The high number of surface parking lots in downtown Winnipeg is more a symptom of the problems with the city's centre than it is a cause, but like many problems that go on for a long time, cause and effect have become blurred.
As has been pointed out in the news pages of this newspaper over the past days, the surface parking lots in the downtown proliferated as the businesses and retailers and people left the downtown for the suburbs. Rather than repair or replace dilapidated buildings, owners realized they could make as much or more money from renting parking spaces as they could from redevelopment and tore the old buildings down.
So now, according to Free Press reporting, we have 154 surface lots in the downtown. They create an aura of desolation, particularly after dark, adding to fears of crime. Being open and cold, they are hardly conducive to our climate but they do have one huge advantage: They're cheap.
A study earlier this year showed that Winnipeg's parking is the third cheapest among Canada's 12 major cities. Being cheap, they are both a blessing and a curse. They lower the cost of commuting to downtown offices, but at the same time, provide a strong disincentive to taking public transit.
As downtown advocate Hart Mallin explained: Put up the price of parking through increased taxes and you may discourage people from driving downtown rather than having to try to push them on to buses.
On the other hand, if the city waits for tax incentives on new development to take hold, Winnipeg may wait a very long time for surface parking to be replaced by multi-storey lots and new developments.
Parking downtown has, in effect, reached a kind of equilibrium where the surface lots are an almost equal advantage and disadvantage to downtown redevelopment. On the one hand, they are sufficiently plentiful and inexpensive to keep businesses downtown rather than moving to the suburbs. On the other, the sprawling, untidy and unsafe appearance of the lots makes the downtown unattractive for new building.
It is not a good state of affairs and it is far from easy to change: Put a special tax on the lots and development just outside the core area where parking can be free becomes increasingly attractive. Do nothing and the downtown will wait for the economics of development to turn to a point where building a new office building or condominium becomes more lucrative than passively raking in the cash from commuters in surface lots. That could take forever.
In my view, relying on Mayor Sam Katz's plan for a five-year tax freeze for developers who build on their lots will not spur much new construction. At the margin, it will help, but it will not be enough to dramatically shift the profit equation.
To shift the equation, the city needs a far more comprehensive plan for downtown than it has so far developed and that is not easy to do. Over the past decade or so, the downtown has improved in slow but incremental steps. The MTS Centre, the Manitoba Hydro headquarters and the ballpark have all helped the downtown shrug off its air of despair and neglect. New boutique stores have sprung up in the west Exchange District and the development on Waterfront Drive is creating a residential area.
But creating a thriving downtown never quite seems to get the political backing it should. It's not just parking that's cheap in Winnipeg -- gas is regularly 10 cents a litre cheaper than it is in Toronto, for example. The city continues to waffle about rapid transit. All in all, the downtown remains a place that is more car- than pedestrian-friendly.
Lest anyone think I want to ban cars from the downtown, I don't. Winnipeg is a driving city and given its climate and the large area it covers for the size of its population, cars are going to be the main mode of travel for most people.
But that is not a reason for doing nothing. Winnipeg needs a comprehensive traffic, parking and development plan that encompasses everything from gas taxes to making downtown streets more pedestrian-friendly. If the city can put traffic circles in the suburbs to aid bicycle traffic then surely it can work to put pedestrians ahead of cars downtown.
Any plan, though, needs to be incremental. A sudden increase in parking costs, for example, would do more harm than good. A gradual increase in both parking and gas taxes coupled with incentives for development, an improvement in public transit and a careful examination of how to make downtown more pedestrian friendly could well shift the economics so that constructing new offices and condominiums becomes more attractive than collecting monthly parking fees.
Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.