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Rapid transit is a hot topic in Winnipeg these days (these days having begun in the 1990s and continued ad nauseum up to now).  But personally, I worry that we’re not investing in rapid transit for the right reasons.

Transportation is based on the idea that a person needs to get from one place to another, and the biggest reason that there are so many different forms of transportation is because there are many different places that people need to go.  If you’re heading to Mars, you won’t be taking a bicycle, and it would be silly to build a rocket to get to the local park.  And if you live in East St. Paul, you generally expect to use a car for at least one leg of each trip into Winnipeg.

Some Winnipeggers work in industrial parks or at out-of-the-way workplaces in the suburbs, including schools or in other people’s homes.  In such cases, it’s expected that public transit to those places will be less convenient than to those places that receive a large number of workers, such as shopping malls, universities, or downtown Winnipeg.  So any rapid transit solution will logically exclude most industrial parks and thinly-populated suburbs, and focus on major routes and work centres.

In order to know where rapid transit is needed, it’s important to know how “not rapid” existing transit is.  Here is a quick sample of transit times to downtown from neighbourhoods that are fortunate enough to have direct bus routes:

1.    East side of Transcona to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 40-43 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 45-48 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 41-44 minutes

2.    Charleswood  to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 49-56 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 48-54 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 47-56  minutes

3.    Westwood to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 42-48 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 51-58 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 50-57 minutes

4.    North Kildonan to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 33-37 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 38 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 30-36 minutes

These times can increase significantly when your point of origin is off the main routes; this is the last mile problem, as it becomes far less efficient to bring buses out to the far points of the suburbs to access the last houses at the edge of the neighbourhood.  Assuming that these last mile people will be expected to either be very exact in their timing for a commute on the rare feeder bus or drive their care for the first leg of their trip, we focus on main routes for rapid transit.

The biggest problem with rapid transit is that once it’s built, there’s no guarantee that the level of use will justify the expense of construction.  This is a possible problem with our current rapid transit project.  The rapid transit corridor from downtown to the University of Manitoba may cut travel times by ten minutes each way; assuming a base time of 35 minutes from Downtown to U of M by bus, we can estimate a 25 minute trip to the university using bus rapid transit.  For the average student in Transcona, Charleswood, or Westwood, the trip could be brought down from 70 minutes to an hour.  Will that be enough for a significant number of students to abandon their cars and parking passes in exchange for a bus pass?  I don’t think it will.  So is the investment worthwhile?

In the other direction, there will be people from South Winnipeg who will be able to use the busway  to get downtown.  From St. Norbert to downtown is around 40-45 minutes by bus, so this could be reduced to 30-35 minutes.  However, this assumes that the commuter lives right on the bus route; the last mile could add 10-15 minutes of walking time to this trip, instead of a couple of minutes by car.  Again, it’s hard to believe that a faster bus with fewer stops will increase ridership by enough to justify the expense.

So if we can’t guarantee that rapid transit will increase ridership, why are we building it?  Is it simply because we want to hop on the bandwagon?  Is this a way to fill the void from when the Jets left?

The truth is, rapid transit does not remove the reliance on cars that exists in the single-family homes of suburban areas; even people who take the bus to work, such as myself, still use cars for other trips within or between suburbs.  When I need to buy groceries in East Kildonan, I either walk to the Sobeys or I drive to Superstore.  Taking the bus doesn’t even enter into my mind, even though if I time it right I can leave at 9:00pm and get to Superstore by 9:15.   That’s my window, and as long as I’m willing to wait until 10:20pm to catch the bus back home, it can work. That’s because I live right next to Henderson Hwy and McLeod Ave, which are both bus routes.  If I’m too lazy to look up bus times to get to Superstore and to wait for the return bus (and miss the Daily Show at 10pm), how can I expect someone who lives further away from bus routes to give up their car?

I do not believe that we will see a large reduction in the number of cars in Winnipeg over the next fifty years; what I do envision is far more efficient cars, including plug-in hybrids that may never see a gas station, along with flex fuel and electric cars.  If downtown populations rebound, we may see a higher percentage of Winnipeggers who live downtown and choose not to keep a car, but that won’t mean that suburbanites are going to send their cars to the auto wrecker.

