Shoppers’ plan has potential

Chain stores can coexist with small businesses

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"So what does Winnipeg have going for it? On the surface, not much. This is a city that counts a difficult intersection as a famous landmark... The concrete pavements are strangely empty; it feels like a ghost town... Most of the shops in the downtown area could have been transported from any Canadian suburban hellhole"

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/01/2012 (3857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“So what does Winnipeg have going for it? On the surface, not much. This is a city that counts a difficult intersection as a famous landmark… The concrete pavements are strangely empty; it feels like a ghost town… Most of the shops in the downtown area could have been transported from any Canadian suburban hellhole”

Ben Groundwater, an Australian travel writer, penned this blunt description of Winnipeg in a Nov. 29 column for the Sydney Morning Herald titled, “You’re going where? Why would you?” His opinion takes a turn, however, when he is introduced to Osborne Village, the city’s “artsy, creative side,” saying, “That’s when Winnipeg started to make sense.”

It’s ironic that shortly after his article appeared, residents of Osborne Village would rise up in opposition to a development that many feel would degrade the unique neighbourhood character that Groundwater found so appealing.

Brent Bellamy Photo The Osborne Village proposal could be a win for Shoppers Drug Mart, a win for neighbourhood residents and a win for the urban quality of our city.

Shoppers Drug Mart’s board of adjustment application to allow an expansion that would close a popular restaurant and independent video store is seen by opponents as the invasion of a ubiquitous chain retailer that would threaten the personality of one of Winnipeg’s few vibrant urban streets.

The success of Osborne Village is that it provides a range of unique destinations in a dense configuration. The small-scale shops foster a pedestrian environment by providing an ever-changing visual experience within short walking distances. Opponents believe the scale of a new building that replaces three street-level businesses with one would contradict this successful formula.

The driving force behind all active pedestrian streets, including Osborne, is the social interaction that they enable. From a conversation with a close friend to simply watching others from afar, the relative range and intensity of these encounters define the level of success that urban neighbourhoods realize.

Density and diversity are the key factors that promote this social engagement on an urban scale. Commercial diversity attracts social diversity. An organic food store, a music vendor and a jeweler will attract different types of people at different times of the day. When these amenities are provided within close proximity, the opportunity for social encounters is enhanced. As people seek this interaction, the neighbourhood becomes more active, the sidewalks become busier and the businesses become more profitable.

The Osborne Village Neighbourhood Plan prescribes development guidelines that attempt to preserve the conditions that facilitate this social interaction. It promotes mixed-use development as a key strategy to enhance density and attract a diverse demographic to the street.

In response to the neighbourhood plan, Shoppers Drug Mart has proposed a design that includes a second floor above three-quarters of the addition. The zoning application outlines that it will be used for storage, staff amenities and office space. It is difficult to accept their argument that these internal functions meet the neighbourhood plan’s intent for mixed-use development, but Shoppers Drug Mart spokeswoman Tammy Smitham has recently indicated they might consider renting the second floor to an outside business such as the restaurant they are replacing.

If Shoppers Drug Mart is sincere in its desire to provide leasable space in the building, the opportunity exists to develop a scheme that is favourable to those on all sides of the debate.

By making the addition a full two storeys as the neighbourhood plan recommends, the 700 square metres would provide enough area for at least three independent retailers. Less desirable second-level space often commands lower rental rates that provide opportunity for the unique small businesses so coveted by the community.

The design currently hides the second floor behind a faux heritage facade, but if it took inspiration from other Osborne Village buildings, incorporating exterior staircases and outdoor terraces, the second level could have a significant presence on the sidewalk. Transforming the existing single-storey roof into a sun-filled patio for an upper-level restaurant, as an example, would bring a unique level of animation to the building. Enhancing the proposal with the inclusion of well-designed, leasable space having a presence on the street, would make the development far more compatible with the neighbourhood, and would even increase commercial traffic to the Shoppers Drug Mart.

The diverse retail functions of the store itself could also be reconsidered and defined with an urban presence on the building’s exterior. The post office component, for example, could be provided with an Osborne Street entrance and unique, sidewalk oriented signage that would engage pedestrians and help break down the lengthy facade.

The paradox of successful commercial streets is that diversity attracts people to the area, which in turn attracts larger businesses that buy out the less profitable ones, reducing the diversity that made the street attractive in the first place.

Great Canadian streets like Ste-Catherine or Yonge prove that chain stores can coexist with independent retailers as long as they are sympathetically integrated into the existing urban fabric.

By incorporating innovative design strategies that increase density, improve commercial diversity and enhance the opportunity for social encounter on the sidewalk, the Osborne Village proposal could be a win for Shoppers Drug Mart, a win for neighbourhood residents and a win for the urban quality of our city.

 

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

bbellamy@numberten.com

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