Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Union tower a beacon for downtown

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It's easy to get excited about the plans Red River College has for the Union Bank tower on Main Street. Built in 1904, it is a true example the early skyscrapers, not only by virtue of its height, but by its adaptation of classical orders to a tall building. Reaching 11 storeys from ground through the wonder of steel, it looks down on Main from a sharp bend in what had been, just a generation before, a muddy trail connecting two forts along the Red River.

When the tower became vacant in 1992, I was 10 years old, and I have grown into young adulthood seeing it as a heartbreakingly prominent reminder of Winnipeg's lost glory. And so, if nothing else, to one day see the lights on in the building at night will have a huge impact on the city's bruised psyche, sending a message that, for now at least, we no longer let prominent architectural treasures sit empty for years.

As a result of this good news, there is, however, a tendency that must be avoided, and that is to see educational facilities as the new panacea to downtown's all-too-obvious ills.

Early in 1946, consolidating the University of Manitoba with many of the city's other small colleges was a major consideration. More than 60 years later, one can easily imagine what downtown would be like under this different course of events: some 40,000 full-time students on any given day; the brick mansions of Kennedy and Edmonton restored as fraternity houses, department offices, or coffee shops; Broadway sidewalks filled with young and purposeful pedestrians well into the evening. The University of Manitoba would have practically rubbed shoulders with the University of Winnipeg, and downtown Winnipeg would be seen as the centre of a university town, and not simply a sprawling, patchy collection of government office buildings.

Sounds nice, but one need only walk along the south side of Ellice by the University of Winnipeg's campus, to see that just because thousands of students use a place, does not mean it will have a good effect on the surroundings. Were the University of Manitoba to build a campus downtown with the same regard for urban form and function other urban universities did in the 1960s and 1970s (an era long on good intentions and short on good results), it would be another great void that office schemes like the Trizec complex were destined to become.

Only by understanding the nature of urban environments and how people use them can renewal projects lend themselves to their surroundings. Without that, the same old mega-projects that insulate themselves from the streets (which became more languishingly dull by their presence) are allowed to rise again and again. It must be learned why some places are used and loved, and why others are avoided and uncared for.

Red River College seemed to understand this when it took on a complex and expensive project on Princess Street. With an attention to detail and aesthetics unprecedented in downtown renewal projects, they rebuilt a block of Victorian commercial buildings as a dynamic little campus that has added life to the surrounding Exchange District.

From the looks of it, the plans for the Union Bank tower seem to carry on in the same spirit. Functionally, it will be mixed, with residences above, institutional and commercial uses on the ground floor. Its form is interesting and its scale inviting.

How Red River College found success on Princess Street, and how they seem poised to on Main, must be taken into consideration in future projects, and cannot simply be equated to their general use as education centres. Renewal is not measured in quantitative terms, and unless Winnipeg is interested in playing endgames downtown for another half-century, it must pay attention to the way spaces look, feel and function.

Robert Galston is a Winnipeg writer and Point Douglas resident.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2009 A11

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