The Zellers grocery in the basement of the Bay at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard is no more.
In most instances, when a prominent business closes its doors downtown, it's typically interpreted as a sign the area can no longer support the business. Another nail in the core's coffin.
In this case, however, that's not the case. Parent company HBC is selling most of its Zellers stores to American retail giant Target, and closing those that were not sold. This is not, thankfully, a story about a store fleeing downtown to relocate in the suburbs.
And yet, there is still plenty of reason to worry about the departure of Zellers. There has long been concern downtown proper is underserved by grocers. For years, there have been attempts to lure a large grocer to the core. Now, the biggest of the less-than-impressive array of grocery options is gone. It is feared this will slow downtown revitalization.
There are still other downtown options. Canada Safeway has stores nearby in Osborne Village south of downtown and Sargent Avenue to the north. Giant Tiger on Ellice Avenue carries some groceries, and there are specialty grocers sprinkled around the core, including The Forks Market. But these are not considered sufficient to help support the downtown community.
That is why, for more than a year, CentreVenture, the downtown development agency, along with The Forks North Portage Partnership and the Downtown and Exchange District BIZs have been working to find a grocer to replace Zellers. There certainly seems to be an opportunity here. The Downtown BIZ estimated Zellers sold about $8 million in groceries and dry goods annually. One might theorize another grocer, either a chain or an independent, would want to step into HBC's shoes. The fact that proponents have, so far, failed to find that replacement speaks volumes about how we continue to fail the downtown.
Once again, downtown is stuck in a maddening, historic conundrum.
It is widely believed a large, suburb-sized grocery store is a key to greater downtown population density. Without basic services, fewer people will want to live -- and thus fewer developers will want to build -- downtown. Downtown is safer, more vibrant and less likely to be a source of crime and dysfunction when more people live there. Although population density is not a cure-all, it would solve a lot of downtown's problems.
The problem is, nobody knows exactly which end of the problem to attack first. Should we lure the grocery store first in the hopes it attracts more residential development? Or should we give incentives to developers to build -- and Winnipeggers to buy -- residential units knowing they (the grocers) will come.
Perhaps, it's none of the above. Perhaps we should focus on the unused, and underutilized spaces, in the hopes of creating something that attracts both residents and grocers.
The recent Re-Imagining Winnipeg series, sponsored by Storefront MB and the Free Press, may provide some answers. In the series, architects composed ideas for a new, functional, vibrant core. The ideas focused less on megaprojects, and more on the alleys, empty lots and neglected public spaces to creating a more welcoming, functional and practical core. The theory is as green spaces, public markets, pedestrian malls and transit options are created, residential density and services would follow.
The Re-Imagining Winnipeg series was instructive, if only for the fact it contrasted so dramatically with the culture of downtown planning and policy we've had in Winnipeg. For decades now, we've nibbled around the edges of this problem. Per-unit subsidies, tax credits and, most recently, tax-increment financing have certainly helped. However, Winnipeg continues to suffer from a lack of density.
New development on and around Waterfront Drive, and in the Exchange District, are promising. The property-development arm of True North Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Winnipeg Jets, is trying to develop condominiums across from the MTS Centre. Smaller, niche residential development is growing, albeit at a glacial pace.
The failure to secure a big grocer to replace Zellers is proof downtown remains an unfinished idea. That's a direct comment on a local government that has been satisfied with incremental progress, the byproduct of a passive, incremental strategy.
Perhaps it's time to consider bolder initiatives, such as differential mill rates. Or, as the Re-Imagining Winnipeg participants envisioned, closing streets for pedestrian malls, which would create an environment that would attract prospective downtown residents.
The Zellers departure demonstrates a need to do something different. For now, downtown is stuck in policy and planning limbo. Better than we were, but still agonizingly far away from where we need to be.