Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finishing touch for The Forks

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One of the smartest things the three levels of government ever did for Winnipeg was designating The Forks as public space following the removal of CN Rail's marshalling yards, which had occupied the historic district since the 19th century.

Having agreed it was good, however, no one could agree on what it was supposed to be. Was it green space, a heritage and cultural zone, dense urban destination and shopping district, or a combination of all these ideas?

As time went by, just about every new development met with opposition. The Inn at The Forks was bitterly opposed, as was the parking garage and even the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which some architects regarded as a disruption of the prairie skyline.

Despite the controversies and disagreements, however, The Forks has grown and thrived. Today, it is the most popular tourist destination in Manitoba.

But what next?

The Forks North Portage Partnership has a tentative plan that could see 40 per cent of the still-undeveloped land turned into a commercial and residential development, while the rest would be green space and a public plaza, including better pedestrian linkages to Portage and Main and to Union Station on south Main Street. Two new parkades would compensate for the loss of surface parking lots.

It's a perfectly reasonable plan that will achieve the seemingly contradictory goals of increasing density while expanding public space. A vision, however, is nothing without the details, which are expected to be released this summer.

The Forks management has proceeded at a glacial pace over the last 25 years, but a rush to develop the lands in the early years would probably have resulted in some unfortunate, irreversible decisions. A plan to build a seniors residence on what is now the site of the human rights museum, for example, was nearly approved before the city nixed the idea.

The Forks is well-connected to St. Boniface and to the Exchange District through Steve Juba Park and Waterfront Drive, but connections to downtown are less intuitive. The walk between the two destinations should be comfortable and safe, a true pedestrian experience.

The Broadway-Forks connection also needs to be enhanced, particularly once the Upper Fort Garry park is completed.

The last piece in The Forks puzzle -- the control of river levels -- is also the most complex.

Premier Greg Selinger and former premier Gary Doer both promised to consider how the rivers could be regulated to mitigate the problem of spring flooding at The Forks. A report was supposed to have been completed four years ago, but it was never released.

The question of high river levels is actually an issue for the entire city. Earlier this year, for example, the city tabled a planning strategy that envisioned a network of river paths, scenic drives, pedestrian bridges, commercial development and housing along the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

The draft document said many of the proposed developments and transportation corridors should be built close to the water, similar to The Forks.

Predictable river levels would leverage millions of dollars in new development and save an equal amount in riverbank erosion.

Controlling the rivers would mean property owners upstream would have to be compensated for unnatural flooding, but the long-term benefits of such a proposition might outweigh the costs.

The water would effectively be turned into a regulated resource rather than an unpredictable menace.

In the short term, however, The Forks is getting ready to launch its latest phase of development. From what's been disclosed so far, it may well be the finishing touch.

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 June 9, 2014 A8

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