Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2012 (2857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It came as something of a good news story. On Monday, the opening of La Bamba Restaurant in a long-vacant storefront on Portage Avenue near Smith Street was featured prominently in the business pages of this newspaper.
Restaurants open all the time in downtown Winnipeg and rarely elicit much more media coverage than a restaurant review. But when it happens on Portage Avenue, it's big news. To downtown boosters, small private developments like this help validate the great public expense that has gone into the current wave of megaprojects aimed at saving Portage Avenue and its surroundings, such as the MTS Centre (now with NHL hockey!), a restored Avenue Building and a soon-to-be expanded Convention Centre.
These projects indicate it's an exciting time for downtown, but it won't have reached a turning point until small restaurants opening in vacant storefronts on Portage Avenue are something less than newsworthy. If it is to do this, there are lessons to be learned a few blocks north, in the Exchange District around Albert Street and McDermot Avenue, which is quietly transforming itself into an increasingly fashionable commercial district.
1. Don't rely on big projects
ACROSS North America, publicly supported downtown megaprojects have rarely had their intended effect of being an economic catalyst. In Winnipeg, this is largely because great and sudden infusions of public money stunt private investment, causing building owners to take a very speculative wait-and-see approach and sit on their properties in anticipation of the next big payout. This skews the market against selling, investment and enterprise. (Ironically, it also makes land assembly for further megaprojects more complicated.)
In contrast, organic and small-scale activity spurs other owners, investors and entrepreneurs into action. Over time, commercial development follows commercial development, and larger investments follow smaller investments. Clusters emerge and move outward, or new clusters emerge further afield, and patterns form. This is a demonstration of what Friedrich Hayek called the extended order, or what Jane Jacobs called the organized complexity of cities. Knowledge is dispersed among countless actors on the scene, and therefore cannot be fully understood or predicted by any one group.
The politics and wishful thinking of urban revitalization distorts this process of local knowledge and complexity. This is why local governments continue to pour money into convention centres even as demand for convention space in North America steadily declines, or why practically no one is building parkades in downtown Winnipeg without significant public subsidies. North Main and Chinatown were poised to become fledgling artistic and commercial clusters, but Centre Venture Development Corporation's wrecking ball had different ideas. Markets say one thing, politics says another.
2. Physical density matters
JANE Jacobs wrote that the value of having a good number of old buildings in a neighbourhood is their economic utility: Old buildings are cheaper, and therefore attract new or specialized enterprises that could not afford rents in a new building. Old commercial buildings are also adaptable to new uses over time. More than architectural character, it is the density and availability of cheap floor space that has been the key to the Exchange's success.
Any neighbourhood dominated by parking lots, parkades and pedestrian-unfriendly buildings will not only fail to attract pedestrians because of the poor "built environment," but also because there are few spaces suitable for commercial enterprises that draw pedestrians in the first place. "Supply can create its own demand," the old economic law states, and the more buildings that exist in a neighbourhood, the more potential there is for organic commercial growth to occur. If the bar and restaurant district that many wish for is ever to emerge around the MTS Centre, it will happen in nearby old buildings first.
3. Make the right things easier to do
WINNIPEG'S Downtown Zoning Bylaw, implemented in 2004, went a long way toward bringing zoning regulations out of the dark ages of postwar planning. The city could go further in encouraging redevelopment by creating flexible building code equivalencies, pre-emptively approving redevelopment of buildings, expediting the permit process for any street-level commercial development and having clearer and less reactive heritage regulations.
Portage Avenue cannot and should not be expected to follow the same process the Exchange District did, or become the same kind of neighbourhood. Major developments have their place on Portage Avenue (and the MTS Centre does a better job than most at integrating with its surroundings). However, the rules of emergence, and the failures of revitalization through the micromanagement of the large-scaled projects, are an unavoidable reality in any downtown neighbourhood.
Robert Galston blogs at riseandsprawl.tumblr.com. He is filling in for Bartley Kives for a few weeks.