December 6, 2019

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Will the city repeat history, or learn from it?

I arrived in the newsroom Wednesday to find an envelope on my desk and an invitation therein.

It was from David Barnard, the president of the University of Manitoba, who was encouraging me to attend a session of the university's Visionary Conversations speaker series.

The one on Livable Cities to be precise. The invitation's arrival couldn't have come at a more opportune time. Given today's topic, I mean.

This morning at 10:30 a.m., three city councillors will hear an appeal of the granting of a conditional-use permit for the construction of a 67-room hotel, drinking establishment, patio and adjacent parking lot on a prized piece of riverfront property on Waterfront Drive.

Curiously, the developers of the hotel, Sunstone Properties, also built the condo across the street where residents — on the lower floors at least — would have their views of the spectacular bend of the river blocked by the three-storey building. But, while they empathize with that, shall we say, short-sighted development, that's not at the heart of the matter for those who are leading the appeal, the two groups I dubbed the Friends of Winnipeg History in my first column on the issue a couple of weeks back.

The heritage pals are led by John Perrin, the interim chairman of the Scottish Heritage Council of Manitoba, and Sandy Gessler, from the Friends of Victoria Park. From Perrin's perspective, the issue is that the hotel doesn't belong in the same historically sacred riverbank area where the Selkirk Settlers landed 199 years ago. In his view, the riverfront should remain open as a public park, and as part of the Trans Canada Trail, should remain unencumbered by what is essentially a roadblock of a building.

Gessler has a similar heritage and land-use perspective, honouring Victoria Park. Oddly enough, Victoria Park doesn't exist anymore, yet its demise, and the history it teaches — or should teach — is what's at the heart of the appeal matter. Victoria Park was the downtown pearl in a precisely strung necklace of nine neighbourhood public parks that civic leaders at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century created for immigrants when the city was booming.

Among them was the Hope Diamond on the strand, our now 107-year-old Assiniboine Park. Victoria Park was created in 1893, but after it became the rallying place for the labour movement during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the vindictive city fathers cruelly dismantled it by turning it over to City Hydro.

In more recent years, as the city devoted itself to reacquiring and developing riverfront property for public use, former mayor Glen Murray personally supervised the creation of the magnificent Stephen Juba Park that hugs the river and Waterfront Drive.

A city CentrePlan document from 1999 shows eventually the park was supposed to extend through the land that is now the subject of the appeal and that Gessler argues was once part of Victoria Park. Now she's concerned the current civic leaders are about to miss an opportunity to bring back at least a portion of Victoria Park that would honour the place and the people from that momentous time in our history. But when Murray left the mayor's chair and Sam Katz took his place, the plan for a park changed.

It's Perrin's contention the current civic administration has no coherent plan for park and riverfront development. Indeed, Perrin appears to have some support for that theory from a rather unlikely source.

Last July, in preparation for a hearing for the conditional-use application, a paper was prepared by city bureaucrat Kurtis Kowalke. Ultimately, he would support the application, but along the way he made some fascinating digressions. "For decades," Kowalke's paper reported, "city council has been committed to the acquisition of riverbank properties for the use and enjoyment of Winnipeg residents and visitors."

But Kowalke also suggested that direction, outlined by Plan Winnipeg and CentrePlan, might not be fully in fashion anymore: "...The philosophy of a continuous band of public open park space may not reflect current thinking by decision-makers or park planners."

Instead, the concept is for public-private partnerships in the development of parkland.

Then Kowalke delivered this zinger: "In the absence of a planning or policy framework that supports this concept, developments are made on a piecemeal basis, and there is a lack of certainty for property owners about the long-term vision of the area."

That sounds like there is no plan. Or vision.

Other than the basic blueprint — Plan Winnipeg — whose responsibilty for heritage protection and riverfront use isn't being honoured, according to the appeal the Friends of Winnipeg History will make today.

Which brings us back to that envelope on my desk.

I hope Katz and his band of merry men and women on council got the same invite. It's apparent they need all the help with Liveable City vision they can get.


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