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Lessons from the Exchange District

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The revamping of The Bay's downtown store is only one of a number of new developments coming to Portage Avenue. Long-vacant properties will be renewed, new buildings will rise, and a new plan put forth by CentreVenture that seems to settle the problem of downtown's sprawling geographic size. It all might sound good, but is not entirely new.

Forty years ago, downtown was in the midst of a dramatic transformation. Like CentreVenture's latest vision for Portage Avenue, plans from that time called for skywalks and zoning downtown areas by use. It was also a time of a building boom (led mainly by private dollars) like nothing seen downtown since 1913.

Between 1965 and 1975, countless old buildings were pulled down to make way for high-rise apartments, office towers, and a new convention centre. In 1969, not one but two large hotels were constructed on Portage.

Quantifiably, this was progress. Blight was removed, and several great works of Winnipeg's late Modern architecture period were built. But Portage Avenue continued to decline, even after a second flurry of big projects came and went in the mid-1980s.

Today, the city's collective memory still clings to a time before all this, when the tallest building -- Child's -- was only 12 storeys and more than 40 years old. While it was an unimpressive skyline, there were people on the sidewalks, and people, wrote Val Werier in 1980, "are the most interesting thing in this town." Generations of renewal efforts sterilized the organic systems that were able to bring people to the street, both out of the necessity of commerce, and for the sheer enjoyment of it.

To learn how to begin to save Portage Avenue, one only need go a few blocks north, to the Exchange District.

In 1969, while planners like Earl Levin were attempting to transform Portage Avenue and the blocks south of it into a scene from The Jetsons, the Exchange sat forgotten. There was hardly a street tree or park bench to be found, and decades of grime had dirtied the facades of its great buildings.

Money was gradual. In the 1980s, when post-Modern renewal was wiping out whole city blocks of Portage Avenue under the Core Area Initiative, public money trickled into the Exchange, to comparatively modest plans: installing trees, restoring a few buildings, and beginning to reform antiquated zoning codes.

There was no master plan for the entire neighbourhood; no one dictating "this is where a boutique zone will go, night clubs over here, and up there we'll create an education district." Effort was micro-scaled, not micro-managed.

Most importantly, government efforts generally respected and defended the physical scale and context. The things Jane Jacobs wrote were necessary for a district's vitality -- mixed uses, density, small blocks, and old buildings -- were seen as elements to uphold in the Exchange. On Portage Avenue, they were seen as obstacles to overcome.

And so what could naturally occur did, and organic orders of reuse were able to take hold. The wholesaling, needle trade, and furniture stores of previous decades all but disappeared, but were replaced by residents and the emerging creative sector, and the Exchange is now a centre for architecture, design, fashion, art, and tech concerns. No one planned this, it just happened.

The Exchange is downtown's success story (Albert Street has replaced Portage Avenue as the downtown street one feels the need to dress up for), and there is no one person that can take credit for this. It was the effort of countless investors like Tom Dixon and Richard Walls, business owners like Rebecca McCormack, and the quirky godfather of the Exchange's hipsterdom, the late Walter Lewyc, that all helped the district become what it is.

The natural state of modern cities is one of a concentrated and complex web of interests, uses, and time horizons. It is impossible for one central authority to know them all and co-ordinate an effort to renew this natural state in a district. This is why major, co-ordinated effort on Portage Avenue failed, while small and seemingly unco-ordinated effort in the Exchange District, for the most part, worked.

New development is necessary, but continuing to measure progress on Portage Avenue simply by square footage and dollar amounts, with no consideration for preserving or encouraging the concentration and complexity that leads to flourishing city districts, is another sterile recipe for disappointment.

Robert Galston is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2010 A11

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