It would be wonderful if Winnipeg's downtown was fully developed and occupied, overflowing with activity and high energy, not a centimetre of space available for lease, sale or rent. Unfortunately, that goal is still a distant dream, despite a series of major developments in the last 10 years. And that's why a civic committee made the correct decision Monday in approving a proposed 24-storey mixed-use highrise on Waterfront Drive.
Residents in the area are furious because they believe it will undermine the district's historic charm, disfigure the skyline and open the door to more skyscrapers.
The residents also say a 24-storey building would make a mockery of zoning regulations that were enacted to protect the Exchange District's compact scale, with buildings that are four to eight storeys tall.
Similar zoning bylaws exist in other Canadian cities with historic districts, but the rules can be breached to accommodate special projects. They're known as density-for-benefits schemes that allow the construction of non-conforming buildings in return for some kind of benefit to the affected neighbourhood.
The benefit can take the form of a cash payment to the city based on a percentage of the development's value, or some other arrangement that will help the particular district achieve its broader goals.
In this case, there are several benefits that justify the zoning variance.
First, the developer says he will save the historic James Avenue pumping station, a Grade II heritage building that is famous for its vintage industrial machinery and the role it served in providing fire protection.
Several investors have considered redeveloping the pumphouse since it closed in 1986 -- one firm even bought the building before returning it for a profit to CentreVenture -- but none of them was able to devise a business plan that worked.
Many of those opposed to the highrise, which will include 220 residential rental units, are the same people who would scream bloody murder if the city attempted to demolish the pumphouse to make way for another four- to eight-storey condominium complex.
They want it both ways, which is not realistic.
An eight-storey building would not provide enough market space to justify the cost of incorporating a complex heritage structure into the project. The proponent has not disclosed his business plan, but it's reasonable to assume the size of the proposed building is based on a financially viable model.
Second, downtown Winnipeg is still in need of a lot of help. That includes the Exchange District and Waterfront Drive, which has been struggling to realize its full potential since it was developed about a decade ago.
Some commercial space along the scenic route has been vacant since the day it became available, evidence of a problem that can only be solved with density.
The area needs more full-time residents, more businesses, more services, more of everything.
The tower is not a magical solution, but it's an improvement that would increase activity along the waterfront and in the Exchange District.
Struggling or newer businesses in the area will welcome its arrival.
The development depends on several conditions, including permission to build a parkade on nearby land owned by the province.
A parkade open to the public would be another benefit, since parking can be a rare commodity in the area.
It has sometimes seemed that Winnipeg was more interested in preserving history than actually making it.
This project does both.
It respects the city's past, but it's also a vote of confidence in the city and its future.