Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mixed-use projects almost never work in Winnipeg

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I can't tell you how many times I've read mixed-use development is the answer to the problems caused by Winnipeg's sprawling, car-oriented ways. Bloggers, editorialists and self-professed urbanists say it. Anybody who considers themselves a forward-thinking advocate of city densification believes in it.

Many of these same people like to reference Jane Jacobs, the Goddess of Urban Vitality in city-planning mythology. Jacobs, indeed, was ahead of her time, arguing against the heavy-handed homogenous development so common in the middle of the 20th century. Over the years, people have come to realize, as Jacobs suggested, a diversity of uses within a neighbourhood makes it interesting, safe and attractive. The benefits of mixed-use development aren't even debated anymore. It is the conventional wisdom among all who critique city planning from their basements, offices and cellphones.

The notion of mixed-use development as a paradigm for city planning is so pervasive, it has even seeped into certain corners of Winnipeg's city hall. Even as the city approves suburb after sprawling suburb, it releases planning documents that advocate mixed-use development, and in some cases even specify in great detail how and where it should be done.

This advocacy of mixed-use development has evolved into a vision of densely packed buildings aligned with the sidewalk; shops and cafés on the main floor, living space and offices above that. People envision patios along sidewalks filled with pedestrians, in a walkable neighbourhood where everything you need is mere blocks away in a storefront down the street.

This vision is exactly what you'll find represented in the new Corydon-Osborne Area Plan. An extensive public consultation process that gave a voice to all those who once read "mixed use" was good for the city has no doubt contributed to the emphasis on mixed-use development. The term is used no less than 38 times in the document. The plan calls for virtually all new development in the Corydon Avenue and Osborne Village areas, and even part of Pembina Highway, to be of the mixed-use variety.

I'm sure it sounded great when they were writing it, but I am having a very difficult time envisioning Pembina with highrise buildings built on top of "high-street" retail and commercial storefronts.

Don't get me wrong: Mixed-use buildings can help create exciting and interesting communities. I could walk for hours in Barcelona, where you'll find kilometre upon kilometre of gorgeous old six- and seven-storey brick buildings with apartments on the upper levels and shops, restaurants or even auto-repair garages at street level. Chicago's Wicker Park is a great place to visit and shop, with mixed-use buildings lining several streets. However, Winnipeg is not Barcelona, and Corydon is not Wicker Park. The fact of the matter is mixed-use buildings rarely work in Winnipeg.

The Corydon and Osborne areas are not successful because they have mixed-use buildings. In fact, there are relatively few true mixed-use buildings in Osborne Village and along Corydon Avenue. What makes these areas successful is sufficient population density and a diverse mixture of single-use buildings within close proximity. Residential towers along Wellington Crescent contribute to the critical mass of people needed to create a healthy and vibrant neighbourhood, while the small, single-use buildings on the commercial strips contain stores and restaurants that attract people from all over the city.

This is really what mixed use is all about. Not individual buildings with more than one purpose but a diversity of buildings and uses in proximity: old buildings, new buildings, residential buildings, commercial buildings. This is what makes an area interesting and vibrant. Most of those who advocate for mixed-use development in the papers and online probably realize this, though the distinction is obviously lost somewhere along the way.

That is not to say areas filled with mixed-use buildings cannot be interesting or vibrant. I could move to Barcelona, buy a scooter and live quite happily in different circumstances, but the elements that are needed to make a vibrant community do not include mixed-use buildings.

The rigid and unrealistic design standards that require exclusively mixed-use buildings along each of the major streets and secondary streets within the planning area are not only flawed but counterproductive. They will stifle development and drive away investors. They also threaten to ruin the character of the areas they are supposed to enhance, with vacant storefronts or unsold residential and office space.

Instead, what is needed is organic growth, managed within a flexible framework that prevents construction that is obviously inconsistent with the neighbourhood. The best areas emerge naturally, not through rigid planning around some urban ideology. A community-development plan should recognize the foundation upon which the community is built and strive to preserve and enhance those attributes, not change them.

What makes some areas thrive and others not? Jacobs formed her opinions simply by observing the areas around her. All of Winnipeg's basement Twitter urbanists, editorialists and city planners -- especially the city planners -- would be well-advised to do the same. I can't always explain why mixed-use buildings fail in Winnipeg, but it's not hard to see they often do.

It's time to shelve our glossy-eyed visions of streets lined with nothing but mixed-use buildings, and we need to do it before we end up destroying our best neighbourhoods with our good but misguided intentions.

Go to to read the complete version of this blog post.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2014 A10

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