The Leaf set to open doors to plant diversity

Assiniboine Park attraction preparing to welcome public for holiday season


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Years in the making, the indoor portion of The Leaf in Assiniboine Park finally opened to a select few guests Saturday afternoon.

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Years in the making, the indoor portion of The Leaf in Assiniboine Park finally opened to a select few guests Saturday afternoon.

Politicians, industry partners and other supporters of the project gathered to take a sneak peek at the thriving plant life kept in the near-completed horticultural development, which features thousands of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants from across different climates in four indoor biomes.

To visit the 92,000-square-foot facility it is to find yourself taking a journey across the world in the span of several floors —among the four biomes is a humid tropical zone, home to diverse plants and a 60-foot man-made waterfall, a Mediterranean area that smells of herbs and features a sitting area, a display space that will exhibit different plants and structures depending on the time of year, and a butterfly garden.

It’s a long time coming, Assiniboine Park Conservancy communications director Laura Cabak said Saturday, and the final touches of construction are still underway.

“It’s been a long haul, it’s been a lot of incredibly hard work by a lot of people,” she said. “But it’s going to be amazing. And we’re really, really excited.”

There isn’t a set opening date for the public just yet, but Cabak said it would be in time for the holiday season. The display area is currently holiday themed.

Along with the flora on display, a restaurant, gift shop, café, and classroom spaces to hold workshops and school tours will be available, with the goal of connecting them all to the horticulture living around it.

“We saw rosemary in the Mediterranean garden, and then we’ll see rosemary on the menu, and we’ll get these connections between plants and what’s happening in that restaurant as well,” Gerald Dieleman, the senior director of horticulture at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, said. “There are rentable event spaces here too, to sort of make this a 365 (day) experience around the year, every day.”

Much like the Assiniboine Park Zoo, The Leaf, part of Canada’s Diversity Gardens project, will serve as a conservation space for rare plants, or plant material from places where it would face environmental endangerment. For example, The Leaf is host to a wollemi pine tree, which is considered critically endangered and are legally protected in Australia, where bushfires have threatened their existence.

“We’re very happy to be part of basically this larger gene bank of trees that we can keep here, knowing that their native space is relatively endangered,” he said.

The journey to opening hasn’t been without hurdles — The Leaf is opening two years behind its original schedule, and amid legal concerns. In October, Winnipeg-based architectural firm Architecture49 Inc. filed a statement of claim alleging that the Conservancy owes it nearly $1 million in unpaid invoices after it was forced to do redesign work on the project caused by construction flaws.

This comes after Assiniboine Park Conservancy filed suit against Architecture49 Inc., KPMB Architects and engineering firm Blackwell Bowick Partnership, alleging that opening delays and high costs were caused by design defects.

The original cost of construction was estimated to be $75 million in 2017, but is expected to cost tens of millions more. The project has received $114 million in capital funding commitments, including around $75 million in public funding.

The Leaf’s unique roof design contributed in part to delays, Cabak said.

“I think it’s well known, we had some challenges related to this amazing roof… It’s a very purposeful design, there were some challenges with it, that caused some delays,” she said. “But we’re through all that now. And we’re done, and we’re ready to open very soon, and we’re really looking forward to that.”

The cost of entry — up to $48 before tax for a family of four — has also been decried by some as exclusionary against lower-income Manitobans whose tax dollars helped pay for the space.

Cabak said the conservancy plans to hand out 22,000 vouchers that offer free access to The Leaf or the Assiniboine Park Zoo, and free programming at The Leaf for older adults was being planned, but there were no plans underway to offer discounted rate days. The outdoor portion of the gardens, which opened to the public last year, is free to visit.

“There was a lot of research to make sure that what we were asking for was comparable with other attractions here in the city, but also like attractions across the country,” she said. “We’re very comfortable with what we’ve set our rates at.”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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