New hope for troubled Alexander Docks

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It has always struck me as ironic that in a place dubbed River City, Winnipeggers get precious little access to the rivers.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/02/2018 (1745 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It has always struck me as ironic that in a place dubbed River City, Winnipeggers get precious little access to the rivers.

There are lots of homes with riverfront lots. And a few spots where Winnipeggers can recreate along the river, such as The Forks Market and marina. However, the majority of city dwellers only come into contact with the Red and Assiniboine rivers when they are driving over one of the bridges that span the waterways.

For a variety of reasons — some to do with urban planning, others related to the natural qualities of the rivers — we just don’t have a lot of opportunities to enjoy these waterways the way other cities do. At least, that’s true in the summer; in the winter, Winnipeggers flock to skate on the rivers and snap photos of the internationally acclaimed warming huts.

A new design competition seeks innovative ideas to develop the desolate, fenced-off area that is the Alexander Docks. (Winnipeg Free Press file photo)

That says something about a city when you can’t really enjoy the rivers until they are frozen solid. But I digress.

There is progress being made, particularly in the East Exchange District, which has arguably the greatest potential as a point of public access to the Red River.

The Forks Market continues to grow in popularity, and the development along Waterfront Drive on the west side of the Red River has not slowed. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Esplanade Riel bridge, both tucked into a bend in the Red, continue to serve as the picture-postcard image of the city.

Farther north, there is the architecturally intriguing Mere Hotel and accompanying Cibo restaurant, and wonderful bike paths and parks fronting the new condominium developments that continue to snake north and consume more and more of this historically neglected riverfront thoroughfare.

Even some of the most stubborn development challenges in the East Exchange have shown signs of progress.

The city and developers are still haggling over the finer details of a $20-million redevelopment plan for the 106-year-old James Avenue pumping station. Even so, it is believed that the new project, which will see residential units built alongside the magnificent century-old brick facade of the original pumping station, will eventually come to fruition.

That does not mean there is progress on every front. There are still some elements of the East Exchange that have defied our better efforts at redevelopment — such as the Alexander Docks.

Until a couple of years ago, the docks were used as the launching point for commercial river cruise boats. However, for many Winnipeggers, the Alexander Docks are a place of infamy. Historically, the docks have served as the location for many after-shift drinking parties for Winnipeg police officers. It was also a place that for many years was widely rumoured to be used to “extract” confessions from certain criminals.

Even today, with much of the surrounding area of the East Exchange fully gentrified or on its way, the docks cannot escape its reputation as a stage for pain and suffering.

In daily reports from the Raymond Cormier murder trial, we are reminded the body of Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old Cormier is accused of killing, was found wrapped in a duvet cover and floating in the Red River near the Alexander Docks. This grim image reminds us the docks remain a tiny island of negativity in an area that has seen such positive growth and evolution.

Thankfully, that could be changing. A new design competition organized by a group of Winnipeg architects and supported by a number of private and public entities — including the Manitoba Association of Architects, CentreVenture, The Forks and the Exchange District BIZ, along with a number of architectural firms — is attempting to broaden the vision for the docks and how it could contribute to the future of the downtown.

Aaron Pollock, an architect with Number Ten Architectural Group, said On the Docks is a design competition open to just about anyone — design professionals and the public — with an idea on how to redevelop the Alexander Docks. The competition will be launched in late February and submissions will be accepted until late April.

Anyone interested in participating can obtain a template drawing of the Alexander Docks and sketch or otherwise superimpose their design ideas on top. A jury will examine the submissions and produce a short list of design ideas that will be showcased in a series of public exhibitions.

Although no one is committing to acting on any of the winning ideas, Pollock hopes the competition will show people, including some developers and the city, a broad range of possibilities. Opening up the competition to the public should ensure that a broader range of ideas and considerations come into play.

“I think we realize that for a number of reasons, this just hasn’t been a priority for everyone,” Pollock said. “This competition should be able to give a voice to people, including the general public, so that we can see what this could be.”

The actual redevelopment of the docks will not be an easy task, Pollock said. The cost of dismantling the remnants of the existing docks is actually quite expensive, largely because of the deep, concrete piles that were used to support the deck. “As is the case with everything, it will come down to money. And right now, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of money to devote to this project.”

And yet, Pollock argued, with all the other positive things happening around the docks, it’s becoming more and more obvious that something needs to be done. On that point, he’s not wrong.

The Alexander Docks are not just an eyesore. They are a reminder of an ugly, unruly period in Winnipeg’s history, when the East Exchange was a place where bad things could be done under cover of darkness. The Tina Fontaine slaying reminds us that even with all of the great new development around it, it remains a place where tragedy still finds a home.

It deserves to be noted that there was a time when the James Avenue pumping station was seen as the project that defied redevelopment. Now that it’s fully underway, it’s a reminder that we can do anything if we’re motivated enough to shed the ugliness of the past in search of a better future.

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.

History

Updated on Saturday, February 17, 2018 9:11 AM CST: Headline changed

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