Take one downtown, fill it with people

That’s the real recipe for revitalizing the core

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The next time I hear  somebody say downtown Winnipeg’s revitalization depends on the construction of a supermarket, I’m going to call the logic police to come and drag the offending intellect away.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2010 (4564 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The next time I hear  somebody say downtown Winnipeg’s revitalization depends on the construction of a supermarket, I’m going to call the logic police to come and drag the offending intellect away.

Ditto the (impossible) relocation of an IKEA store from the industrial outskirts of Tuxedo to the upper floors of The Bay at Portage and Memorial. Or the construction of a downtown water park for Ty Tran and Mayor Sam Katz to enjoy.

For some bizarre reason, there are intelligent people in this city who believe the best way to bring more people downtown is to first ensure anything but people exist downtown.

You’ve probably heard the arguments: “If only downtown had retail stores, like the old Eaton’s,” say nostalgic folks who somehow missed the memo about modern consumers preferring to shop at big-box stores and power centres.

“If only downtown had a Sobeys or a Superstore,” say suburbanites who don’t realize large grocers already exist in Chinatown and elsewhere — and more importantly, fail to realize downtown residents, like suburbanites, can simply drive five minutes to a Safeway somewhere else.

“If only there was somewhere for me and my kids to spend the day,” say parents who’ve forgotten they’ve spent at least one day at The Forks at some point.

“If only there was a place to spend an evening,” say adults who turn off the part of their cerebral cortex that stores the fact most of the city’s concerts, theatre productions and other cultural events already take place downtown.

Yes, downtown Winnipeg already has many attractions, some retailers and other amenities. And yes, downtown could use a few more.

But the only way this city’s oversized centre can lose its evening-and-weekend ghost town vibe is to apply the same economic principles that drive any other form of development: If people come first, everything else follows.

I’ve said it hundreds of times before, but the only thing downtown Winnipeg is missing are masses of Homo sapiens. Retail stores and cultural attractions are entirely supplemental.

If that sounds counter-intuitive, consider how generations of politicians have dealt with Winnipeg’s downtown. They built the civic centre/Centennial complex, which included a museum, planetarium and concert hall. They built Winnipeg Square and the weather-protected walkway system. They built Portage Place. They built The Forks, Canwest Park and MTS Centre. 

All these megaprojects contribute to downtown. Together, they attract tens of millions every year.

But none of these attractions keep people downtown after the game or the concert or the monster truck show ends. For that, you need actual human beings, living, sleeping, bathing, watching TV and eating Cheerios in downtown apartments and condominiums, which remain in ridiculously short supply.

The Exchange District, a national historic site packed with attractive stone buildings, remains ludicrously underdeveloped despite the fact it’s the first place many students, artists, young professionals and older empty nesters would choose to live in Winnipeg, if they could.

The reason for the inertia is simple. Development costs are so expensive, the gap between the initial investment and the long-term profit remains too great for all but the priciest condo developments. That’s why most of the recent Exchange condo projects come with price tags few people can afford.

And it’s also why the city and province — which are finally putting together a co-ordinated package of tax incentives for inner-city residential development — deserve to be smacked upside the head for taking so long.

Healthy neighbourhoods need not just people, but a wide variety of people: Wealthy and not so wealthy, young and old, Canadian-born and new to the People’s Republic of Harper.

But their numbers are the most important factor. Downtown simply needs more of them in order to achieve a critical mass of development, which will continue to involve a hodge-podge of small retailers, specialty stores, restaurants and clubs. 

(You want the big retailers back? Then find a time machine and visit 1946.)

In cities across North America, the infusion of human beings has quickly accomplished what megaprojects cannot: Revitalize entire inner-city neighbourhoods, one storefront or residential unit at a time.

Commercial development, retail stores and cultural attractions are not the answer. They’re just the gravy. Government incentives that allow private developers to build places for the people who want to live downtown is the only way to go.

This is starting to happen. The invisible hands of Adam Smith just need a little help from the visible pen-strokes of Greg Selinger and Sam Katz.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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