Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Zoned OUT

The City of Winnipeg is a special place where optics don't seem to matter to anyone

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Given the vast potential range of human behaviour, parking your car at the top of loading ramp is hardly one of the most obnoxious moves you could make.

But the move becomes a bit more questionable if you choose to park your car every day in a spot that inconveniences other motorists. And if you're the person in charge of the organization in question, such a move becomes outright uncouth.

But when you're the senior public servant for the City of Winnipeg, going out of your way to obtain a special parking spot at the rear of city hall's Administration Building borders on an outrageous act.

This is not because Phil Sheegl, Winnipeg's chief administrative officer, doesn't deserve a convenient parking spot. In fact, as the head of a billion-dollar corporation that employs more than 8,000 people, Winnipeg's CAO is entitled to the best available stall in any city-owned parking facility.

As it happens, the Civic Centre Parkade, the closest parking facility to city hall, was the best place for Sheegl, Mayor Sam Katz and other members of city council to leave their vehicles. But the Princess Street facility has been shuttered since the end of the summer due to structural-safety problems that flow directly from a decision made by the very same organization Sheegl runs.

What's outrageous is Winnipeg's CAO, the person ultimately responsible for the closing of the Civic Centre Parkade, appears unaffected by its closure. By choosing to park at the top of a loading ramp -- whether or not he's in the way of delivery vehicles -- Phil Sheegl has chosen to send a remarkable message about accountability.

Built in 1966, the Civic Centre structure is one of two enclosed parkades owned and operated by the Winnipeg Parking Authority. The Millennium Library Parkade, completed in 1976, requires $3.3 million worth of repairs.

Back in 2010, the Winnipeg Parking Authority warned senior city officials the Civic Centre Parkade required $6.2 million worth of repairs as well. So a plan was hatched to spend part of the proceeds from the $23.6-million sale of the Winnipeg Square Parkade to fix up the Civic Centre structure.

The original idea was to set aside $2 million for the work once a decision was made about the parkade's future. But the following year, the city decided to put off that plan.

Instead, the city spent $606,000 on "emergency repairs" -- that would allow the parkade to remain open for another five years. In theory, this would allow officials to make a decision about the parkade's future in 2014, when the Winnipeg Police Service moves into new headquarters in the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue.

But the Civic Centre Parkade didn't make it that far. An unfavourable late-summer engineering report led the Winnipeg Parking Authority to suddenly shutter the structure on a Friday evening in September. Barricades then went up around the building, which now stands as a colossus of useless concrete across almost an entire block of Princess Street.

The Winnipeg Police Service, which used to rent 134 of the parkade's stalls, has been forced to commandeer a block of James Avenue for use as a surface-parking lot. City councillors and other officials were then forced to rent space from private parkades. And there is little hope of actually repairing the parkade, as it would cost $11.3 million just to extend its life another 15 years.

Both the Winnipeg Parking Authority and civic accommodations -- the city utility responsible for municipal buildings -- would love to demolish this parkade. But that won't happen because the police service still uses an underground parkade that lies below the structure.

And even if the parkade could be dismantled, the southern portion of the property cannot be sold to any buyer other than a government or non-profit entity, thanks to the 138-year-old caveat that demands the land be used for public purposes. The same caveat also applies to the Public Safety Building, the existing police headquarters, which also risks becoming an empty husk of brutalist architecture when the new police digs are ready next year.

The cost of those new digs is now a cool $194 million, when you factor in the purchase price, the reconstruction work, the consolidation of various police functions and the financing. But the potential for recouping this tally from the sale of PSB or the Civic Centre Parkade is bleak, thanks to both the caveat and a shortage of potential buyers.

In other words, city hall keeps making decisions without considering the ramifications of what lies around the corner. While every level of government makes short-sighted moves, most officials take great pains to at least appear contrite about those decisions. Civil servants in particular are expected to accept responsibility for their decisions.

But the City of Winnipeg is a special place where optics don't seem to matter to anyone. Certainly not to city councillors, who voted last week to spend more money on themselves while raising property taxes and cutting grants to non-profits. Certainly not to the CAO's office, which installed the infamous "Three Wise Monkeys" at its entrance in defiance of the fact those simians signify turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.

And certainly not to the CAO himself, who does not appear to be inconvenienced by the sudden closure of the Civic Centre Parkade, one of the four original components of a modernist Civic Centre campus that served as one of downtown Winnipeg's original revitalization projects.

Again, Phil Sheegl deserves a good parking spot. Given his position, he shouldn't even have to pay for it.

But maybe he should shell out some money for some advisers capable of seeing, hearing and speaking of any evil that comes across their desks, no matter how esoteric.

"You know what, boss? Maybe you shouldn't park on top of a loading ramp when everyone else has to make do," such an adviser might say.

"But of course," would be the correct response. Unless, of course, you have a plan to reopen the Civic Centre Parkade, dispose of the Public Safety Building and maybe even fix the Sherbrook Pool for good measure.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2013 A8


Updated on Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 10:30 AM CST: corrects typos

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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