Big is the word that most comes to mind when you look at the plans for True North Square.

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Opinion

Big is the word that most comes to mind when you look at the plans for True North Square.

Winnipeg’s newest high-impact real estate development slated for downtown features four towers stretching over two sites between Graham Avenue and St. Mary Avenue, kitty-corner to the MTS Centre.

It will feature big-time tenants (venerable law firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman; the Bank of Nova Scotia), a luxury hotel (luxury boutique chain Sutton Place) and hundreds of new condominiums.

At $400 million, it is arguably the single largest development in the history of downtown. You can’t get much bigger than that.

But what does it mean to the future of downtown? According to True North Sports & Entertainment, lead partner along with James Richardson & Sons Ltd., this project will do nothing less than transform downtown.

The marketing materials for True North Square, handed out Wednesday at a news conference, include the slogan, "Redefining the Heart of the City." At other times, it was described as the beginning "of a new era" of downtown development, "a game-changing move," "an iconic mixed-use development" and a new "epicentre" for the core.

It’s important to note that in real estate marketing, there is very little value in modest or sober language. Even so, those are pretty big claims to make in a city that traditionally resists all attempts at transformation.

To be clear, True North Square is a huge net benefit for downtown. It not only features a potent mix of development (retail, commercial, residential, hospitality) but also removes one of the downtown’s oldest surface parking lots and fills another lot (220 Carlton St.) that was vacant for nearly two years.

The benefits don’t end there. The addition of a luxury hotel dramatically improves the business plan for the new and expanded convention centre, just to the southwest of the development.

It’s a pretty impressive list of net benefits. All that does not mean, however, that we should attach the term "transformative" to the project. As most Winnipeggers will remember, we’ve made that mistake before.

Project proponents and elected officials for years have pushed the idea of "transformative" development on the city. From the North Portage Development to the MTS Centre, Red River College’s Princess Street downtown campus to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Manitoba Hydro headquarters, we’ve all heard how the next big project would transform downtown into a vibrant neighbourhood.

Each of those projects made a contribution to the betterment of downtown. However, none of them individually or collectively has pushed the downtown to that mythical tipping point where it becomes one of "the" places to be in Winnipeg.

With each new development, we have seen only modest growth in the total number of people who venture downtown. Even when one of those developments, such as the MTS Centre, does become a huge draw thanks to its calendar of professional sports and live music, we have watched as other activities and attractions downtown have suffered.

The result is that when the Exchange District is booming with the Fringe Festival, the area south of Portage Avenue and west of Main Street tends to suffer. When the Jets are in town or there’s a concert at the MTS Centre, restaurants around the arena are stuffed to overflowing, while just a few blocks away other eateries remain empty.

Mark Chipman, the president of True North Sports & Entertainment, is one of the most cautiously ambitious businessmen to break ground in Winnipeg. Even though it is his company that drafted the marketing hyperbole, in an interview Chipman softened expectations about what True North Square could achieve.

The bottom line? Chipman believes the development is the latest and perhaps biggest building block in a long-standing effort to transform downtown.

Chipman said he always denied the MTS Centre would be transformative on its own, but its success helped make the case for the return of NHL hockey. It inspired an array of mixed-use developments (many started by True North itself) around the arena that have drawn new tenants and filled or replaced some of the most neglected properties downtown.

"Today’s announcement is just another step in the right direction," Chipman said.

Listen carefully, and you might notice Chipman is redefining the whole notion of "catalyst." Now, a single project can be a catalyst for other projects, without having to bear the burden of being labelled a catalyst for downtown’s transformation.

That new context for "catalyst" should inspire city council to play off True North Square and start adding the smaller developments that could fully exploit the transformative potential of the bigger developments.

Recently, a group called StorefrontMB published a book based on Re-Imagining Winnipeg, a series of forums held in partnership with the Free Press at the News Café in the west Exchange District. At these forums, architects and planners presented their ideas on how to transform the downtown with ambitious, sometimes mind-bending developments.

What is most compelling about Re-Imagining Winnipeg is how many of the ideas are within reach. Although some are quite fantastic, others focus on the redevelopment of Exchange District alleys to create public markets, the closure of downtown streets to create pedestrian malls or dynamic outdoor art galleries.

These are not transformative developments, either. But they serve as connectors that give people a reason to traverse the space between the big. They are attractions that broaden the appeal of downtown as a place to visit anytime, rather than a place you go to for a specific event.

True North Square is not the solution to downtown woes in and of itself, but it will have earned its status as a catalyst if it encourages others to jump into the game.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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