If it's been said once, it's worth repeating 100,000 times: Small, independent businesses form the heart of any neighbourhood.
Technically speaking, Winnipeg's downtown is not one neighbourhood. There are actually 11 different officially designated neighbourhoods inside our city's sprawling central business district.
But downtown tends to exist as one place in the minds of many Winnipeggers, each with their own internal vision of what downtown is and what it's supposed to be.
To roughly 70,000 people who travel downtown every weekday to work, go to school or attend some form of appointment, downtown is primarily a business district, in the same bland, largely faceless way as any other central business district is in any other North American city.
To people who don't often go downtown but occasionally attend Jets games, concerts or arts events, downtown is an entertainment district that seems safer at some times of year -- say, during July's Fringe Theatre Festival or the NHL hockey season -- than it does at other times.
To people who never go downtown, it's just an unpopulated expanse of cracked concrete, prone to street crime, best avoided and easily ignored.
And to people who actually live downtown or simply love downtowns in general, it is the most important piece of Winnipeg -- the barometer of the health of the city overall, the only place worth being, for better and for worse.
These visions of downtown are not mutually exclusive. But they do engender different ways of valuing what exists downtown right now and what should exist there in the future.
First and foremost, downtown needs people. While there are sizeable numbers within the highrises of Broadway-Assiniboine and Central Park, reasonable density in Colony and a growing population in the Exchange District, much of downtown remains almost devoid of residential development. There has been widespread agreement for years about the need to increase this population and some modest successes in the form of new condominium and apartment creation.
But if people are a downtown's lifeblood, then small businesses form its beating heart, even though the major institutions -- banks, the University of Winnipeg and government offices among them -- form the primary daytime draw.
For decades, as downtown Winnipeg stagnated, it was easy for small businesses to eke out an existence in older mixed-use buildings, thanks to cheap rent and the slow pace of development.
But there is now upward pressure on real estate in many areas of downtown. And that means some of those small businesses are doomed.
In Chinatown, a downtown neighbourhood that barely continues to function as a neighbourhood, decades of disinterest at city hall and outright neglect among property owners have toppled historic warehouse building after historic warehouse building, just outside the boundaries of the Exchange.
Some time over the next few years, the Chinatown Development Corporation will ironically demolish the 139-year-old Coronation Block and deprive King Street of its most famous facade -- the Shanghai Restaurant, which closed at the end of 2010 as the family business ran out of family members to run the business.
In Portage-Ellice, it will only be a matter of months or weeks before the Longboat Development Corporation demolishes the Norlyn Building on Hargrave Street to make way for the parkade that will serve its 311 Portage at Centrepoint complex. The collateral damage will be the Wagon Wheel Lunch, one of Western Canada's last remaining authentic diners, which has operated as a lunch counter since the late 1950s.
Finally, in South Portage, a private land-assembly effort appears to be underway at the southwest corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue, where three of the city's oldest mixed-use buildings -- the Fortune Block, MacDonald Block and Winnipeg Hotel -- stand out as an island of dilapidated history.
If this effort is successful, this patch of properties could be home to a new, significant residential development, almost in the shadow of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. But the demolition of the Fortune Block would also mean the end of Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, easily one of the best live-music venues in the city and arguably the best at creating a sense of community it inspires among its clientele.
In Chinatown, the Coronation Block is eyed for a future apartment building for seniors. This is a laudable goal.
In Portage-Ellice, the Norlyn Building is going down in the service of a $75-million development that will also include a new high-end hotel and office space, both of which will generate property-tax revenue earmarked to spruce up streets around the MTS Centre. This, too, is a laudable goal.
And if the South Portage development materializes on Main Street, downtown will have more people and more density. Again, laudable goal.
The bloody obvious question, however, is why must existing buildings be demolished in the name of development in downtown Winnipeg when there are so many surface-parking lots sitting empty across the area?
The short answer is economics: Owners of surface lots make a lot of money off parking and don't need to spend much to continue to rake in that revenue.
Older buildings, meanwhile, are expensive to maintain and extremely expensive to renovate. So when property values rise, it's easier to knock 'em down and build something new on the site. Without some form of redevelopment incentive, such as heritage or downtown housing grants, any old, neglected downtown Winnipeg building is simply a pile of bricks waiting to be demolished.
Surface lots, however, are not going anywhere, unless they happen to be owned by the city, province or a Crown corporation. There are no incentives for parking lot owners to build up on their lands and no penalties for leaving them the way they are.
Incentives to develop surface lots, promised by Mayor Sam Katz during the 2010 election campaign, are not ready to roll. And there is no political will at city hall to add a stick to this theoretical carrot.
And even if incentives and penalties do materialize, they will be too late to convince developers to abandon existing demolition plans and consider surface lots instead.
It's been said before, but downtown Winnipeg has no overall plan, in the sense that the masterminds behind megaprojects, policy-makers in government and entrepreneurs both large and small are working in unison to improve the area.
I do not believe every historic building can be saved from the wrecking ball or every funky, independent business can be ensured cheap rent in perpetuity. But the displacement of an existing good for a newer, more upscale good is the very definition of gentrification.
It's probably too late for the Wagon Wheel and it may be too late for Times Change(d), but the redevelopment of our downtown need not come at the expense of every small entrepreneurial effort.