Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City has a penchant for bending the rules

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About 109 years ago, a massive fire broke out in the Main Street hardware store owned by James Ashdown, one of the most powerful people in boomtown-era Winnipeg.

Incredibly, this city is still dealing with the consequences today.

Back in the fall of 1904, when Ashdown's business was on fire, there wasn't enough water flowing through the fast-growing city's undersized network of pipes to put out the blaze. In an effort to save the hardware store, water from the heavily polluted Red River was pumped into a system of pipes fed by artesian wells.

As a result, more than 1,000 people who had access to clean well water wound up with typhoid fever from the river. Thanks to the Ashdown Hardware fire, wealthy Winnipeggers got a taste of what it was like to be the poor Slavic-speaking North Enders who were forced to draw filthy water from the Red.

This heart-warming tale of socio-economic disparity was a big moment in this city's history. The brief suffering of the wealthy anglos inspired Winnipeg to build two of the most important pieces of public infrastructure of the 20th century.

One was the Winnipeg Aqueduct, a 155-kilometre engineering marvel that supplies the city with water from Shoal Lake's Indian Bay. It was completed in 1919 and still meets all of Winnipeg's drinking-water needs.

The other was the James Avenue High Pressure Pumping Station, built in 1906 to douse fires in large downtown Winnipeg buildings. It wound up operating for 80 years but now sits idle on Waterfront Drive, its brick facade enshrouding massive gears and engines that look like apparitions from the mind of a steampunk novelist.

Preserving this unusual structure and the unique machinery inside has proven to be a massive headache for the city. Downtown development agency CentreVenture once sold the pumping station to a would-be restaurant developer, only to suffer the twin indignities of losing a piece of the machinery inside and then buying back the building at a loss.

Since then, the station has been floated as the site of a brew pub, an indoor farmers market and now an apartment tower. This latest proposal, tentatively approved by the city, would preserve the machinery inside the station at the base of a 24-storey structure.

Some heritage advocates see this tower as the last, best hope for preserving the pumping station. Some city planners believe only a tall tower, with hundreds of apartments, can provide the revenue necessary to justify the upfront expense of preserving century-old machinery.

Some developers and arts groups also see this plan as the last, best hope to get a parkade built in the east side of the Exchange District.

But a different assortment of heritage advocates, developers and existing Waterfront Drive residents see a 24-storey tower as an abomination, especially since zoning rules restrict the height of a building in this area to eight storeys.

When any big development is proposed, it's common to see competing interests disagree. While residents who argue a tower will ruin their view are being silly -- no jurisdiction on the planet guarantees a property owner's right to retain a view -- there are legitimate concerns the city is setting a precedent by once again bending rules to accommodate a specific development.

Compared with several other North American cities, Winnipeg has a spotty record when it comes to heritage preservation. Despite an official policy forbidding downtown demolition, the city continues to allow owners of empty or derelict buildings to take down their properties. In the past three years alone, the Shanghai Restaurant, Orpheum, Grain Exchange Annex and the Smart Bag Company Warehouse have all been toppled.

There's also no political will to force property owners to rejuvenate buildings or build up on surface lots, either within the Exchange National Historic District or in the broader warehouse district.

The James Avenue Pumping Station sits outside the actual Exchange. Allowing a developer to build on top of it to preserve part of it was an agonizing decision, said Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, arguably council's staunchest heritage advocate.

The next decision of this kind would be easier if Winnipeg did a more consistent job of enforcing rules and regulations. If there's one set of rules, developers and residents alike would know what to expect from this city.

But as the Ashdown Hardware fire illustrated, a single set of rules has never been a big priority in this city, where a semblance of a frontier boomtown mentality remains.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2014 B1


Updated on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 6:35 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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