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Let's keep our strengths and build around them

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Obviously, the June 7 article Another downtown icon falls?, about the possible demolition of the Fortune Block on Main Street, is speculative, but it speaks to an ongoing problem with this city.

It seems that what city council values and what the citizens value are two different things. We love our old buildings. Visitors to Winnipeg love our old buildings. And we all love the small, unique, character-filled businesses that make their homes in them.

It is these businesses and buildings that give Winnipeg its special character. It is what visitors remark about to their friends when they go back home. It is what gives our city a personality. A brand, if that word works for you. No tourist falls in love with a city for its discount stores or ample parking.

I'm in the music industry, and I see a lot of cities -- and this gives me insight into all the things we do wrong here. But it also inspires lots of ideas for things we could do right.

I just spent a week in San Francisco. Why is San Francisco so densely packed, wealthy, and a hotbed for both tourism and innovative ideas? Because it knows what its strengths are, builds on them, and doesn't let short-sighted decisions get in its way.

The Fillmore neighbourhood -- similar to Osborne Village and Corydon Avenue -- has a ban on chain stores to ensure the special character of the neighbourhood is preserved. And it is the second hottest retail market in the city. Its property values would make Academy Road's most expensive outlets blush with trepidation. (And here we are demolishing two small, unique business buildings in Osborne Village for... a Shoppers Drug Mart?)

And yet within the most expensive Frisco neighbourhoods lie assorted old buildings and neighbourhood businesses -- just like Times Change(d), a great little music club that has done more for our city outside our boundaries than most bigger businesses.

We have it backwards. We keep tearing down our strengths in order to develop what we are lacking. New residential development is great. But build it across Main Street on the empty lot. Build it across from the old Canada Post building on Graham Avenue. Build it on any number of parking lots downtown. We have so much space to use up before we should consider taking anything down.

It is time for city council to develop an aggressive and visionary plan for downtown. Reward the businesses and developments that make it a better place. Give them incentives. And penalize the surface parking lots that make downtown an embarrassment.

With the right incentive-penalty policy and our city's current growth, you could fill downtown with new three- to five-storey residential buildings in 10 to 15 years, triple the downtown population -- which will support downtown businesses, raise land values, get more people walking the streets -- and create a vibrancy this city hasn't seen since... well, since we started tearing down buildings for parking lots back in the '50s.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2012 A15

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