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Forks redevelopment plan finds right balance

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The Forks recently came up with a $200-million economic plan that should satisfy many Winnipeggers.

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The Forks recently came up with a $200-million economic plan that should satisfy many Winnipeggers.

There was raw anger in 2012 when a hotel and water-park concept was trotted out onto the council floor of city council and everyone was told there was no time to look at the proposal. It was vote on it or lose it.

While some have been craving a water park for years and have no use for a museum, the whole process stank, and basic questions of how this decision came to be could not be answered. Moreover, it was uncertain what sort of value the city would get for its money, not to mention the land.

It is hard to say if this was a tipping point for Mayor Sam Katz or not. For a long time, the Winnipeg Goldeyes used Parcel Four for parking, and Katz sat as head of the company that administered the land. There was question of how much the land was really worth. From Katz's perspective, it was not worth much, and subsequently he got money back from the city in the form of a property-tax reimbursement. We now know from the recent real estate audit by Ernst and Young that the value of the land was a whole lot more than many in council were told.

After the controversy, The Forks Renewal Corp. purchased the land for $6 million and began a process of public consultations. Everyone had an opinion, from putting a forest on the spot to high-density housing.

The conclusion of public consultation could have been extremely controversial, but to the shock of many, it wasn't. Ever since the 1980s, there has been recognition by people in Winnipeg that The Forks belongs to everyone. Consultations have been the hallmark of the project since the beginning. There have been some stumbles, but slowly and surely The Forks has turned into something Winnipeggers are proud of and a place where they take their families and out-of-town guests.

So what did public consultation on The Forks come up with for the two sites at their disposal? A $200-million economic plan that will make a lot of people happy.

First, let's deal with some of The Forks naysayers. Many say The Forks is a chronic money loser. This is true. The complicated North Portage and The Forks operations fall well short of breaking even.

The Forks probably could have made huge profits if they had opened up the site once it had become popular. Condo developers have always salivated over a chance to build in the area. That alone would have filled the site and put The Forks in the black.

The problem has been Winnipeggers have been strongly against going this route on housing. There seems to be an instinctive knowledge that if so much housing went up, a strong Not-In-My-Backyard attitude would emerge.

For example, many residents might come to resent fireworks at The Forks, even though fireworks were there first.

It is a balancing issue when thinking about The Forks. It is possible to put it into the black financially, but the cost may be losing it as a central gathering space.

The plan for Parcel Four and the Rail Side site might address some of this balancing of needs. The two sites, like Shaw Park where the Goldeyes play, are not exactly part of The Forks. Still, the reaction to the hotel and water-park plans in 2012 made political leaders realize public involvement was necessary. With this in mind, and dealing with the demands to stop losing money, The Forks had to navigate difficult waters.

What were the concerns people raised and some of the things they desired on Parcel Four and the Rail Side, as the other side of the road is called? Parks, parking, public space, shops and housing.

Those present at the meeting where the plan of action was presented had only positive things to say. In fact, many were very enthusiastic about the overall plan, which includes $200 million of private money.

The present site is now used by around 700 cars for parking. The redeveloped site would have two parkades for a total of 700 public parking spaces. There would also be 500 parking spaces for condos. There is recognition this may not serve for oversize vehicles and tour buses. If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Museum is a tourist attraction, school buses, tour buses and recreation vehicles will need a place to park. It remains to be seen how this will be addressed.

Lest anyone think Parcel Four is all parkades, the issue of parks, public space and public art are all addressed. Parking is hidden away, and public spaces abound. Moreover, the design of everything is set for environmental and energy efficiencies.

Winnipeg Transit has many stops on site. Pedestrian traffic will have more access points to and from the site and beyond. It is uncertain how more bikes will be accommodated, as they are sure to increase over the years.

Greenery and public art will make Parcel Four and the Rail Side attractive. The sightlines looking into and away from The Forks will be preserved. The Canadian for Human Rights Museum should be seen and not completely blocked, and with that in mind, any taller buildings will be slender.

Condos will go up and occupy these slender buildings on both sites. Ground floors will give way to shops and restaurants.

All in all, the tens of millions spent will add a 24-hour component of people living in The Forks area. The amount of housing going up won't spoil the public nature of the park. However, enough is going up to possibly trigger some additional housing beside Union Station and Earl's, because Mahatma Gandhi Way is likely to see a heck of a lot more foot traffic.

The Forks is this generation's greatest achievement, and this is the final piece. The lasting legacy should be that the success spills onto Main Street and Portage and Main. There are parking lots present throughout that area that could be put to use if this happens.

We have been proud of The Forks for good cause. The reason is that every step of the way, we have had our say.

 

John Dobbin blogs at johndobbin.blogspot.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2014 A10

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