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Adding to the life of The Forks

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Finally, out of the ashes of an ill-planned and contentious decision to plop an indoor water park on vacant land near The Forks, comes a thoughtful, workable strategy for space now used for parking at the historic site. Winnipeggers have said what was once a traditional gathering place should be kept largely in the public domain.

That's what the design placed before city councillors this week seeks to accomplish, while making room for private development that is expected to dramatically increase the assessed value of the land, return cash to the city coffers through taxes, long term, while preserving green space for the enjoyment of all. Sixty per cent of the total land encompassing two parcels -- surface parking lots, one owned by the city and the other by The Forks Renewal Corporation -- will remain in public use.

It is a testament to the process, led by The Forks corporation, that where once many citizens bristled at the suggestion private housing be built, today Winnipeggers are more convinced there is room to accommodate that. Not all approve, but this is a process of compromise. Attracting permanent residents will help give The Forks a steady human presence, while making available money to invest in new public amenities.

The design incorporates promenades, lined by trees, open spaces for lolling about and a vista that would allow appreciation of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights edifice, across Waterfront Drive. The new walkways are intended to draw people into neighbouring districts, the Exchange and downtown.

The city's Parcel 4 land, and a tract owned by The Forks called Rail Side, are almost of equal size and together total 4.7 hectares. The property sits on the west side, hard up against the CN elevated rail line that separates The Forks land. The rail line has, in effect, acted as an unintended barrier, isolating the area to some degree from the nexus of Portage and Main, and Broadway's expanse.

There is a natural link, now, into St. Boniface from the Provencher Bridge and walk alongside the museum. But much work will have to be done to strengthen the link to the downtown and Portage and Main -- most of the direct connections to Main Street run under the rail. They can be quaint during the day, but dark and intimidating after dusk.

Many citizens have bemoaned that green spaces are disappearing from The Forks. The private residential/commercial buildings ought to be designed to scale, so as not to overwhelm the site, the tracks and the vista. Parkades should be inconspicuous and befitting the environment.

The vision is to preserve the sense this is a district for people, for gathering -- as happened for centuries at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers -- for public events, or to simply walk about to get a break from the hubbub of the cityscape.

A bid to develop a water park/hotel on Parcel 4 in 2012 failed miserably because Winnipeggers felt they had not been consulted and the proposal sprang, whole cloth, onto the council floor as a deal done behind the scenes (indeed, the recent real estate audit out of city hall indicates one proponent was given preferential treatment early in the process). There was no good consideration of the best and highest possible use of the land. Parcel 4's value was understated because the public interest was not foremost in the minds of those driving the process.

The resulting controversy chased Canalta Real Estate away, sending city council the message good planning for land citizens believe is held for them in trust -- Parcel 4 alone carries a nominal value of $6 million -- requires a methodical approach to design, to reflect the interests of the city, its people and visitors.

The Forks proposal is contingent upon federal and provincial investment, equal to that of the city's. The final touches and refinement to the plan are yet to come, but it is a project that ought to win the support of those levels of government.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2014 A10

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