Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A city with no design standards

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The possibility that Canada Post would locate its downtown sorting facility at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street came and went in a matter of days last week, and so it might now seem a little pointless to devote column space to a now-dead development. But in that time, much of the discussion of the matter was of the hope that the design of the facility would not reprise the dismal monstrousness of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's offices a block down the street, at Logan and Main.

At the beginning of the year, as the form of the WRHA's building, boxy and cheap, and its adjacent parkade, crooked and brutal, took shape, it raised much public ire and left civic politicians asking how such an embarrassment was allowed to take shape only four short blocks from city hall. Good question, but what might be more worthwhile is to ask how it can be assured this never happens again.

If Canada Post wishes to build their facility -- at Higgins, at Portage and Broadway on the so-called "field of dreams," or anywhere else downtown -- with the same degree of banality applied to the design of the WRHA office, there is little to prevent them from doing so. As the WRHA case shows, the worst that can happen is the downtown design review board issues a handful of recommendations to ignore, city councillors who voted for lavish tax credits one day will call the building ugly the next, and a few angry urbanist bloggers like me take to their keyboards.

With Canada Post's new flagship building in the city, currently under construction at Richardson International Airport, possessing a rather snoozy industrial park aesthetic, there is little to suggest that the design of an ancillary downtown sorting facility would complement the streetscape. Canada Post is also the Hagia Sophia of Byzantine bureaucracies, making the WRHA look like a trim upstart firm by comparison. It took the Point Douglas Residents Committee more than one year of petitioning Canada Post's offices in Ottawa to place one letter box in north Point Douglas. It is hard to imagine such an unwieldy organization would be willing or able to respond to whatever "encouragement" a civic design review committee placed on them.

The downtown design review guidelines are well-meaning but hopelessly enfeebled, as Plan Winnipeg was, by its fluffy, non-committal language and a lack of specific legal teeth. Just as there are bylaws regulating residential over-crowding and industrial noise, Winnipeg must have standards that regulate the form of new buildings and ensure that the quality of city spaces are enhanced, not degraded, by new developments. These regulations must be able to stand under the rule of law -- impartial, no matter who the builder is or which way the political winds are blowing.

Planners do not need to be in the city's employ so that they might offer pep talks to developers, then close their eyes and wish and hope that they build something that complements the form and function of city space. Their job should be to ensure that city spaces are not made worse by the types of developments that rise. Basic requirements, such as that no parkades front on important streets, or that windows and active doorways be placed on all streets the building fronts, would ensure that Main Street, or any other downtown neighbourhood, not suffer the same misfortune it did with the WRHA building.

The reaction to the WRHA building showed that Winnipeggers are not sensory-deprived philistines, but if the city continues to naively hope that all builders downtown will put an effort into the design of their projects, it will only lead to more disappointments and sources of civic shame down the road. Hoping for the best worked well a century ago, in an age when architecture was important: before vinyl or cheap stucco became go-to surfaces for builders; before geometry and order ceased to matter; and before parking "requirements" became paramount and windows became optional.

It is not working well for Main Street today. Tomorrow, it may not work for Portage Avenue. If architecture of a standard so inferior that it cannot mitigate a building's hostility is seen as acceptable, then the city gets what it deserves when its streets are rendered ugly and inhumane.

Mayor Sam Katz has seemed to take an interest in creating a sustainable city. Perhaps some effort could also be put into making that sustainable city look good again.

Robert Galston is a Winnipeg writer and Point Douglas resident.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2009 A14

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