October 21, 2020

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A downtown for everyone

Exchange District concerns offer opportunity to take a step back, consult, collaborate on community vision for dynamic, inclusive city centre where people want to live and play when the workday ends

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Exchange District is just one piece of the downtown planning puzzle.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Exchange District is just one piece of the downtown planning puzzle.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/2/2020 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Much like many Winnipeggers making resolutions for the new year, more than 60 business owners in the Exchange District entered 2020 with a desire for change of their own.

They have asked Winnipeg’s city council to put a freeze on further changes to the district’s "built form," which refers to the shape, function and configuration of buildings in relation to surrounding streets and open space. This call-to-action would pause the planning and design of parking and transportation and construction until a comprehensive plan for the area is developed.

The Exchange District, at approximately 0.3 square kilometres of land, is just one segment of the downtown. Other areas include north Main, Main Street, Portage Avenue, Broadway, The Forks, the University of Winnipeg, Chinatown and the Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED).

With the Exchange representing only a portion of Winnipeg’s centre, developing a more holistic downtown plan might be prudent. Focusing only on the Exchange overlooks the natural behaviour of visitors and residents to traverse multiple character areas. A downtown plan would consider the core as a gathering place for everyone, binding residents together.

Because municipal resources are limited, perhaps planning efforts could consider thoughtful phasing — starting first with a comprehensive review of the Exchange. Policies and physical planning for this area could serve as Chapter 1. By doing this, an overall plan for the downtown could materialize, accommodating financial realities while still advancing a vision of an urban core that has woven together multiple districts. The key will be collective patience and a commitment to stay the course.

Most effective downtown plans share several factors, including taking a good look at what’s happening now, as well as how market demands might reinforce or shift the current reality. Extensive public input is always a big part of successful plans; developing a collective vision and common ground takes frank conversations to identify ideas with the most resonance and couple them with best practices in city planning. That partly means a careful look at what has happened elsewhere to keep from common pitfalls.

Urban design and illustrative planning is an important part of the community workshop process, to test the collective local vision by drawing examples of how those words might look in a finished building or streetscape. This process is most effective when landowners who are considering redevelopment are willing to engage in the design process to test out collective ideas on their properties, for illustration purposes only.

This is part of the design process and not an application for development. The landowner gets some free design input in exchange for the openness to help spark conversations. Sometimes illustrative plans do get built, thanks to the community planning process.

Some parts of downtown — the Exchange, for example — are more likely to prioritize historic preservation, but others, such as Portage Place, may have had development patterns that turned out to be less resilient and lasting. Getting the priority established to preserve, repair or intensify is essential to making the community interested in lifting development moratoriums.

The best-laid plans are not just about private buildings, but also the public sidewalks and streets. Once planning priorities are voiced for land use and private interests, transportation planning is an essential next step. When public needs are in harmony with private interests, both realize higher returns on investment, including increased safety.

After the vision is established, effective downtown plans always consider short-, mid- and long-term strategies, based on needs assessments, levels of funding support and timing. The planning process is an important opportunity for the community and all levels of government to begin to take ownership, particularly for the short- and mid-range actions.

The last component of a great downtown plan is to remember that what gets measured gets done. Creating a dashboard to see how we are progressing helps build momentum and trust. Once we see that all the heavy lifting involved in consensus building really matters, we are more likely to do it again in a few years when the plan needs to be refreshed.

When successful, the downtown plan behaves like a business plan and a request for investment. The plan allows the city to guide development in line with existing and intended infrastructure. Landowners and businesses have a clear understanding of priorities, which decreases the volatility in the development marketplace and supports resilience and livability.

A plan is necessary because, as research tells us, downtowns can comprise less than one per cent of a city’s total land area, but generate up to 25 per cent of its tax base. They are important economic and social drivers — the way we plan and design them represent important levers for Winnipeg’s future growth.

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Edmonton’s downtown makes up one per cent of the city’s entire land supply, but generates 10 per cent of its property taxes. From 2001 to 2011, there was a 61 per cent dwelling growth there. Today, there are about 261 jobs per hectare downtown; a city’s health can be measured by the health of its core.

