Friday, December 31, 2010

How did you find me?

More with the year-end navel-gazing, here, with the help of Google Analytics, are some of the keywords with which visitors stumbled upon this blog in 2010:

winnipeg's downtown needs more radical pace (40)
terry balkan chev olds winnipeg (5)
sprawl and rise winnipeg (2)
that's quite unlike our big-sister city of winnipeg, where residents will have (2)
aim and ideals in the formationof royal society by sprall (1)
centreventure is a joke (1)
does the royal alexandra hotel in winnipeg still exist (1)
nikki sixx (1)
reducing taxes on the very wealthy to spur the economy, in good times as well as bad — an idea supported only on the kooky fringes of american political life in 1967 (1)
the bar bar hells hundred acres (1)
the rise and the sprawl (1)
walter krawec winnipeg mayor (1)
why aren't shopping malls open on saturdays in winnipeg (1)
why urban infill? (1)

A very happy new year to all my visitors--intentional or not.

Ordered chaos

A string of pedestrian accidents, including three fatalities, occurred over Christmastime in Winnipeg, prompting calls for some kind of official action.

At the time my great-grandfather stepped off the train and into the streets of Winnipeg in 1919, automobile use was rapidly increasing. Between 1920 and 1923, the number of registered vehicles in Winnipeg increased from 11,783 to 16,691. Still, the roadways were governed by an ordered chaos. The clip below, between 0:50 and 2:10, shows this at work on Portage Avenue and Main Street. While these streets were originally, and ultimately for the passage of vehicles, the density and mixed uses of the city made them much more than that. No one, not the motorists, the pedestrians, the streetcar operators, the cyclists, or the taxi and delivery drivers, took anything for granted.

A period of conflict emerged in the 1940s, as motor vehicle use increased, and their lobby groups demanded public effort at make life a little less hectic for motorists. A new "pseudo-science" of traffic engineers began appropriating the roadway exclusively for the easy passage of motor vehicles. Citizens were slow to catch on to the change. In 1946, the Tribune noted the growing regularity of traffic fatalities. But this usually fell on the shoulders of pedestrians of a city was considered the jay-walking capital of Canada. Something needed to be done about this.

Something was done. In lieu of actual expressways to plan, traffic engineers rendered Winnipeg's busy streets into expressway-like roadways. The quick and easy passage of vehicles became the near-exclusive use of roadways. While this occurred throughout North America, Winnipeg was particularly aggressive, and today the city's downtown is littered with anti-pedestrian infrastructure (of which the Portage and Main barricades is only the largest example--try walking down Donald St. between Graham and St. Mary sometime). Not willing to suffer such a hostile, inconvenient and degrading environment, most pedestrians disappeared. Storefront businesses, obviously, followed not far behind.

After decades of traffic engineering and suburbanization, motorists, pedestrians and cyclists have become seemingly unable (and unwilling) to co-exist. Traffic lights and painted lanes have allowed motorists to turn their brains off. Pedestrian crossings have allowed pedestrians to do the same--pressing the "cross" button and brainlessly stepping into traffic. Regulations, the thinking goes, have made transportation safe for them; no need to pay attention what else is going on. And so, the ultra-planned and regimented intersections of suburbia became scenes of fatalities over the past couple of weeks. Until drivers are given cause to become more aware of their surroundings, and take quick passage for granted, the best laid plans of traffic engineers (a pedestrian stepping out when and where it was not planned for) will continue to be occasionally interrupted by tragedy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reader's Choice: the Top 10 of '10

In 2010, The Rise and Sprawl has perhaps been a little slower in content than in the blog's previous five years, with much of my writing energy occupied by other projects, notably university papers, and contributions to two books: a chapter of A Manifest Presence: 100 Years of St. Margaret's, and the foreword to Bryan Scott's Winnipeg Love Hate.

Still, time was found to update this blog, and in 2010, The Rise and Sprawl remained among the growing ranks of top local blogs--something that still baffles me, given the generally narrow focus of this blog. I won't complain.

Looking over the popular posts of the past year, it seems that there are two major camps of this blog's readership: one is of the "shut up and post some pics" variety--two of the top three popular posts of 2010 were collections of old photos of Winnipeg with brief commentary. The second seems to be of the "is he saying anything about our department/organization?" variety--posts that name names of organizations, notably Centre Venture, the Historical Buildings Committee and Heritage Winnipeg, seem to be popular.

In any case, the top ten most popular posts of 2010, based on the highest number of visits, appear below. They are, in order:

10. These are my favorite blogs, September 2
A brief list of new, or newly-discovered blogs of note. One addition to the list of great local blogs since September is the product of one of the city's most diligently observant pedestrians, Walter Krawec, whose One Man Committee takes a careful and in-depth look at city life and issues. Checking his blog, and the blogroll on the right hand column, usually precedes my checking major media sources.

