Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New direction for The Forks

Residential towers part of framework for attraction

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Back in the 1980s, the architects of the inner-city renewal project known as The Forks envisioned a mix of green space, retail stores, restaurants and residential buildings rising on the blighted patch of former railway land near the site of the city's birthplace.

Since The Forks opened in 1989, most of this vision has been fulfilled. But the non-profit corporation in charge of administering the land at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers held off on residential development, partly at the behest of a public concerned about the loss of public space.

After 25 years, what's now The Forks Renewal Corp. maintains Winnipeg is ready for residential development at the city's most popular attraction.

On Friday, The Forks revealed a nine-year planning framework for the final two parcels of vacant land in the neighbourhood -- and it includes seven mixed-use buildings with residential components, along with a tiered park, an urban plaza and two parkades.

"This really completes The Forks and in some ways fulfils the original concept plan, which called for even denser development," said Forks North Portage president and CEO Jim August, who's had a hand in guiding the development of The Forks since he was an administrator with the Core Area Initiative in 1981.

The planning framework will guide the development of 4.9 hectares of parking lots east of the Canadian National Railway line.

'This really completes The Forks and in some ways fulfils the original concept plan, which called for even denser development'

-- Forks North Portage president and CEO Jim August

One is a plot known as Rail Side, a Forks-owned concrete parking lot that is immediately north of Citytv's studio.

The second is Parcel Four, a city-owned gravel parking lot once sublet to the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club and briefly considered by city hall as the site of hotel and water-park development.

In 2012, when the city proposed selling Parcel Four for $6 million to an Alberta hotelier, Winnipeggers reacted angrily to the proposal for a variety of reasons.

There were concerns a mid-range hotel and water park would be poor neighbours for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is across the street now known as Israel Asper Way.

There were also concerns the land -- one of the last large parcels available for development downtown -- was not being made available to other potential developers.

With council poised to defeat the proposal, the hotelier walked away. The city asked The Forks to lead a two-year planning and consultation process that resulted in the framework, which preserves 60 per cent of the two parcels of land for public use.

"We started with this water park and no planning at all. This process looked at the whole precinct and did some good planning and real public engagement," said Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, whose ward includes The Forks.

"It's challenging because there are lots of different desires for the site. But I think this meets a lot of the desires. It's not going to please everyone, but I think it is good planning."

A decade ago, when The Forks first floated the idea of residential development, the public reaction was mostly negative.

August said more Winnipeggers accept the need for increased residential density downtown, surmising more young people want to live downtown.

The planning framework also calls for a redeveloped Rail Side and Parcel Four to serve as a connection between The Forks and the rest of downtown.

August expects the private sector to invest approximately $200 million into the residential and commercial developments on the two parcels of land during the next 10 years.

The Forks will be responsible for building a terraced park and parkade on the Rail Side parcel and the urban plaza and parkade on Parcel Four, after acquiring it from the city.

This plan depends on the assessed value of both parcels increasing by a factor of 20, creating new property-tax revenue that will be used to pay back the cost of building the public amenities.

"There's an interest from the private sector in the opportunities," said August, acknowledging his organization is prepared to allow residential development to proceed after decades of conservative planning and growth.

"That's always been the way we do things. There's bound to be some fuss over this, but not as much as before."

The development plan is slated to be considered by council's downtown, heritage and riverbank committee July 7.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 A3

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