Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The loser cruiser

This comment came to me from the venerable University of Winnipeg history professor, Garin Burbank, in response to an earlier post:

"I am the only middle or upper class person, dressed in coat and tie, riding the express buses in from west Winnipeg. Have been for 20 years. Until you get the comfortable classes out of their cars (5 dollars per litre gas?), we will have ugly surface lots."

While transit service became more costly but less frequent in those 20 years, the City continued every effort to make the downtown workforce drive and park their automobile as easily and as cheaply as possible, which is why Professor Burbank finds himself alone aboard the loser cruiser, and one of the reasons why downtown's landscape is so barren.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Glory days, they'll pass you by...

Winnipeg's Main Street being a shamefully void and unwelcoming desolation row was once seen as a source of civic shame and concern. This was so much so, that several generations of big public ideas were pushed down on the neighborhood. First came the plan to restore its as downtown's secondary business strip by building a civic centre nearby. Then came the vision to create Neeginan an Aboriginal cultural and business centre.

Now it seems the vision for Main Street is a one-stop-shop (lifestyle centre?) for the socially dysfunctional, addicted, and mentally ill. The Civic Centre and Neeginan failed for obvious reasons, but if nothing else, they had the ability to excite a good chunk of the public that footed the bill for them.

Who's going to be excited about the new Welfare District?

Main Street Project executive director Brian Bechtel told the media he likes how the WRHA's Access Centre "is that it is not displacing local residents." (You know, like a for-profit venture would.)

Funny thing is, the WRHA's hulking parking garage (that the City gave a $500,000 tax credit toward in order that the professional "service-providers" could park their Hyundai Tuscans in safety and ease), was built where Jack's Place stood. Jack's was a four-storey building constructed as a hotel in 1912, and was completely retrofitted and stood in excellent condition when it was torn down in 2008. It served for 30 years as housing for the local population, most recently as the Neeginan Emergency Shelter. Also lost on Bechtel was how the first few nights after the Bell Hotel closed in 2008, residents of that establishment slept outside its locked doors in the rain. All for a good cause... one day.

Family Services minister Gord Mackintosh, who apparently is driven to work down Main Street blindfolded every day, says the WRHA signals a return to the street's glory days. "I think we'll see more private sector support services (is that Social Worker for cafes?) for all those who work here."

The glory days

Not the glory days

Long before new commercial development on the strip happens (how many private enterprises have opened after the WRHA was built, versus before?), I think Gord Mackintosh will see more of what his neighbors back in the tree-lined enclave of Luxton east of North Main are seeing: more of the downtown homeless population migrating further and further north on Main and into Luxton during the day and evenings. And at night, the old Legions and fraternal halls up on Main north of Mountain Avenue are increasingly becoming the favored spots of what a decade ago would have been the rough Main Street bar crowd: back before all this public non-displacement happened. Unforeseen circumstances.

Continued decline and suffering on Main Street is just fine for public officials and for the Captains of the Poverty Industry. Just as long as they get their cut.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The antidote to sprawl?

Whatever shenanigans went on in the clubhouses of Scottsdale, AZ to bring about the development of the Fort Rouge Yards, are for another time (or another blog entirely). But what Calgary's Lexington Investment Corp. and local B&M Land are planning is Winnipeg's first large-scale new-urbanism development, and a welcome stray from the hollowing-out pattern development in Winnipeg has followed for decades.

Far from the transit-oriented development it is being billed as (if buses attracted development, Graham Avenue would be lined with condos, not parking lots), it is still a good, surprisingly urban infill project that many old neighborhoods like Lord Roberts (the Fort Rouge neighborhood west of South Osborne St. and south of the CNR) have the room for, and will need to build in order to maintain a density that can support local commercial activity, public services, and community institutions.

Surprisingly normal street-oriented urban development. Who knew? Credit

Between 1971 and 2006, the population of the Lord Roberts neighborhood declined by 24%, from 6,555 persons in 1971, to 4,955 in 2006. Lord Robert's declining population is still paying for the same number of roadways, sidewalks, parks, transit and public schools it had in 1971, but with less . When completed circa 2015, the Fort Rouge development will have increased the neighborhood population by 1,800 persons--just higher than the population in 1971. While residents (and former neighbors, from when I rented in a little Cape Cod house on Rathgar Avenue a decade ago; a lonely boy walking to the bus stop with Morrissey tapes in my walkman...) may fear their neighborhood is being overcrowded, it is simply regaining some of the density it had 40 years ago.

Winnipeg's established neighborhoods need about 100 more developments like this.

Postwar sprawl in North America is largely a creature of government, but in Waverley West, one does not to connect any dots to see this, since government itself is a direct player in the game. Waverley West: the NDP's dream suburb where $398,000 will get you into a 1,500 square-foot bungalow (some comparison between Waverley West's average prices vs. other new suburbs would be interesting).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Parking lots, and their defenders

It has been pointed out by this blog and elsewhere, that "you only need to spend a few seconds with Google Maps," Bartley Kives writes today, "to see how downtown Winnipeg resembles a patchwork of unimproved gravel and concrete."

And just to save readers those few seconds, I present for the umpteenth time, a guide to off-street parking spaces in Winnipeg's central business district. This is circa 2007, but with a few exceptions represents the parking situation today today. Red is surface lots, yellow is parking garages, blue is underground parkades.

