Is the Exchange District and its new focus on residential development about to squeeze out its famous nightclubs?
For decades now, the Exchange District has been a hub of nightclub, bar and restaurant activity. Even though the area does not boast the same number of establishments as the heydays of the late 1980s and early 1990s, several big clubs still operate alongside a growing inventory of cafés and restaurants.
However, the city has had for some years now an overarching interest in massively increasing residential density in the downtown in general, and the Exchange District in particular, to increase safety and support the establishment of ancillary businesses such as grocery stores.
This policy initiative has worked remarkably well. Just 10 years ago, there were only a few hundred residents of the Exchange District; today Winnipeg's CentreVenture Development Corporation estimates there are more than 1,900 people who call the Exchange home.
While that is an admirable and progressive philosophy for urban planning, it ultimately means a radical change in the dynamic of this historic and historically underutilized neighbourhood.
Bar and club patrons, who previously enjoyed nearly unfettered run of the streets of the Exchange District after normal business hours, have found themselves surrounded by big-ticket condominiums and their occupants, many of whom do not always appreciate the 'girls-and-guys-go-wild' atmosphere.
The situation is particularly troublesome in the area immediately around the Union Sound Hall on the eastern-most edge of Market Avenue. The cavernous USH -- which has hosted several different clubs with several different motifs over the years -- has been a lightning rod for resident complaints during its one-year existence.
Club ownership is a broad consortium that included, at inception, Urban Bakery owner Kevin Trotsky, restaurateur Sam Colosimo, Green Room manager Dave Davis and local DJs Time Hoover (DJ Co-op), Tyler Sneesby (DJ Hunnicutt), Fraser Auld, Lonnie Compayre and John Lambert.
Last July, on the eve of opening, ownership assured local residents they were not going to operate a nightclub that featured electronic music. In fact, some of the owners claimed they had invested significant money to "de-nightclubify" the interior to make it more attractive as a live music venue.
However, it was not long into the fall and winter before residents claim they saw more nights with only a DJ and fewer live performers.
Although it may not seem important, the kind of entertainment has a big impact on the level of noise and general mayhem that can be produced by club patrons.
For many in the hospitality industry, a nightclub with a DJ often implies a much younger, more unruly crowd and longer operating hours. Live music venues, in broadly general terms, tend to draw older, more sedate audiences and often don't stay open quite as late.
The 'no-nightclub' pledge was, according to some residents, key in suppressing opposition to the USH proposal when it was seeking a liquor licence in early 2013. Particularly since this particular part of the east Exchange has been at the centre of much of the residential development in the area.
There are two condo buildings right across Market Avenue, and newly opened developments now occupy positions to the north and east that have a direct line-of-sight with the club. As well, several of the new, tony condo buildings on Waterfront Drive are also well within sub-woofer distance.
John Giavedoni, the executive director of Residents of the Exchange District (R:ED) and a condo resident within a stone's throw of Market Avenue, said when USH was seeking its liquor licence, it met with residents to ease concerns about drunk and disorderly patrons spilling out of the club. Giavedoni said USH ownership was clear it would concentrate mostly on live music and less on DJ or electronic music.
"What was very clearly explained to us was that it wasn't going to be a nightclub per se," said Giavedoni. "It was going to be mostly live acts. People would mostly buy tickets in advance, enjoy a drink or two, stay two or three hours and then clear out around midnight."
Although there has been some live music, Giavedoni said there has been much more club music than originally promised. This, he said, has created the exact type of late-night mayhem the USH promised it was going to avoid.
The USH's club music -- fiercely built around a throbbing bass line -- has not been well-contained, and there have been complaints about general disorderly conduct in the early hours of the morning when the club is closing down, Giavedoni said.
Of particular concern is the club's smoking area, a loosely contained section of the John Hirsch Place laneway behind the USH. Giavedoni said patrons descend from the club to the lane on a noisy fire escape. The combination of the noise of people scurrying up and down the fire escape and a mess of plastic bottles, cups and cigarette butts that often gets left behind in the lane, has many residents enraged, he added.
