Generally, it's a bad idea to encourage Winnipeg to take its sweet time considering a new downtown development. Give 'em an inch, as the cliché goes, and they'll probably take a parsec.
But it's a relief to see the city take 11 months to decide to take as much as another 12 months to determine what the heck to do with Parcel Four, the downtown surface-parking lot that's been empty for decades.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the city has asked The Forks to lead a planning effort that will eventually see some form of development rise on two Forks-area surface lots. One is Parcel Four, the city-owned lot at the southwest corner of Waterfront Drive and William Stephenson Way. The other is the Railside development, a Forks-owned surface lot also situated west of Waterfront Drive, on the south side of York Avenue.
These parcels are among the last pieces of the puzzle known as The Forks neighbourhood, which was nothing more than a tangle of rail lines and underutilized warehouse buildings 25 years ago. The establishment of The Forks Market in 1989 kicked off decades of redevelopment that also saw the adaptive reuse of several old structures and the construction of Shaw Park, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Inn At The Forks, a skatepark, parkade and outdoor stage.
This build-out has been haphazard on occasion. The stage, once the site of performances that attracted more than 10,000 people, has been used only sparingly since the construction of the hotel.
Given this experience, The Forks has approached the idea of any further development in the neighbourhood with extreme caution. This is why the Railside site remains a surface lot even though it has long been slated for residential development.
In stark contrast is the city's attempt to slap a water park and hotel on Parcel Four in 2012. While that idea died for many reasons, the sheer contempt for the basic principles of urban planning was astounding, even for a city as contemptuous of planning as Winnipeg has tended to be over the decades.
Parcel Four has had a curious history since it was carved out of the unorganized mess of city property that resulted from the realignment of what's now William Stephenson Way. First, the city leased the land to Riverside Park Management, the non-profit organization that sublets several parcels of city land to the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club.
The Goldeyes used that land as a parking lot until 2008, when the resolution of a high-profile rent dispute with Riverside Park Management led the city to reclaim control. During the entire period of the lease, no development of Parcel Four was permitted, as the gravel lot was reserved for future use by The Forks, at first. Later, it was pegged as the site of a potential parking structure for the human rights museum.
Given the city's stated intention of consulting with The Forks and the museum, only willing ignorance could have cooked up the plan to sell Parcel Four to an Alberta hotel chain that would have fulfilled Mayor Sam Katz's long-held dream of spending $7 million worth of public funds on a private water park.
There was no planning, no consultation and certainly no option for any other Winnipeg developer to get a crack at this prime piece of real estate. Consultations planned for the next year by the city and The Forks will go a long way to restoring public confidence in the way the city disposes of valuable land.
The mayor has said he would like to see Parcel Four become a park. It's a terrible idea, as only some form of dense development could create a connection between the Portage and Main commercial core and The Forks.
Parcel Four is also way too valuable to be set aside as green space. Estimates of its value have ranged from $6 million to $11 million, while development would generate new property taxes for both the city and province.
Some form of dense development would not preclude the possibility of public space at the site. "A beautiful public space makes sense," Forks North Portage president and CEO Jim August said Friday.
The dual planning effort will also allow The Forks to finally proceed with its residential plans for the Railside site, which must be renamed. "You don't want to be marketing anything as 'Railside' with all the trains coming by," August joked.
Downtown Winnipeg already has an abundance of underutilized public space. What it needs is more development, which in turn will encourage even more development.
The challenge for The Forks and for the city is to ensure their neighbours -- the human rights museum, the Goldeyes and Provencher Boulevard businesses, for starters -- are at the very least consulted about the plans.