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Arts can lead in downtown renewal

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Downtown is the cultural and economic engine of our city. It defines Winnipeg’s image and reputation, locally and abroad.

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Opinion

Downtown is the cultural and economic engine of our city. It defines Winnipeg’s image and reputation, locally and abroad.

When we compete with other cities for tourism, immigration, business investment and even for retention of our own young people, the quality of downtown and its ability to offer an urban lifestyle choice often factors centrally in any success.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has slammed the brakes on 20 years of steady growth and renewal in downtown, and has created unprecedented challenges as we move forward. A profound shift has occurred, and it will take profound solutions to recover.

Winnipeg’s vibrant arts and culture sector could be a major motivating force in revitalizing the city’s downtown. (Supplied / Exhange District BIZ)

There is, however, something very special about Winnipeg that offers a unique opportunity to drive urban renewal, if it can be effectively harnessed.

Ours is an artistic community. With only two per cent of Canada’s population, we have 12 per cent of its musicians. We are a centre of Indigenous art, and are renowned for our writers, painters and dancers. We have the country’s oldest and sixth-largest civic art gallery, its oldest French-language theatre, English regional theatre and dance company. We are home to a renowned symphony, a royal ballet and royal theatre centre.

Great cities are built on the foundation of their artistic communities, and Winnipeg’s represents an important opportunity for the future of downtown.

Great cities are built on the foundation of their artistic communities, and Winnipeg’s represents an important opportunity for the future of downtown. An organization called Artscape in Toronto provides an important model that Winnipeg might follow.

Artscape is a not-for-profit organization that began in the 1980s to create affordable housing and studio space for artists being priced out of the Toronto real-estate market. It has evolved into a sophisticated developer, tenant and landlord that works with governments, developers, private foundations and individual donors to leverage art and cultural space as a catalyst for community and urban renewal.

In 2004, Artscape played a central role in Toronto’s Distillery District, the regeneration of an abandoned industrial area at the southeast edge of downtown. The City of Toronto implemented a policy that provided incentives to the developer, including added allowable density, if they would incorporate arts amenities within the plan.

This policy incentive, which has since become important to the success of many Artscape projects, motivated the developer to bring them to the table. They negotiated an agreement to be the first tenant, leasing 50,000 square feet of space that would become subsidized designer/maker retail spaces, theatre and rehearsal venues, and artist studios.

As a cultural not-for-profit, the organization was able to leverage several public and private funding sources for their part of the project. The developer realized the benefit of immediately having a significant amount of commercial space leased, and the presence of artists provided an organic energy and a cachet that acted as a magnet to quickly attract tenants to the other commercial spaces and new residential towers.

Today, the area is a profitable private development, a centre for cultural tourism and an artistic hub, and should be considered a potential redevelopment model for downtown Winnipeg.

The Distillery District demonstrated the power an arts community can have as a catalyst for urban renewal, and Artscape has since developed 14 unique cultural facilities that include affordable housing and live/work studios, performance and exhibition spaces and community cultural hubs, helping both artists and neighbourhoods to thrive.

Every project is unique, with Artscape acting as a developer, a partner, a landlord, a tenant or a consultant, each time positioning artists as powerful catalysts to build vibrant and dynamic neighbourhoods instead of being hapless victims of urban gentrification.

Using its unique model, Artscape has transformed a portfolio of underutilized buildings across Toronto into dynamic community assets that have inspired private development and urban renewal.

Through its 30 years of work, Artscape has become a thought leader in what they call “creative placemaking,” establishing the Creative Placemaking Lab, which consults with cities to develop strategies to use arts and culture as a development tool for renewal and growth.

The pandemic may have created a unique opportunity to implement an Artscape model that takes downtown Winnipeg in an exciting new direction for the future.

With the explosion of underused commercial space and vacant storefronts, the pandemic may have created a unique opportunity to implement an Artscape model that takes downtown Winnipeg in an exciting new direction for the future.

With an already robust creative industry sector, a solid history of public arts philanthropy and charitable support and a strong presence of community foundations, Winnipeg is uniquely positioned to successfully realize such a bold strategy.

With the recent completion of Qaumajuq, the new Inuit gallery, and future projects such as the Bay redevelopment, which will include First Nations arts and cultural space, the Red River Métis National Heritage Centre in the Bank of Montreal, the redevelopment of the Pantages Theatre and the establishment of a Creative Hub in the Marketlands development at the old Public Safety Building site, the seeds for an artistic renaissance of downtown Winnipeg are already being planted.

The city could capitalize on this momentum in a formalized initiative by developing civic policy, creating incentives and refining zoning regulations, while bringing together community stakeholders such as other levels of government, arts organizations, BIZ groups, foundations and private developers to establish an Artscape model for downtown.

If we think imaginatively about our downtown renewal strategies and fertilize existing organic growth in the city’s creative community, the image Winnipeg projects to itself and to the world might one day be of a vibrant city of the arts, a testament to when we took a crisis and used it to forever change the character and trajectory of our downtown and of our city.

Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number TEN Architectural Group.

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Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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