None of the owners of USH would respond to repeated requests for an interview, the last of which was made this past week. But other nightclub owners in the neighbourhood argued condo owners and nightclubs can coexist in the Exchange with some careful planning and reasonable expectations.
Wade Salchert, owner of Whiskey Dix nightclub on Main Street and a longtime resident and business owner in the Exchange District, said it is important to remember the nightlife created by bars, restaurants and clubs has been an important part of the history of this historic neighbourhood.
For many years, when Exchange District residents numbered in the low hundreds, the only draw for the area was bars and clubs, he said. In particular, nightclubs have proven to be the only businesses capable of occupying some of the largest and most ornate heritage buildings on Main Street and surrounding arteries, Salchert said.
Salchert, who has lived in the Ashdown Warehouse for more than 15 years, said he fears far too many of the new residents of the Exchange District may have underestimated the street activity and noise that is inherent in this gritty urban area.
"Nightclubs have been around down here for many years, and it's just not realistic to move here and start demanding that it should be as quiet as St. Vital," Salchert said. "You've got to want to be part this community, and that means accepting some of the noise and activity later at night."
That having been said, Salchert said he believes club owners can be good neighbours by managing both the noise from entertainment and the fallout from patrons at closing time.
The first summer Whiskey Dix was open, Salchert said he and his partners installed powerful subwoofer speakers outside on the club's popular patio. That turned out to be a mistake, as the throbbing bass drew both the ire of residents living blocks away and the police trying to enforce the anti-noise bylaw.
Rather than fight the residents, Salchert said he replaced the subwoofers with directional speakers that contained the patio music better. He then worked with the then-Manitoba Liquor Commission to find what residents believed was an acceptable decibel level.
To this day, Salchert said, his manager will test the decibel level of the patio music several times each night to ensure someone hasn't bumped up the volume.
"We have proved that you can be good neighbours if you try hard enough," he added.
Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies, said many cities across North America are pursuing balanced, densified multi-use communities where commercial and residential development evolve in peaceful coexistence.
However, before that coexistence can be achieved, there is usually a period of conflict where local residents wage a battle with bars, clubs and restaurants over issues such as excessive noise, disorderly conduct, odour and garbage, he noted. The most successful cities are the ones that manage that conflict to create multi-use communities, rather than trying to restrict either commercial or residential development.
"In these cases, it's hard to undo the past," Distasio said. "We've always allowed nightclubs to operate in this neighborhood. Can we undo all that development just because more people are moving into the area? That is going to be a real battle where no one wins."
Distasio said he believes the middle ground is within reach using existing bylaws and enforcement. For example, the noise bylaw could be more effectively enforced -- something Exchange residents argue is not being done now -- to ensure noise levels are not excessive. This would allow bars and clubs to offer entertainment with little disruption to the residential community.
"We have to remember that one of the things that makes this area interesting and attractive is its diversity, and that includes the clubs and bars," Distasio said. "We don't gain anything by trying to squeeze anyone out."
To that end, club owners such as Salchert believe there are things the city could be doing to help businesses manage patrons and reduce unruly behaviour.
Salchert said he has fought with the city for years to allow taxis to queue along Main Street and McDermot Avenue so patrons at closing time can walk out of the club and directly into a ride home. Unfortunately, police continue to issue tickets to cabs lined up around the club, discouraging them from picking up patrons coming out of Main Street bars and clubs.
"It's such a simple idea and one that would help us move people out of the club and off the sidewalks much more quickly," Salchert said.
Ross McGowan, president and CEO of CentreVenture Development Corporation, one of the biggest driving forces in the effort to increase residential density in the Exchange, said he believes the clubs and the condos can exist in harmony, although it will require business owners to find a way of keeping a lid on the mayhem that sometimes comes with music, booze and good times.
However, McGowan said there will be lots of incentive; a more densely populated Exchange District will ultimately mean more patrons for bars and restaurants in the area.
"There will be a coming together of businesses and residents on things like noise levels and hours of operation," McGowan said.
"When you get people living in an area and using these facilities, they tend to have an impact on how they operate. So, the clubs will either find a way to coexist, or they will have to move."