Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/9/2010 (2521 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"My city's still breathing -- but barely, it's true -- through buildings gone missing like teeth."
- The Weakerthans, Left And Leaving
When John K. Samson wrote the first few lines of one of The Weakerthans' most poignant songs, he was thinking about the Leland Hotel, which burned down at the edge of Old Market Square 11 winters ago.
For a decade, the southeast corner of William Avenue and King Street remained a patch of weeds and gravel. Sitting right across from city hall, it was a poignant emblem of decline, both for the Exchange District and downtown Winnipeg as a whole.
It's tough to feel good about your town when a vacant lot sits only metres away from the chamber where mayor and city council meet 10 times a year to pass legislation that's supposed to move the city forward.
Happily, this particular lot will soon have a new life as part of Red River College's adaptive re-use of the Union Bank Tower and the surrounding parcels of land.
But too many empty surface lots remain within mere blocks of city hall. And much of Winnipeg's sprawling downtown is used for little more than parking.
There's a very embarrassing empty lot just north of what's still known as the Canwest building, withinhurdling distance of the barricades at Portage and Main. There's an enticing empty lot southwest of MTS Centre. There's a very desirable empty lot across Waterfront Drive from the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Developers are eyeing all of these properties. But these vacant parcels remain that way because the City of Winnipeg makes it easy for them to sit and stagnate.
There are no tax incentives for property owners to build up their surface lot and no penalties for them if they fail to do so.
So speculators sit on empty lots, waiting for that key moment when they can best realize their profits -- or they continue to derive revenue from surface-parking operations.
Surface parking lots are not just ugly. They are a public safety problem. There are no people on these properties, most of the time, so they contribute to downtown's desolation.
Surface parking lots are also environmental nightmares. They allow unfiltered runoff to drain into our sewers and rivers.
Surface parking lots are also the chief contributor to the low density of the entire city, as the central core should be the most densely developed portion of Winnipeg.
On Friday, I asked the city's two leading mayoral candidates what they would do about surface parking lots and downtown density in general.
Challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis said the issue was important but insisted she would tell me more about it later in the campaign. I believe she believes this is important, but there are only four and a half weeks left before election day.
Incumbent Sam Katz, who promised to do something about surface lots last December, when city council approved the sale of the Winnipeg Square Parkade, was a little quicker on his feet.
He said he is helping to improve density by encouraging the development of the Fort Rouge Yards and the construction of a highrise apartment tower on Assiniboine Avenue. But he actually said nothing about surface lots, which is revealing.
Last year, he hinted he'd do something to urge developers to build up on these eyesores. So I asked him if surface lots should be taxed at their "highest and best use," which means charging their owners property taxes befitting of highrise buildings, not surface parking lots.
The mayor grimaced. One of the central issues of the Riverside Park Management affair was a city staffer's decision to assess a lot formerly used by the Winnipeg Goldeyes at its "highest and best use." Katz wasn't about to take the bait he pretty much laid out for himself.
The fact is, nobody at city hall is dealing with surface lots. Only quasi-governmental agencies are thinking about the issue.
Downtown development agency CentreVenture and The Forks-North Portage people would like to build more parkades. The Winnipeg Parking Authority had some ideas, but those won't be known until a long-delayed downtown parking study sees the light of day.
Outgoing parking authority boss Dave Hill may have annoyed some city councillors for getting out in front of issues, but the man knew what he was talking about -- the problem with downtown isn't a lack of parking, but the absence of the right kind of parking.
As Rob Galston and other urbanists have pointed out many times, you only need to spend a few seconds with Google Maps to see how downtown Winnipeg resembles a patchwork of unimproved gravel and concrete.
A simple carrot-and-stick approach could rectify the situation. Developers can and will do the right thing and are even willing to do so.
But if Winnipeg's leaders and would-be leaders couldn't care less, it sets the tone for the rest of the city.
That's why it took a decade to fill a surface lot mere metres from the city council speaker's chair. And that's why one of the most poignant songs ever written about Winnipeg is an elegy about decay.