9. Point Douglas is going to look great two years from now..., April 15
The slow assault on the city's built heritage continued with the demolition of the Smart-Bag Building on Pacific Avenue East. No one, it seemed, had any real will to save this building, or encourage Sport Manitoba to look at different options.

8. Demolition blues, January 5
Like the northern fringes of the Exchange District, what texture remains on the wind-swept streets south of Portage Avenue continues to face threats. In January, a rumor circulated that the Windsor Hotel and its beloved bar would make way for a parking lot. This plan has been put on hold.

7. What comes next?, May 25
As demolition fencing went up around one of the oldest warehouse buildings in the Exchange District, Sport Manitoba still did not have a penny for constructing a new sports facility in the place of the Smart-Bag Building. This came after the Historical Buildings Committee compromised by allowing the demolition, provided the site not be used for surface parking--something that the city does not allow downtown anyway.

As of late December, the site of the Smart-Bag Building is gravel lot. Sport Manitoba staff and visitors parking on the west edge of the building's footprint. Sport Manitoba allegedly does not have any funds to go toward constructing the recreation facility.

6. Parking lots, and their defenders, September 26
Perhaps the strangest election issue in 2010 (no small feat in a city where election issues are increasingly just pulled out of thin air randomly) was surface parking lots. Both the mayor and his opponent made promises related to dealing with them. While the candidates and the general public may have discovered in 2010 they have no love for surface parking lots ("they're eyesores"), they increasingly regard them as a strategic resource that simply needs to be better managed. I stood by and laughed at their foolishness, and posted yet again, that semi-famous image--originally drawn by local architect and columnist Brent Bellamy, and used shamelessly by this blog--showing parking to be in no short supply downtown.

Also in this post was a note on the epic saga of the Friends of the Upper Fort Garry, whose for some kind of world class interpretive centre continues to rise. $10-M short on funds for the latest version of the project, the Friends need to come up with the remainder through the generosity of politicians eager to dispense public funds to whichever well-heeled moocher comes begging. Take a number, Friends.

5. 123 Princess Street, October 10
Winnipeg's major development corporation continued to move away from assisting small, risky, privately-funded projects, and toward being hangers-on of big, safe, publicly-funded projects.

4. A tougher sell, April 20
Again with the Smart-Bag Building, which was demolished with no firm plan to replace it. A point I tend to beat on frequently is that [w]hile 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..." 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.

Building on that precedent, the more recent summary demolition approval of the Shanghai/Coronation Building in Chinatown makes the Smart-Bag story pale in comparison. Expect "developers" to find more new and creative ways to dupe Councillors into demolishing buildings for parking lots in 2011.

3. Warehouse District as it was, July 28
Photos found at the Winnipeg Building Index, showing the Exchange District in the 1970s and early '80s, when it was known as the Winnipeg Historic Warehouse Area; a fading and forgotten warehouse district that a few brave entrepreneurs dreamed would be "the new Gastown or Yorkville." That didn't happen, at least not on their schedule, but by the City valuing building density, mixed uses, calm street spaces and individual initiative in this part of the city, the Exchange District was able to slowly become the most successful and enjoyable neighborhood downtown.

2. Slow burn in a postal code that doesn't matter, October 25
This blog focuses on a particular set of topics, banging out the same old post over and over again, and finding new ways to string a few biting words together about some threatened building or another (see #'s 4, 7, 8, and 9 above). But in the final week of the Civic Election, I commented on the violence and terror in the North End that reached a new level as the entire area was put on lockdown, as a gunman shot three people, killing two . It would be nice if this tragedy served as a wake-up call, but the cops and the City and the Province and public have been hitting the snooze button for years. A few hour spent in the North End over any given weekend should be a sufficient "wake-up call." Instead, a triple shooting is the new normal in a city with a small town mentality and a big city crime problem.

The growing severity and scope of this violence is unacceptable. But it seems that responsibility for doing anything about it is equally unacceptable to anyone elected to uphold peace and civility in this city. Hit the snooze button one more time, Winnipeg: for vast sections of your city, 2011 is going to be a year of increased violence and abandonment.

1. Winnipeg in color, 1962, June 24
While nerdily scanning the pages of the Winnipeg Building Index, I noticed a number of good quality color photos dated 1962. There are shots of Portage and Main, Academy Road, the University of Manitoba, there is also a number of shots of the Main Street strip, and the quickly-disappearing streetscapes of forgotten corners of South Point Douglas: Martha, Henry, Maple. While the views are often quaint, they present a city that nearly 50 years later, largely does not exist in form and function.

