Myth, mayhem and makeover in downtown Winnipeg

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The downtown or historic centre is the oldest part of a city and is both a gathering spot and a clustering of power, wealth and cultural expression. For the North American city, the downtown has become synonymous with its urban landscapes, which project a postcard image worldwide, such as New York’s dominating and instantly recognizable skyline. The outcome has been the rise of the contemporary skyscraper or vertical landscape to define modern urbanism.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/10/2019 (1095 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The downtown or historic centre is the oldest part of a city and is both a gathering spot and a clustering of power, wealth and cultural expression. For the North American city, the downtown has become synonymous with its urban landscapes, which project a postcard image worldwide, such as New York’s dominating and instantly recognizable skyline. The outcome has been the rise of the contemporary skyscraper or vertical landscape to define modern urbanism.

When downtowns work, they can be places of great economic intensity, creativity and hope. Downtowns define cities more than any other physical aspect of the modern urban landscape. However, when downtowns lose their positioning within the local, national or international gaze, cities suffer. For example, Detroit’s fall in recent decades, encapsulated for all to see in the images of empty skyscrapers and the hollowing out of people and investment, struck a blow from which it is only now recovering.

For Winnipeg, we are a city often described in the same breath as Chicago, for similar period architecture and early industrial, commercial and transportation prowess, and Detroit, for our post-1980s weakened downtown economy, social dysfunction and suburban flight from which we too are still recovering.

This begs the question of what challenges and opportunities exist for downtown-revitalization efforts and how has Winnipeg faired in comparison to the trends occurring elsewhere that tried to turn around struggling downtowns?

Winnipeg’s historic core and downtown developed for a number of important reasons; early fur trade, grain exchange as well as warehousing and wholesale distribution to the growing Western economy. While our Indigenous history extends back thousands of years, our current settler economy grew from the backs of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and the exploitation of natural resources as Canada grew as a nation.

Winnipeg’s modern downtown was shaped dramatically in the early 1900s when this city climbed the ranks to become Canada’s third largest metropolis with a period of rapid urban and economic expansion. However, post-1950, Winnipeg’s population and economic growth began to falter and by the 1970s, there were significant signs of worry that became obvious in the downtown and especially along Portage Avenue and Main Street.

Along these once storied streets, vacant shops, empty lots and loss of hope rang out against a economic landscape that had been silenced by disinvestment and changing times. For the downtown and many of the surrounding neighbourhoods, it was a tough blow to recover from, but Winnipeg was also known for its resiliency and the courage of key stakeholders willing to help.

What occurred during the 1970s in Winnipeg’s downtown mirrored what had been observed elsewhere as car-oriented suburban developments pulled people, retail and industry out of the central core and into outlying locations. By 1980, Winnipeg’s downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods were impacted by a significant set of challenges — weakened housing prices, changing retail landscape and loss of population. This was exacerbated by the growing economies in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta that attracted many Manitobans. Simple put, there were many years in the 1980s and onward when more people left Manitoba than returned.

This population shift and a struggling economy saw fewer investments into the downtown and served notice to all levels of government that an intervention was needed on a scale not attempted previously in Canada. A truly landmark effort in urban redevelopment launched with the Core Area Initiative (CAI) in 1980. The CAI brought together all three levels of government, along with community leaders to plan and execute the largest urban effort undertaken in a downtown in Canada and perhaps North America.

In principle, the CAI was a cost-shared tripartite effort that had each level of government commit equal levels of funding for just over a decade. While estimates vary, one might speculate government funding and private sector contributions totalled upwards of $1 billion or perhaps as much as $100 million per year for nearly a decade. This intervention would seed developments in the Exchange District, launch The Forks as well as the Portage Place complex (which included the residential towers and other adjacent development).

The CAI would be replaced by several smaller iterations over the years, lasting into the early 2000s. Generally speaking, Winnipeg’s downtown would be perhaps the only Canadian city to see a sustained tripartite effort extend 25 years, which remains unprecedented in the country.

There are many ways to interpret this scale of government support. For example, many argued government had no business subsidizing retails malls, renovating historic buildings or, for that matter, converting abandoned rail lands. In fact, one might ask why would the three levels of government spend well over $1 billion on such projects while also providing developers with subsidies to build loft conversions in abandoned warehouses in the Exchange District?

The other argument is that this early period of supported investment by government came at a time of desperation in a Prairie city that needed help and that similar investments in Granville Island in Vancouver and waterfront development in Toronto had also seen significant support from government.

A final thought is that perhaps this early investment by government to subsidize development helped leverage the greatest pivot in Winnipeg’s history since the boom of the early 1900s. Certainly, one might argue that the last 15 years in Winnipeg’s downtown has been the most prolific period of urban development, with billions invested in a model that has triggered business-led as opposed to government-subsidized investment.

Winnipeg’s downtown has come a long way from its earliest growth period and boom of the early 1900s to a quarter century of heavy state-led subsidy to the most recent urban renaissance. Today, the downtown is fast approaching 20,000 residents in a re-imagined landscape that has placed significant efforts into education, entertainment and commerce.

Lets not forget that we face another challenge. Now, more than ever, poverty and the crushing impact of deep addiction needs us all to think carefully and come together. While we have built condos, malls, parks and museums, it is time for a new phase of socially based investment that emphasizes people and not buildings. We need to approach this work with the same vigour that shaped this great Prairie city and help support those most in need by ending poverty.

— Jino Distasio, former director of the Institute of Urban Studies, is a professor of geography and vice-president or research and innovation at the University of Winnipeg

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