Parks are nice; having people living nearby to enjoy them is nicer Amenities, events by themselves haven’t — and never will — get downtown off life support
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You think we would have learned our lesson.
The city is considering a proposal to reroute part of Smith Street between Ellice Avenue and Notre Dame Avenue to create a larger park in front of the Burton Cummings Theatre. The request was made by True North Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the theatre, Canada Life Centre and, of course, the Winnipeg Jets.
There is already small, wedge-shaped park located across from the theatre, located at the convergence of Smith and King streets and Notre Dame. By closing a section of Smith Street, a small public plaza can be created.
Coun. Janice Lukes, chair of the public works committee, thinks it is a good idea.
“We’ve got this beautiful theatre that holds incredible performances and to have parties and festivities spill (outside), it activates the street, it makes it more festive and it gets more people downtown,” Lukes told the Free Press.
The larger park is a good idea and Lukes’ support is a reason for optimism. Unfortunately, her rationale — that a development like this “activates” the block and “gets more people downtown” — is really just an echo of decades of flawed thinking about Winnipeg’s downtown.
Winnipeg has accumulated as much, if not more, first-hand evidence about what gets people downtown and what does not. We’ve been engaged in a concerted, taxpayer-supported effort to reclaim the core of the city for at least 40 years, going way back to the 1981 Core Area Initiative.
In that time, we’ve built public markets, arenas, museums, expanded parks and relocated post-secondary schools. And what have we learned?
Amenities like these are very important additions to a vibrant downtown. However, on their own, they do not create critical mass for a more vibrant downtown.
Think of Canada Life Centre, perhaps the most dynamic of the amenities added to downtown over the last 20 years. On nights when the arena is full of hockey or music fans, downtown buzzes with people and excitement. On nights when there is no event, downtown is empty and threatening.
The same goes for the Burton Cummings Theatre park. On nights the building hosts live entertainment, it will be a great place for people to gather. On other nights — which is really most nights — the park will be vacant and lifeless. Simply put, nobody is going to travel downtown just to visit this park, and it is wrong for anyone to suggest that they would.
What does work? Studies of downtown development all over North America have shown over and over again that getting more people to live there — not just visit — is the key.
In 2020, researchers at Cornell University studied 125 pedestrian malls developed in American cities over the previous 20 years. The researchers found that only 43 were still open.
Most of the abandoned malls suffered from the same problem: they were built in places where there was no residential density. Put another way, they were divorced from places where people lived.
The study found the cause and effect was pretty clearly defined. “As population density increased, the risk of pedestrian mall closure subsequently decreased,” it concluded.
It’s an important lesson, but it’s hardly a new one.
“As population density increased, the risk of pedestrian mall closure subsequently decreased.”–Cornell University study
For at least 20 years, the city and province (with the occasional help from Ottawa) have been trying to encourage downtown residential development. Using direct grants and programs such as Tax Increment Financing, the area has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment that led to the construction of more than 4,500 residential units.
However, that number starts to look a lot less impressive when you break it down by year: 225 units on an annual basis. No matter how you slice it, that is a glacial pace for residential development over a period in which the city’s population grew steadily.
And that pace of development is not a reflection of a lack of interest in living downtown.
Angela Mathieson, the outgoing CEO of CentreVenture, the city’s downtown development agency, noted that recent public opinion polls have shown a heightened interest in seeing government do something to improve the area.
In an interview on the Niigaan and the Lone Ranger Podcast Mathieson said political leaders need to recognize that more Winnipeggers are seeing great options for downtown living in other cities and want to see that kind of development here.
“They see it happening in other places but it’s not happening fast enough (here),” Mathieson said on the podcast. “And they’re getting frustrated.”
None of this is an argument for stalling the Burton Cummings Theatre/True North proposal for Smith Street. That project should go ahead as soon as possible, as should other improvements to basic downtown infrastructure that will make it a more inviting, more walkable neighbourhood.
But that absolutely cannot be the end of the efforts by the city and province.
Existing tools like TIF need to be properly funded and relaunched in a more aggressive fashion. There must be more emphasis on encouraging residential development younger Winnipeggers can afford.
By now, we should know that one park — no matter how attractive it is — does not a vibrant downtown make.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.