Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bridge plaza needs vision

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The Esplanade Riel, with its restaurant plaza looking out over the Red River, has become one of the city's iconic images, a favourite for TV news cameras, postcards and admiring visitors.

Although it will be overshadowed eventually by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as the city's most recognizable image, the pedestrian bridge/restaurant will always be a vital landmark and an important link between downtown Winnipeg and the francophone community in St. Boniface.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the restaurant itself, Salisbury House, which was selected by the city seven years ago following a competitive process. The chain is a Winnipeg institution and thousands of people love its food, but it has proven to be the wrong concept for that location. The company claims it is losing money on the bridge and it tried to negotiate a new deal with the city, which decided instead to issue expressions of interest for a new operator.

The selection of the restaurant disappointed many people who felt it was too low-end -- only a notch above a McDonald's, critics said -- and it would not attract many people.

It seems somewhat puzzling the city's most iconic destination has not been enough to sustain a 32-seat restaurant, but the idea a higher-end restaurant would be any more successful is also dubious.

A destination location and a destination restaurant don't necessarily add up to success.

The problem is the appeal of the site is also its weakness.

Winnipeggers won't walk too far in winter to reach a restaurant. They'll walk a long distance to get from their parked cars to the front door of IKEA, but restaurants are another matter, according to industry experts.

As a result, few people were prepared to brave the winter winds to reach the bridge eatery, and the same was probably true on rainy days. The restaurant even had a clause in its contract that allowed it to close for 90 days in the winter.

At the same time, however, another group of partners was announcing plans to open a so-called pop-up restaurant on the ice at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

The steel-and-aluminum structure will only be open until Feb. 13, but the partners are confident they can sell 1,000 tickets at $85 a plate, plus beverages, in the 20-seat restaurant by that time. That would be enough to meet costs and possibly show a small profit.

Time will tell if it succeeds, but the proponents are optimistic, because what they are selling is different, unique and fun. People will walk across a frozen wasteland to get to it, or so they hope.

The same general concept should be applied to the restaurant plaza on the bridge. Instead of seeking a new restaurant operator -- or, more likely, the same one -- the city should look for new ways to maximize use of the space all year round.

Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) is suggesting something more versatile, much like the restaurant industry itself, which constantly reinvents itself to avoid becoming boring. In the winter, it could be leased for special events and functions, including the Festival du Voyageur, while serving as a place to purchase unique Manitoba foods or even a mini-library at other times, Mr. Vandal suggests.

It's an undeveloped idea, but the problem is no one has been thinking about how to turn it into authentic public space, or a place people go to meet, discuss issues, listen to music, have a beer and so on.

The city's call for expressions of interest expires in two weeks, but unless a remarkable idea steps out of the blue, the city should not settle for another fast-food outlet.

The Sals was only paying $2,000 a month in rent, and it won't pay that much if the city decides to renew the lease, so it's not like a fortune is at stake.

The decision to build an indoor plaza on the bridge showed remarkable courage and foresight, but stronger ideas are now needed to make it a vital part of the community.

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 January 16, 2013 A10

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