If the success of rapid transit is based on seeing significant numbers of residents from Winnipeg suburbs (as they are today) abandon their cars in favour of public transportation, it will not do the job.  Either rapid transit is a bad idea at this time, or the goal of rapid transit needs to be something other than simply getting single-family home suburbanites out of their cars and onto the bus.

So let’s look for positive ways of making rapid transit work:

Increase density along rapid transit routes

This is part of the city’s plan for rapid transit, including a future Ikea spur along Sterling Lyon that passes through the home of the Parker Avenue land swap.  The idea is that greenspace and brownfields will be converted to mixed-use developments, including apartments and condos.  The residents of these buildings will have a real choice of whether or not they want to own a car, because they could take the busways to work (assuming they work in a serviced area, such as downtown), and they could buy their essentials at stores in and around the new development.  The University of Manitoba will also be building their own developments on the former Southwood golf course, which will be located close to the second stage of the busway currently under construction.  In theory, a good rapid transit system will result in higher density along the route(s), and this does happen in other cities, so it could happen in Winnipeg if the municipal and provincial governments actually work towards that goal; the province has a history of working against a denser Winnipeg, with initiatives such as Waverley West and their most recent plan to replace industry in Point Douglas with parkland rather than an expanded residential community.

This idea is better for the tax base and the environment than more sprawl, but is not as good as downtown residential development.  It makes little sense to build all of our new residential towers in far-flung suburbs when there are acres upon acres of space within our core area.  I would like to see more effort put into expanding residential development downtown before we see transit spurs out to empty fields.

Develop a downtown transit system

Actually, Winnipeg already has a downtown transit system called the Winnipeg Walkway System or Winnipeg Skywalk.  It’s for walking only, so it can be a long trip from one end to the other with groceries or library books.  The walkway connects from The Bay along Memorial Blvd all the way to the Grain Exchange Building in the Exchange District.  There are also two shorter Skywalk systems along St. Mary Ave that are not joined to the main system.  It would take approximately 25 minutes to walk from the Exchange District to The Bay, and the entire trip would be indoors.  This walkway system could be expanded to reach the Convention Centre, Union Station, the Manitoba Legislature, and even City Hall and the Centennial Centre underground.

In addition, the walkway system could be enhanced by the addition of a lightweight automated transit system.  This system could be low-fare like Detroit, or completely free as in downtown Miami.  A single line bidirectional guideway with loops at either end could run from Fort Street, along Graham Mall/Avenue to The Bay, and then south to the Legislature and the Osborne Street bridge.  The guideway and rolling stock would cost around $100 million.  A downtown loop, also reaching Centennial Centre, Union Station, and the University of Winnipeg, would cost around $150 million.  It would then be possible to create an Osborne route extending to the busway under development or to replace the busway with a uniform system.  (The Osborne-University route would cost an additional $200 million.)  None of these estimates include property acquisition, which could add from $10 to $50 million to each concept, but mostly for loading platforms, as the guideways themselves would fit over existing sidewalks and streets.

This automated transit system would consist of rubber wheels on a concrete guideway, which would reduce noise and would be cleared of snow and other obstructions by a specially-equipped sweeper/plow car.  This transit system would be elevated for the most part, but would have much smaller pillars than would be required for a light rail system.  This is an important consideration, because Winnipeg’s architecture would not be blocked by large elevated platforms.  The loading platforms would be built into the existing walkway system where possible, sometimes floating above the street with ample clearance for trucks.  The walkway and transitway would complement each other, which would give both systems better coverage of downtown.

If fare is collected, it would be done through smartcards, with cards being available for purchase through vending machines throughout the walkway system.  This would mean that the loading platforms would require a minimal amount of space, reducing property acquisition/leasing costs.

Park and ride, kiss and ride

Park and ride areas in Winnipeg usually consist of parking spaces leased from shopping centres and other businesses, including Garden City, McPhillips Street Station Casino, Kildonan Place, and the Whyte Ridge Shopping Centre.  A new park and ride is the Taylor Park & Ride, which includes electrical outlets and costs $3/day or $32/month; it also has its own bus route to downtown, the 39 Taylor Park & Ride.  This concept was designed in part to encourage workers from Manitoba Hydro to take the bus from their former workplace on Taylor, rather than driving downtown.

