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Living in the past

Sorry, anti-boutique-hotel guys, but you can't preserve what no longer exists

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A post on waterfront development hostility on the blog Anybody Want a Peanut? got me thinking this lovely Sunday morning (damn you Cherenkov). It got me thinking about what is historically and culturally valuable in a community -- a building? a park? a gravel surface parking lot where a building once stood? -- and how do you weigh that value against the present-day needs of that community? It's just another chapter in the progress vs. preservation debate that we love so much here in the 'Peg.

It seems to me that in the case of the proposed boutique hotel along Waterfront Drive, both sides of the debate could essentially use the same argument to fight for their cause: the simple fact that history cannot be undone. From the developer's perspective, whatever historical or cultural value the site held for the community was lost long ago. We cannot preserve what no longer exists. For the friends of Winnipeg history, the fear is that once a hotel is built, the dream of rebuilding Victoria Park is dead.

Gordon Sinclair is championing the cause of the preservationists against the greedy developers and their cronies in city hall. That side of the story is already out there so I'll jump in by arguing for the construction of the boutique hotel.

Victoria Park is gone and other public places have been established; The Forks, Old Market Square, etc., that have become the new meeting places for the community. Some nice landscaping and a plaque won't and can't recreate what once was. We'd best meet the needs of the community today rather than lament what's already lost.

There is essentially nothing left to preserve -- this isn't akin to saving the Eaton's building, where a valuable architectural link to our city's past was threatened. In this case, we're talking about a vacant building on vacant land where the building isn't threatened with demolition. And, although we're dealing with a situation where a section of the riverbank is threatened with privatization, I would argue that this particular project will encourage more Winnipeggers to come and enjoy the waterfront by giving them somewhere to enjoy the view in comfort while having a meal or a drink. Chances are, on a warm summer evening, diners will choose to take a stroll through neighbouring Stephen Juba Park before or after they finish their meal.

Public greenspace is often overvalued. There is not enough attention being paid to the question of whether or not a park, square or boulevard is providing quality, functional space that members of the community actually use and enjoy. Creating quality public green space is complex. It isn't simply a question of planting trees and gardens and sculpting paths. A public space is only valuable in the way that it serves the needs of the community. The revitalization of Central Park has been successful because it's been redeveloped to suit the needs of the community by providing space for a market, for safe children's play and by providing attractive green space in a neighbourhood that, in my opinion, has the most urban feel of any neighbourhood in the city.

In the question of the East Exchange, there is already plenty of well-landscaped green space for residents to enjoy. What the neighbourhood lacks is the critical mass of people, whether it be permanent residents, hotel visitors or restaurant patrons, to make the park feel safe and welcoming. More green space isn't the answer.

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Read Anybody Want a Peanut's take on this issue at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2011 A10

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