert between Notre Dame and McDermot was converted to one-way traffic. This, according to longtime Exchange District investor Tom Dixon, was a bad move. "Albert Street quickly became deserted because getting there was too complicated. 'You could have shot a cannon down the street,' Dixon says."

In the end, Dixon and other Albert St. interests petitioned the return to two-way traffic on this block, which worked.

"'Eyy, where's all the chicks, man? They went back to Osborne Village after all the business closed up, chico"

While commerce in this part of the West Exchange has improved greatly in recent years, it is still fragile compared to more established and popular (car-plagued) pedestrian strips in Fort Rouge. The boutique retail shops on Albert St., and there are a number of them, are not exactly raking it in (particularly when replacing smashed shop windows is a semi-regular business cost).

It is doubtful that existing and potential retailers would share the same confidence in this flash-in-the-pan daydream. Where would their delivery trucks unload? Where would their customers park (or try to park), and would they walk even further? Would the problem of after-hours vandalism increase? Does this work in winter months, nevermind when the Fringe Festival is not on? These are questions all worth discussion, but ones retailers might not stick around find out the answers to.

Albert is one of downtown Winnipeg's few examples of how speedy car traffic need not be the dominant use of public space, and how through on-street parking, pedestrians and cars can use the same street when car traffic is not obnoxious (Graham Avenue, which also enjoys a fairly healthy concentration of retail, is another). If anything, cheaper, simpler ideas, like ending rush-hour parking restrictions on King and Princess Streets, or re-introducing angle parking on Arthur (one idea floating around some City departments recently), are less destructive traffic experiments to try in the West Exchange.