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Mixed-use plans need a little bit of tweaking

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We all know that Winnipeg’s downtown suffers from urban blight because not enough people live there. There is safety in numbers and lots of other amenities when the population is sufficient to create a need for cultural, recreational, business and other places to gather and bond.

Over the years, many city planners have claimed that  "mixed use development" is the way to encourage people to live downtown and achieve the revitalization our downtown needs. Their plans consist of a bunch of buildings that serve a wide variety of purposes; residential, commercial and even small industrial (see Corydon-Osborne Area plan).

I grew up in a mixed-use neighbourhood that didn’t quite work (the North End circa 1960) and now live in a mixed-use neighbourhood that really works (Osborne Village), so I am kind of an expert on the concept and I can tell you that we just have to tweak the plans by answering one question.

"Do we want to live above the store or beside the store?"

On Selkirk Avenue, which used to be an overcrowded neighbourhood of shops, apartment blocks, duplexes and the odd single-detached home, the child whose parents owned the corner store was the envy of the neighbourhood kids. But having access to free gum and bologna sandwiches wasn’t such a great thrill for their parents who had to endure constant traffic and the odd burglar. The families who lived above a tailor shop or a travel agency didn’t really enjoy the daytime as much as their neighbours in the residences on either side.

Osborne Village works because we mostly have mixed-use neighbourhoods with an organic mix of different, single-use buildings side by side. Sure, some apartment blocks have a restaurant or other type of  business on the first floor but that is just as much because few people want a first floor suite (no view, not as safe etc.) But this is what  a mixed-use neighbourhood is all about. A variety of buildings with different purposes in close proximity, not buildings that all must serve a variety of purposes.

Yes, it used to be fun to wait until the ice cream shop on the first floor of my friend’s block (a two-storey) would close and the owner would leave for the night. If we were careful, he never knew we had a triple-scoop each and Charlie cooled his feet off in a gallon of chocolate. But my friend’s mom couldn’t stand all the kids yelling "Ice cream! I wanna a ice s-c-r-e-a-m!" all day.
If they lived next door, they could just head to an area of their home where you couldn’t hear the clamour.

Design standards for mixed use development which rigidly require mixed-use buildings along all of a neighbourhood’s major and secondary streets are the misguided dreams of planners who have probably never lived in this kind of neighbourhood and probably never would.
It might look good on a drafting board but I bet when you put the people in your drawing, they flee like rabbits who don’t belong there either.

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