Every time planners, politicians and policy geeks try to figure out how to revitalize downtown, they come up with the same three solutions: add more people, more people and then a few more people.
When more human beings inhabit downtown, there's a diminished sense that the centre of Winnipeg is unsafe. More people attract more businesses, which in turn attract even more people and yet more businesses.
And the best way to bring people downtown is to build more apartments and condos, as only housing can ensure people stay downtown, rather than just work there during office hours or venture to the heart of the city to patronize the occasional arts event or NHL game.
Given this widely accepted bit of urban-planning wisdom, it's a bit of a head-scratcher to learn a plan to redevelop one of downtown's most strategically important parcels of underutilized land may not include a housing component. But the operative word is may, as nothing is set in stone right now for the provincially owned surface parking lot that sits south of Graham Avenue, west of the Cityplace mall and kitty-corner to the MTS Centre.
The .6-hectare lot, officially known as 225 Carlton St., is controlled by Manitoba Public Insurance, which has selected the Longboat Development Corp. -- the real estate arm of the Chipman family empire -- to serve as the developer. Longboat, in turn, is working lockstep with CentreVenture, Winnipeg's downtown development agency, which already earmarked this property for a public plaza that would serve as the heart of its 11-block SHED, or sports, hospitality and entertainment district.
The initial proposal for the lot, unveiled this week to Free Press business reporter Murray McNeill, called for a T-shaped public plaza, two office towers and a third building that could house a hotel, condominiums or both.
What immediately jumped off the page was the creation of two new office towers in a city that already has a glut of office space. So why create more offices instead of condos?
"It's going to be driven by specific tenants," Longboat vice-president Scott Stephanson said Tuesday in an interview, suggesting the offices will be purpose-built for anchor businesses.
The decision to build two new office towers was entirely market-driven, he said, which suggests the corporate community is bullish about downtown Winnipeg.
While that's nice for the city's ego, more office workers only do so much for the streetscape. And so would that T-shaped plaza, which would join a long list of landscaped spaces in Winnipeg's downtown, including several public plazas that don't really serve the public often.
Consider the concrete expanse on the east side of the Civic Centre Parkade, utilized only occasionally as a place for Chinatown seniors to practise tai chi. Or the recently renovated but largely ignored Steinkopf Gardens, north of the Centennial Concert Hall. Or Bonnycastle Park along the Assiniboine River, Oodena Circle at The Forks or the Japanese Gardens hidden among the towers that sit between Hargrave and Carlton streets.
The T-shaped plaza Longboat and CentreVenture envision, meanwhile, would have restaurants facing out on the plaza level. So it may stand the chance of attracting more than just pigeons.
The big question mark surrounds the development's third building, which could include a $30-million hotel, as market research suggests there is a need for at least one more higher-end hospitality property south of Portage Avenue. It may also involve condos or a mix of hotel and residential units.
"I don't think anything is off the table. What we're after is a vibrant mixed-use project," said Ross McGowan, CentreVenture's president and CEO. The decision to go with some sort of housing will be Longboat's call, he said.
In McGowan's view, the development could promote density -- that is, the presence of more people -- even without condos immediately on the property.
"This could be an opportunity to provide the commercial density to support the residential," he said, viewing the entire South Portage neighbourhood -- yes, that's an actual Winnipeg neighbourhood -- through an urban-planning framework.
Longboat, however, has demonstrated it's more than capable of creating downtown housing, as the firm has a 17-storey, 170-unit condo tower planned for Hargrave Street, north of Portage Avenue, as part of the Centrepoint development. In the longer term, it may also build apartments or condos on a second MPI-controlled surface lot on the west side of Donald Street, between St. Mary and York avenues.
The Chipmans have already brought the NHL back to Winnipeg. Given the complexities involved in that feat, which many claimed impossible, building a hotel/condo tower within a whisper of the hockey arena does not appear to be a difficult task.