Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg: No city limits

Architects, designers, engineers, policy-makers getting together to push our city out of the box

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What could this city be?

Think about that for a moment. If local government threw caution to the wind, and developers thought outside the proverbial box, and citizens demanded we did things differently from other cities, what would Winnipeg look like in 20 or 30 years?

While most of us are caught up in the chronically mundane debates about the state of the city -- potholes, construction, property taxes -- there are those out there thinking about completely changing the state of the city; people such as Winnipeg architect Sasa Radulovic of 5468796 Architecture, who sees the need for innovation and unbridled creativity as the key to meeting Winnipeg's design and planning needs.

"This community is going to grow immensely in the next 10 years," Radulovic said. "Hundreds of thousands of new people will be moving into this city and province. We need to ask ourselves now, how are we going to house another 300,000 or so people and make the community sustainable? How are we going to do that and make the city work?"

It is, in so many ways, the right question to be asking now. So many of Canada's larger cities grew so much and so quickly over the last 25 years there was little time to step back and question the macro forces at work. As a result, so many of this country's largest communities have dysfunctional or inadequate transit systems, horrific traffic patterns and huge tracts of design wastelands, all exacerbated by rampant suburban sprawl. Our cities don't work on so many different levels, often because no single community has dared take a different approach.

In that context, the decades of low or no growth in Manitoba may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Winnipeg remains a medium-sized city, a relatively blank canvas in design terms. But we can't realize these opportunities unless everyone starts now to look for innovative solutions to chronic urban problems -- such as Radulovic's own vision for a high-density, elevated mixed-use development on top of an existing section of Grant Avenue. That's right, on top of the street.

Following completion of a stylish low-rise condominium project on Grant in the heart of south River Heights, Radulovic said he began work on an unique development that would be built above Grant between Stafford Street and Pembina Highway.

As an entry for an international sustainable-development design competition, he came up with a vision for low- to medium-rise condominiums, public green space and retail development on a platform above Grant. Radulovic said elevated design is not an act of academic fancy; it is based in hard numbers and current market conditions. Radulovic collected the information during his work on the condo project and has spent as much time working out the economics of the project as its design.

While the design may be revolutionary for Winnipeg, Radulovic noted some of the world's biggest and densest cities -- most notably New York and Chicago -- have utilized "air rights" to go up and above existing structures or developments. Most recently, Dallas-Fort Worth built a two-hectare deck over a freeway to create a new arts and culture district.

Development like this has been a lucrative tool for developers, who suddenly see property values skyrocket as the air above them is developed, and municipalities, which benefit from increased property taxes. Air rights have also sparked advances in engineering and architecture. "These ideas ask us to change the way we see cities," he said. "We need to reimagine how we think about planning and design to come up with new solutions."

In that vein, an organization named Storefront MB is hoping to jump-start the creative juices of Winnipeg's design and planning community. An umbrella organization with deep connections with the architecture, engineering, planning and design communities, Storefront will be launching a design competition called Re-imagining Winnipeg. The competition will focus on building and development, but also on the reinvention of policy and systems to make Winnipeg more sustainable and functional. The competition will be launched at a public forum to be held next Tuesday evening (Sept. 25) at the Free Press News Café as part of the weeklong BUILD Winnipeg Design Festival. The forum will feature architects and designers talking about their bold visions for a reinvented Winnipeg.

Winnipeg architect David Penner, director of Storefront MB, has devoted a good deal of his own time to reimagining his home city, coming up with bold and unconventional designs of his own. Like an enormous telecommunications tower anchored in the middle of Portage and Main, rising storeys higher than the highest office tower in the downtown core.

Buildings will obviously be a key feature of the competition. But organizers say they will also be looking for ways to make urban systems work better: more efficient transit and transportation; more effective refuse collection; sustainable water and sewer treatment.

"We need Winnipeg's design community to come forward," said Penner. "This is about reinventing the city, not just adding and subtracting."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

FRONTlines: Re-imagining Winnipeg, a forum hosted by Storefront MB at the Free Press News Café. Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Part of the BUILD Winnipeg Design Festival (www.winnipegdesignfestival.net)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 A6

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