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Fire hall relocation has residents concerned

Traffic, loss of greenspace top issues at open house

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Some St. James residents say the relocation of the Berry Street fire hall to the cloverleaf at Portage Avenue and Century Street is ill suited to the growing traffic nightmare in the area.

More than 50 area residents attended a July 5 open house at the Viscount Gort on Portage to get their first and likely only look at the plans before construction begins later this summer.

Katherine Thiesenhausen and Ed McLean live near the proposed site and believe worsening traffic congestion in the area will pose problems for firefighters.

"I do not support this location for the new station," Thiesenhausen said, noting the area is served by multiple bus routes and is flagged for major capital construction over the next several years.

"Those entering Route 90 are backed up onto Portage at both rush hours now. It’s already a high congestion area. Even Coun. Fielding has said that numerous times and the city still hasn’t addressed those issues.

"And now you’re going to put a large, high-demand facility right in the middle of it?"

The new $4 million, 12,000-sq. ft. station will be built on two acres of land in the northwest corner of the cloverleaf next to the St. James Hotel. The location was chosen based on computer models and historical response time data, and will feature four drive-thru style bay doors.

It will be designated as a "core area" station, meaning it will serve downtown as well as St. James and River Heights, and will be equipped to handle hazardous materials and technical rescue.

New emergency lights will stop traffic on Portage Avenue when vehicles are responding to a call.  

Reid Douglas, deputy chief for Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said the new location takes the next 25 years into account, including the widening of Kenaston Boulevard and the St. James bridge.

"It was the only site where there was enough land for us to build on," he said, adding a four-month traffic study was completed and approved by the city’s public works department two weeks ago.

Still, residents believe a better location could have been found to preserve the cloverleaf’s greenspace.

"We would rather see vacant commercially-zoned land in the area used for this new fire hall, not land that currently functions as a park," said Steven Kohm.

Kohm pointed to the former Esso gas station at Queen Street and Portage as a potential option.

"I'm convinced a clever architect could come up with a design to work on this smaller lot," he said.

"Simply look at new fire halls in denser cities like Vancouver, they occupy a very small footprint. This is clearly a failure of imagination on the part of the city."

Douglas said the department had put a down payment on the former Esso site, but stalled environmental scans and remediation slowed the process. A new home was built at the edge of the vacant lot and the cost of expropriating homes became too pricey, he said.

The department also tried numerous times to purchase land from Assiniboine School on Portage Avenue until a cease-and-desist letter was sent back.

Still, Thiesenhausen and McLean said residents should have been informed about and included in the process earlier, though consultation isn’t legally required.

"I would have liked to know the options that were being considered," said McLean. "Can I influence decisions tonight or is it just an open house telling me this is the way it is? This is not NIMBYism, we just want fair consideration."

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