Edmonton’s Capital City Downtown Plan aims to guide the transformation of the downtown into a more vibrant, attractive, high density, mixed-use and walkable area. Considerable attention is given to the design. Edmonton is working towards an area that projects a sense of vitality, beauty, warmth, dynamism and design excellence. Good urban design helps to create community identity, focusing on the creation of vibrant streets, quality public and private spaces and building environments designed for comfort.

The plan is committed to developing a sustainable downtown and focuses on increasing the number of full-time residents.

An increase in the number of residents will help strengthen a downtown’s economic, entertainment and cultural activities. A recent surge in its student population and investments such as the Ice District, which features Rogers Arena, hospitality, retail and restaurants, is helping to spur greater public and private interest.

The city recently made the bold decision to purchase several surface parking lots for conversion into the proposed Warehouse Campus Neighbourhood Central Park.

Located in close proximity to one of downtown Edmonton’s greatest assets — its heritage warehouse buildings — the project will cover 1.25 hectares, or just over two football fields in size. Designs for the park will be solicited through an international design competition with criteria for the design co-created between the city and the downtown community.

Edmonton’s plan also outlines key investments in another part of the downtown; the Quarters Downtown is made up of four "quarters," each with a unique character and design. The quarters are distinct districts and are centred around the Armature, a pedestrian-focused green street and the defining element for the community.

There has been more than $500 million in public and private investments. To amplify a walkable experience for pedestrians, the city also constructed the city’s first "green street" — illustrating how low-impact development technologies can absorb stormwater runoff and create a beautiful street.

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In 2016, we led a strategic planning process for the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, an organization that represents nearly 1,300 businesses in the core while advocating for programs and services to support revitalization objectives. This process prioritized a robust dialogue with people who live, work, play, learn and do business in Winnipeg’s centre.

We developed a multi-pronged, summer-long engagement approach that involved a series of "urban acupuncture" pop-ups in downtown districts, a Minecraft Lounge that migrated downtown’s base map into a tool for kids (and kids-at-heart) to share their ideas and an "urban lab" hub for creativity and idea generation. This work has been presented at international conferences and standing-room-only crowds as seeds for other cities and countries.

People are interested because we were able to tap into voices usually not heard — from kids to homeless people — and were able to shape a better downtown Winnipeg as a result.

Participants shared their top priorities, from promoting a walking culture to stimulating a diversity of housing options to nurturing beautiful, inviting and safe public spaces. A combination of winter programming, public art, abundant open and green space, greater connectivity between districts achieved through provision of a mix of transportation modes, public toilets, made-in-the-downtown events, quick-and-easy pop-up activities, entrepreneurship and retail incubation, public-private partnerships and incentive tools and market intelligence to drive investment were among the ideas that emerged.

At the heart of the plan: a need for greater inclusion and equity. When people feel a sense of belonging to the downtown, social and economic spinoffs are a given. But more importantly, people begin to believe that they have the power to contribute positively to their community’s growth.

The late 1980s to the early 2000s were characterized by slower growth, but downtown Winnipeg has turned a corner, adding more than 100 development projects and 2,000 housing units. But things have to evolve beyond the numbers. There is an ephemeral and unquantifiable value in the downtown: a spirit of innovation and creativity, stirring architecture, walkable and permeable connections throughout and a unique retail, arts and culture scene. Our downtown is a living, breathing organism — growing and continually evolving.

To continue to build on this momentum, a plan might set out specific targets for the number of residential units and various housing typologies in key areas and envision the number of residents who will move in. It might want to utilize clear, yet imaginative, imagery to depict how buildings, streets and other amenities might be situated. It might dive into the current climate-crisis conversation and set out sustainability goals.

Underpinning these efforts is a priority to draw upon diverse perspectives, from residents to business owners to community organizations to public institutions.

Cities have the ability to create exciting and dynamic places, social diversity, and an enhanced quality of life. The downtown, in our opinion, can make claims to these civic traits. As we contemplate the types of spaces and places that are needed to help Winnipeg accommodate a growing population, perhaps it’s our downtown that holds the answer to how we might unite different communities, people and perspectives.

Let’s get downtown to it.

Jason Syvixay is an urban planner and public relations professional. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.

Hazel Borys is President of PlaceMakers. She guides governments around the world through policy, physical planning and land-use law reformsallowing walkable, mixed-use, compact, resilient places to develop by-rightand helps developers get things built under the increasingly prevalent context-sensitive bylaws of the new economy.

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