In a vacant Portage Place storefront last week, environmental design students from the University of Manitoba presented a large wooden model of Winnipeg’s downtown.
Filling in the countless surface parking lots in the south Portage district — the 40 or so blocks between Portage Avenue and Broadway — the students added new buildings and plazas that would transform this largely windswept and underperforming part of downtown into a dynamic and livable neighbourhood.
A conceptual plan long on ambition and short on specifics, it did get many essentials right, notably that a strong residential population, permeable buildings and pedestrian-friendly streets are fundamentals of any great downtown district.
While this kind of urban environment seems like a no-brainer for downtown Winnipeg, it is kilometres away from current planning efforts, which focus on Centre Venture Development Corp.’s vision of a Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED). With the MTS Centre and a soon-to-be-expanded Winnipeg Convention Centre acting as its anchors, the SHED promises new hotels, parking garages, commercial spaces and various public plazas and streetscaping measures.
Although residential uses are seen as a desired component, there does not seem to be any significant emphasis on creating a strong, pedestrian-oriented residential neighbourhood in and around the SHED. Instead, plans function under the old premise that bigger is better; that bigger buildings, bigger plans and bigger public subsidies produce better outcomes.
No matter how bold the vision or how lavish its subsidies, a downtown district can only perform as good as economic realities allow it to. Downtown Winnipeg already brings in tens of thousands of employees and students and is Manitoba’s largest centre for government, business, arts and entertainment. Yet it clearly remains too geographically spread out, with much of it acting as little more than overflow event parking.
Proponents of the SHED are quick to point out the province’s modest growth, the return of the Jets and new construction projects will help to reverse downtown’s fortunes. What they should keep in mind is the current wave of construction activity pales in comparison to the building boom of the 1970s, when new offices, apartments and major attractions were sprouting up downtown on a regular basis. Not only did planners have big plans then, they were sometimes listened to by political leaders.
All this was not enough to prevent much of south Portage from becoming the vacuous wasteland it is today. If anything, the developments of the time made things worse. While surface parking lots are now accepted as detrimental to downtown, poorly scaled buildings are only slightly better. Built in 1974, the hostile design of the convention centre is just as bad for the urban environment as a surface parking lot.
Even with more humane design considerations, the same old megaproject approach has had dubious outcomes across North American cities. Kansas City’s recent Power and Light District development, which encapsulates nine blocks around a new indoor arena downtown, certainly sounds like good development. It has nicely scaled buildings, conforms to the existing street grid, has different uses and comes with an innovative tax-increment financing arrangement.
However, it remains a drain on city coffers, as revenues are lower than projected. The developers continue to ask city council for subsidies, which it grudgingly provides, since if the Power and Light District were to go bankrupt, Kansas City would be left with an embarrassing nine-block hole in the middle of town.
(This, it is worth mentioning, is one of North America’s more successful examples of a planned downtown entertainment district.) If Winnipeg is going to have a downtown that loses its reputation as a dangerous and deserted wasteland, it is going to require us to think about downtown in an entirely different way.
Owned by the provincial government, two of downtown’s largest parking lots, just south of the convention centre, could easily be subdivided into small lots and sold to developers who intend to build narrow, low-rise residential buildings. Nothing fancy necessarily, just housing and lots of it. Traffic on nearby streets such as Hargrave and Carlton could be calmed by putting in boulevards with trees and onstreet parking spaces on either side of the roadway.
Through its diversity of owners and users, this emerging neighbourhood would be able to grow organically and without continual public subsidy. Suddenly, this part of south Portage is no longer just the edges of a spread-out wasteland, but a tree-lined residential district adjacent to a busier and more compact downtown.