Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No residential for vital new core development?

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Every time planners, politicians and policy geeks try to figure out how to revitalize downtown, they come up with the same three solutions: add more people, more people and then a few more people.

When more human beings inhabit downtown, there's a diminished sense that the centre of Winnipeg is unsafe. More people attract more businesses, which in turn attract even more people and yet more businesses.

And the best way to bring people downtown is to build more apartments and condos, as only housing can ensure people stay downtown, rather than just work there during office hours or venture to the heart of the city to patronize the occasional arts event or NHL game.

Given this widely accepted bit of urban-planning wisdom, it's a bit of a head-scratcher to learn a plan to redevelop one of downtown's most strategically important parcels of underutilized land may not include a housing component. But the operative word is may, as nothing is set in stone right now for the provincially owned surface parking lot that sits south of Graham Avenue, west of the Cityplace mall and kitty-corner to the MTS Centre.

The .6-hectare lot, officially known as 225 Carlton St., is controlled by Manitoba Public Insurance, which has selected the Longboat Development Corp. -- the real estate arm of the Chipman family empire -- to serve as the developer. Longboat, in turn, is working lockstep with CentreVenture, Winnipeg's downtown development agency, which already earmarked this property for a public plaza that would serve as the heart of its 11-block SHED, or sports, hospitality and entertainment district.

The initial proposal for the lot, unveiled this week to Free Press business reporter Murray McNeill, called for a T-shaped public plaza, two office towers and a third building that could house a hotel, condominiums or both.

What immediately jumped off the page was the creation of two new office towers in a city that already has a glut of office space. So why create more offices instead of condos?

"It's going to be driven by specific tenants," Longboat vice-president Scott Stephanson said Tuesday in an interview, suggesting the offices will be purpose-built for anchor businesses.

The decision to build two new office towers was entirely market-driven, he said, which suggests the corporate community is bullish about downtown Winnipeg.

While that's nice for the city's ego, more office workers only do so much for the streetscape. And so would that T-shaped plaza, which would join a long list of landscaped spaces in Winnipeg's downtown, including several public plazas that don't really serve the public often.

Consider the concrete expanse on the east side of the Civic Centre Parkade, utilized only occasionally as a place for Chinatown seniors to practise tai chi. Or the recently renovated but largely ignored Steinkopf Gardens, north of the Centennial Concert Hall. Or Bonnycastle Park along the Assiniboine River, Oodena Circle at The Forks or the Japanese Gardens hidden among the towers that sit between Hargrave and Carlton streets.

The T-shaped plaza Longboat and CentreVenture envision, meanwhile, would have restaurants facing out on the plaza level. So it may stand the chance of attracting more than just pigeons.

The big question mark surrounds the development's third building, which could include a $30-million hotel, as market research suggests there is a need for at least one more higher-end hospitality property south of Portage Avenue. It may also involve condos or a mix of hotel and residential units.

"I don't think anything is off the table. What we're after is a vibrant mixed-use project," said Ross McGowan, CentreVenture's president and CEO. The decision to go with some sort of housing will be Longboat's call, he said.

In McGowan's view, the development could promote density -- that is, the presence of more people -- even without condos immediately on the property.

"This could be an opportunity to provide the commercial density to support the residential," he said, viewing the entire South Portage neighbourhood -- yes, that's an actual Winnipeg neighbourhood -- through an urban-planning framework.

Longboat, however, has demonstrated it's more than capable of creating downtown housing, as the firm has a 17-storey, 170-unit condo tower planned for Hargrave Street, north of Portage Avenue, as part of the Centrepoint development. In the longer term, it may also build apartments or condos on a second MPI-controlled surface lot on the west side of Donald Street, between St. Mary and York avenues.

The Chipmans have already brought the NHL back to Winnipeg. Given the complexities involved in that feat, which many claimed impossible, building a hotel/condo tower within a whisper of the hockey arena does not appear to be a difficult task.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2013 B6

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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