More from the it would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic file, the geezer brahmins and dress-up buffoons that have come to be the face of the heritage preservation movement in this city, are now half way toward reaching the $20 million they now need to build an interpretive centre at Upper Fort Garry.

But the good news is, they are over two-thirds of the way toward raising the $14.5-million they needed for the centre in 2009, and have raised three times the $3.5-m they said they needed in 2008. The birthplace of Winnipeg's inertia-fueled white elephants? Hardly, but one shameful, far-from-completed chapter to be sure.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hooked on a feeling...

The dream of the 1970s refuses to die, and Anders Swanson and Albert Street "business owners" (co-op members) are again pushing to have Albert Street closed.

I recently wrote on this idea, since this is not the first time this year the idea has resurfaced. What is funny about this week's story, is how it notes the rain clouds of reality getting in the way of a bright idea. Closing down a block of Albert Street to celebrate Car-Free Day on Wednesday, "[t]he pouring rain put a damper on the scheduled activities, such as street hockey and car-free trivia, but organizers were undaunted.

'If only it wasn't raining, it would be packed," said Anders Swanson, who works at Natural Cycle on Albert Street. "Everybody's inside having cake, but that doesn't count.'"

If only it wasn't raining. No doubt. But the unfortunate fact remains, that some days it does rain in Winnipeg. Other days it snows. Then there's those days where it neither rains nor snows but is just so downright miserable that you wish it would do one or the other (think November).

If the cycling faithful can't get out and enjoy a car-free street in a September rain shower on Car-Free Day, what makes them think everyone else will?

Anyway, I'm looking for examples of cities in North America with streets with roughly the same preconditions as Albert Street that have made a go of pedestrian malls. Many cities that got in on the pedestrian mall fad in the 1970s have since removed theirs by re-allowing car traffic. This includes large cities such as Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis; small cities like Freeport NY, Rockford IL and Wilkes-Barre PA; and even the two capitals of progressive planning, Portland and Vancouver.

The pedestrian mall dream in St. Louis...

...and the reality. [Credit]

The successful pedestrian malls that come to mind (Sparks Street in Ottawa, Stephen Avenue in Calgary, and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis), survive as tidy little places that do well during the workweek (straddled as they are by the downtown workforce and department stores), but are largely vacated downtown spaces at night.

This success is something that Albert Street could not hope for, nor should it aspire to; we can do better than that. What is so remarkable about Albert Street today is that it is one of the few downtown spaces where car traffic is on equal footing with pedestrians or bicycles; it is one place where they co-exist. As far as downtown attractions go, a place like that is the Barnum and Bailey's Circus of downtown Winnipeg.

Like the cycling routes that will hurt business and livability on Assiniboine Ave., Sherbrook, or Machray, people like Anders Swanson imagine closing down Albert Street would stick it to Winnipeg's Car Culture. Closing down the street would be an affront to the big SUV driver racing in from Island Lakes, they think; payback for Portage Avenue cruise night and all the times I've been cut off by a lone motorist. What idiotic planning fads like this (cut from the same cloth as traffic engineering that enabled car culture in the first place) are really sticking it to is urban culture; to density, mixed uses, and the ability to live without a car. The scores of tiny firms that operate above the ground floors on Albert depend on drive-up traffic, and on-street parking and loading.

In great neighborhoods, streets serve many purposes. Even on rainy days.

Related: Progressive Winnipeg, Playing Favorites

Semi-related: Policy Frog: Cycle of Confusion [who knew the City of Winnipeg was so flush with cash?]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

These are my favorite blogs

With no blog feed, and a list of links a little out-dated and across the board, here are some urban-related links of note:

Bryan Scott's Winnipeg Love Hate is a photography blog that you may have heard of...
Scott was recently featured, in the Free Press. These photos give equal time to a complicated city's beauty and ugliness, its triumphs and failures--all of which are usually found in the same image.

A book of Scott's work, which I was honored to write the forward to, is scheduled to be available in November.

Brian F. Kelcey's State of the City looks at public policy in North American cities. He also takes intelligent aim at former employer Mayor Sam Katz and just about everybody else. The Twitter feed is worth following, too.

The View From Seven, which is both text-heavy and interesting, with occasional keen observations on the state of downtown Winnipeg.

U of M Architecture student Sophia Sengsurlya's attractive new Heart of the Continent looks at design and city planning ideas. Looking forward to more from this blog.

Making a return after four months of no new posts, Market Urbanism offers libertarian commentary that favors sparse zoning codes, private transit systems, and even private cul-de-sacs. Sounds radical, but not at all unlike any North American city of your grandparent's generation.

Roberta Brandes-Gratz had a great piece in the New York Times, on how it was the risky individual action that restored city neighborhoods (like New York's Upper West Side) over the past 40 years.

This happened to be published online five years to the day my wife and I took possession of an old house in North Point Douglas. I don't except a Manhattan-esque gentrification anytime soon, it has been a healthy real estate market and demographics--people move in, keep up and renovate properties and make the area a little more civil and cool--that has, and will continue to help change this neighborhood around. But this is an aspect to the Point Douglas story that doesn't fit in the Official Narrative.

Standing in front of the Unity Pool Room, 795 Main St. between the C.P. tracks and Jarvis Avenue, circa 1948. Credit