Looking north up Main from Logan Avenue, 1962. WBI

That's it for 2010. See you in the new year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Unpacking container condos

The least expensive way to develop new condominium housing is to take existing apartment blocks and convert them to condos. Already more or less up to code and conforming with zoning regulations, old apartment buildings are, depending on the condition of the block, basically straight forward renovation-scale projects.

But conversion can only take Winnipeg's lower-end condo market so far, with just a limited supply of apartment blocks available (and that is excluding the implementation of some kind of reactionary, conflict theory-inspired "condo control" regulations).

One emerging building style that would be more expensive than a standard apartment conversion, but less expensive than building entirely new, is container housing.

Container housing is built mainly by using the steel shipping containers that carry goods across the ocean. As one local developer explained, since Canada isn't shipping anything back to China, thousands of used containers sit empty in the country's western ports. This presents an opportunity for Canadian builders. By saving on labor and building material costs, using shipping containers lowers the selling price of the units.

From here... here. Container condos would suit the industrial aesthetic of neighborhoods like South Point Douglas

Throw in some modish furniture, and you're set

Already being used in building developments around the world, Winnipeg's first example of container housing is in the works for South Point Douglas--a neighborhood where it often does not make financial sense to build new, relatively cheap dwelling units. Unlike conventional structures, container buildings can be built cheap without looking cheap.

So far, planners at the City of Winnipeg are cool to the idea of building residences out of shipping containers, particularly used ones. The developer in South Point Douglas has been told that new, never before used containers may be acceptable, but this reduces the affordability.

For City of Winnipeg planners to look at the successes of reusing containers for housing in other cities and allowing their construction here, could open up a new and innovative way to build more of these relatively affordable types of dwelling units.

"It ain't about me!" Frank and Nicky from The Wire might not oppose containers used as condos, but just don't build them on the old grain pier

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Discount everything"

"Chinatown was mobbed Wednesday night by youngsters wanting to see a Victoria Day fireworks display. More people converged on King st. and Pacific ave. at 10 p.m. than you'll find any noon at Portage and Main.

Extra police handled the swarming humanity. But they weren't very effective. When a boy shouted: "Lookit, sky rockets!" the mob burst it borders and heaved like a wave across the narrow streets.


Then the rain came. And humanity disappeared like butter into hot toast. You couldn't time it. At one moment, hundreds of people milled on the streets. At the next, the streets were bare, the pavement was glistening beneath the yellow lights, the gutters were gurgling and lonely, spent firecrackers swam with the current into the sewers."

- Ted Schrader [a journalist of the old school] Winnipeg Tribune, May 25, 1944

Winnipeg-raised artist Alison Fleming's succinct letter to the editor today defends the Shanghai Restaurant (the subject of one of her paintings) against the standard set of arguments that arise from the Winnipeg yokelsphere and its representatives on Council.

Meanwhile, the city's most keenly observant urban flaneur, Walter Krawec, writes at One Man Committee that maybe it's simply too late for Winnipeg's Chinatown.
"If the local Chinese-Canadian community generally isn't interested in revitalizing the Chinatown district (which is somewhat evident by the lack of private investment in the area), perhaps it's time to give up the ghost, rebrand the area as the "North Exchange District" or some such thing, and stop trying to replace the heritage buildings in the area with seniors homes and parking lots."

Unfortunately, while Winnipeg generally experienced a paradigm shift regarding the Exchange District in the 1970s (from top-down, le Corbusier-inspired "Urban Renewal District No. 3" to the market-driven, Gastown-inspired "Historic Warehouse Area") the same never occurred in Chinatown. There continues to be absolutely no official respect for the existing urban fabric of Chinatown--its small blocks, its uniquely small-scale and relatively ancient architecture--and a will to see new developments emerge from the ground up and work within this fabric. With history proving otherwise, business carries on as if Gustavo da Roza's 1974 vision of demolishing the entire neighborhood for a shopping mall was still sound urban planning.

The same conditions of supply and demand that create neighborhood improvement have not been allowed to emerge in Chinatown, where protectionism and land speculation on the part of local development corporations keeps property off the market and old buildings rotting. This sustained decline, and both the parking lots and garish suburban-style architecture it engenders, further repels people from the district.

The Kuo Ming Tang Building on Pacific Ave. is one last exception to this trend. At once a throwback to the old Chinatown (framed photos of Chiang Kai-shek hang in the building's upstairs office), and the local art scene's quiet, slow northern migration (Guy Maddin apparently shot scenes in the basement of the legendary Golden City store), the building functions like it was a normal old building in a normal old neighborhood. But even this anomaly has felt the pressure around it.

However maligned and gap-toothed its streetscapes, there is still hope for Chinatown to become more than a dull wasteland (it's like suburbia, but with homeless people!), but only after it begins to be seen as a neighborhood whose improvement depends on the same conditions other city neighborhoods do.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A summary demolition

EPC just approved the demolition of the Coronation/Shanghai Restaurant building, provided some kind of credible plan for a geriatric ward can be put in place. A minor setback for the Chinatown Development Corporation.

