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People, not empty space, key to city

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/5/2015 (700 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

it's time to take down those "Heart of the Continent" signs on the outskirts of Winnipeg and put up "City of Surface Lots" instead.

That won't rake in the tourists, but it would accurately advertise how serious city hall is about enforcing a flimsy moratorium on the creation of new downtown surface parking lots, one of the most visible examples of inner-city blight.

Only housing restores vibrancy to inner cities, because housing means people. Surface lots mean nothing, while even parks are pointless without people to use them.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Only housing restores vibrancy to inner cities, because housing means people. Surface lots mean nothing, while even parks are pointless without people to use them.

During the latter half of the 20th century, council stood back and did nothing while owners of downtown buildings failed to maintain their properties.

More often than not, each swing of the wrecking ball was followed by the creation of a surface lot that detracts from the streetscape, decreases public safety and, worst of all, doesn't contribute as much as a building does in the way of property taxes.

By the late 1990s, there were so many surface lots in Winnipeg's sprawling downtown that the prospects of restoring some semblance of density seemed daunting.

That changed when former mayors Glen Murray and Sam Katz directed administrators to get serious about protecting heritage and restoring density.

City hall is not serious enough, however.

Our Winnipeg, the city's touchy-feely long-term planning framework, merely advises against the creation of new downtown surface parking lots.

The document contains no proscriptive means of preventing property owners from carving out new, ugly patches of empty, vibrancy-sucking concrete or gravel in downtown Winnipeg.

This is why Manitoba Hydro was able to broker a land-assembly project that will almost certainly result in a low-rise Notre Dame Avenue building coming down to serve as surface parking for Calvary Temple.

This is also why the Friends of Upper Fort Garry were granted permission Monday to create a temporary (two years) surface parking lot on the same piece of land where they fought against the construction of a residential apartment building eight years ago.

The demolition component of the Manitoba Hydro-Cavalry Temple deal will be determined by the administrative decision, which means politicians are not involved.

City council's downtown committee, however, is responsible for allowing the Friends of Upper Fort Garry to create the surface parking lot Katz flatly panned in 2012, when he remarked "that's going the exact opposite direction the city is moving towards."

The Friends say they need the revenue to raise the remaining funds for the heritage park and interpretive centre they've been planning since 2007, when they chased Crystal Developers away.

Crystal wanted to build an apartment tower at the southwest corner of the site, outside the former footprint of Upper Fort Garry, the birthplace of modern Winnipeg.

The private company also offered to create a park where the fort used to stand. But the Friends wanted none of this plan, arguing the apartment tower would be out of scale with a heritage park.

In 2007, the price tag for what's now Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park was $12.5 million.

The Friends were given months to raise $10 million of that sum from private and public sources -- and more or less succeeded.

"At the current rate, we will raise something like $300 million," Friends spokesman Jerry Gray joked in 2008, when his group landed $8.2 million worth of pledges in only 106 days.

Seven years later, the price tag for the park and interpretive centre has risen to $28 million. Some of the original pledge money hasn't rolled in.

Hence the desperate desire to create a surface parking lot professed by the very same people who fought against apartments, a much better use of the same land.

Only housing restores vibrancy to inner cities, because housing means people. Surface lots mean nothing, while even parks are pointless without people to use them.

There's no guarantee the Friends' surface parking lot will last only two years. Upper Fort Garry park was supposed to be completed by 2014. Construction of the interpretive centre is slated to begin in 2017.

Crystal Developers, meanwhile, chose to build housing on Assiniboine Avenue, where their Heritage Landing project is coming together nicely.

Imagine how nice it would have been to have a tower visible from Main Street, too.

Even better, imagine how nice it would be if the city had the guts to enforce a genuine ban on new downtown surface lots.

In the Heart of the Continent, there's too much empty real estate along the ventricles.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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Updated on Tuesday, May 26, 2015 at 12:18 PM CDT: Adds image

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