This decision was made because the historic and important building was "falling apart," yet there is still no engineer's report to validate this claim. It is based simply on what an architect who is hired by the CDC said, and on the sentiments of a pair of philistine Councillors from the suburban Northeast.

For others, demolishing old buildings is not such an easy process. The Church of the Open Door, a congregation that gathers in a bunker-like building at the corner of Euclid and Hallet St. in North Point Douglas, recently purchased a house next to their property, at 123 Euclid Avenue. Built in 1889, the house is a fine example the modest Second Empire style that was popular with Winnipeg house builders in the 1880s.

Like the Coronation Building, 123 Euclid is on the City of Winnipeg's Historical Building Inventory. So when the Church of the Open Door asked to demolish the house, the City hired an engineering firm to see if the house was structurally viable (which, in the engineer's opinion, it was).

It was a costly and detailed process; the City could have just asked someone from the church if they thought the structure of the house was good, or they could have gotten Coun. Russ Wyatt to do a walk-past. But that did not happen, because it would have been a failure of the Property, Planning and Development Department to practice due diligence. Why is it a different story in Chinatown?

Related: One Man Committee - "Goodbye Shanghai; Whither Chinatown?"

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Double standards and old buildings

Nothing like an assisted living complex designed by a McArchitect to make Chinatown an exciting place!

I love how the City's Property and Development Committee doesn't need to wait for an engineers' report to deem the building is "at risk of falling apart;" they just take the word of the architect/cartoonist Ray Wan, who would be hired to draw up a seniors' housing plan in order for the building to be demolished Yup, no conflict of interest there.

When owners want to take an old building that has not been properly maintained and upgraded over the years, and reuse it, they have to go to Property Planning and Development and argue for some kind of building code equivalency. Old buildings in Winnipeg obviously do not meet 100% of the building standard (since these buildings were built long before contemporary standards were created, and the economics of bringing a building up to 100% is often not there).

PP&D will often work with the owner to achieve code equivalency, and to bring the building up to a reasonable standard (say, 60%).

Developer X: "I own Building X, which is very old and has not been properly upgraded over the years. I plan to redevelop the building to earn a profit, but I will be unable to recoup the costs of doing so. So I am trying to take advantage of tax credits, etc. and develop part of the building for now. In the future I will make further improvements and develop the rest. Hopefully the market improves to make these later expenses more feasible."

PP&D: "Redeveloping old buildings downtown fits with the City's long-term planning documents. While in a perfect world, this entire building be completely repaired and upgraded, we recognize the economic realities. A couple of upgrades need to be done before occupancy, and if we can expect you to make further upgrades over time, that would be great. It might take a long time and seem really arbitrary at times, and you may want to start making friends with important people, but we will, ultimately work with you toward a solution that allows you to develop your building."

Most if not all century-old buildings in downtown Winnipeg are not at 100%, yet they are allowed to house uses like loft condos, offices, boutique retail shops, and cafes. Yet when an owner wants to knock a building down, they can argue that their building is not up to standard and it is not financially feasible to bring it up to standard. In that case, PP&D throws equivalency and 60% out the window. Threatened buildings thus face a higher standard than non-threatened ones. If the same standard that applied to the Coronation Block applied everywhere, the entire Exchange District would also be "at risk of falling apart."

Developer Y: "I own Building Y, which is very old and has not been properly upgraded over the years. Because the City told me I cannot demolish the building to earn a profit, I am now scrambling to put together some kind of credible-looking plan to build a geriatric ward on the site."

PP&D: "Demolishing old buildings downtown does not fit with the City's long-term planning documents. This entire building needs to be completely repaired and upgraded, 100%. That's all there is to it. We can't expect you to make all of these improvements at once, so there must be no other option but demolition. You might get some opposition from our Historical Buildings Committee, but we will, ultimately work with you toward a solution that allows you to demolish, especially if you can make friends with suburban councillors often determine the fate of downtown Winnipeg's built environment (a step you've obviously already taken)."

So it seems that the "it may as well come down because it needs alot of work" argument coming from the City is not based in objectivity. This is a matter of will. Of course it needs alot of work--it's an old building.

But demolition of a 19th century building in the Exchange District for a parking lot and no definite plan to build is not without recent precedent. Don't hold your breath waiting for this case to be any different.

Coronation Building, circa 1920. Credit: Buflyer 200

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bad ideas on the menu

We'll see what becomes of this bright idea.

Menu from the Shanghai Restaurant, dated 1954. The restaurant had opened at its location at 228 King Street more than a decade earlier

In the meantime...