Park and ride stations with guaranteed parking and electrical outlets are a good way to tempt suburban commuters, but the 80 available stalls at Taylor Avenue won’t be enough to make a big difference in ridership.  By looking at the traffic flow map of Winnipeg, we can deduce good locations for serviced park and ride.

It looks as though many of the existing park and ride locations are well-placed, and could support expansion of park and ride facilities.  Stalls with electrical outlets could be developed for paid parking, and improved heated shelters could be constructed, perhaps with vending machines and a lounge area.  Basically, any shelter at a park and ride bus stop should be able to pass the book test: a good shelter should be comfortable enough that a passenger with a book will be happy to pull it out and start reading.  This means a well-heated and well-lit shelter with comfortable seating; as part of a pad site leasing agreement, shopping centre security could monitor the shelter if available, or Transit could hire a separate security monitoring service.  In addition, the shelter would be equipped with security cameras and a panic button.

Better incentives in transit fares

The majority of city council seems to be opposed to reducing bus fare, favouring the idea of subsidies for lower income users.  For me, high bus fares are a big part of why I don’t take the bus more often.  As part of my lifestyle and family situation, we have chosen to have a car; because this decision has been made, we already pay significant transportation expenses, including a lease payment, car insurance, and licenses for two drivers.  On Fridays, my wife and daughter sometimes pick me up from work so that we can go out together; at other times, appointments may result in me being picked up instead of taking the bus.  Because of this, I find that every week I use between 7 and 9 bus tickets, which means that I spend less money on tickets than I would on a bus pass.  I could decide to buy the monthly pass, but that would require 36 trips to break even.  This December, I probably won’t even reach 25 trips due to Christmas vacation, while in summer I try to ride my bike at least some of the time.

Winnipeg Transit is planning to move to Smart Cards in the next year or so; if this happens, it’s a great opportunity to reward transit usage with dynamic fare reductions based on frequency.  Here’s how such a system could work: I sign up for a smart card, and either hook it up to a credit card, or choose to load a balance onto the card up front (with the ability to load additional funds).  The first number of trips would cost approximately the full cost of a ticket, while subsequent trips would gradually reduce that fare until it reached the monthly pass level, at which point the trips would be free or at a minimum floor price.  (Transfers would be automatic within a time frame; after a certain lapse time, the transfer would expire, and a new fare would be charged.)

Here is one such breakdown based on 2010 fares:

Trips 1 – 10: $2.25    10 trips/month: $22.50
Trips 10-20: $2.00    20 trips/month: $42.50
Trips 20-30: $1.75    30 trips/month: $60.00
Trips 30-40: $1.50    40 trips/month: $75.00
Trips 40+: FREE

This fare breakdown gives commuters an incentive to use the bus for other trips, but does not penalize commuters who don’t take the bus every day.  Serviced park and ride access could be handled the same way.  For bus users who don’t want to worry about loading funds or using a credit card, they would be able to bring their card to a participating merchant at the start of the month to pay their $75 monthly bus pass fee, and can be pleasantly surprised once in a while to see that they have a small credit from the month before.

There are other benefits that smart cards can bring, including different fares for different routes and different times of day; express routes could cost more than regular routes, and evening bus travel could cost less than daytime in an attempt at putting more riders on the bus during off-peak times.

Transit improvements for the right reasons

Diamond lanes have not been popular with many Winnipeg drivers, and there are valid arguments that there isn’t enough benefit to buses to justify the increased road congestion on some routes.  In addition, while the updated transit signs and improved shelters are nice to have, they are not likely to change hardwired commuter patterns.

Priority in transit improvements should go to items that have the best chance of increasing ridership as long as basic updates for maintaining existing ridership aren’t neglected.  Transit should continue its pursuit of SmartCards, and should continue to expand and improve Park and Ride.  The City of Winnipeg should spend more effort on transit-oriented development, with more emphasis placed on downtown instead of suburban areas.

These efforts will give us more transit riders, even if we still have plenty of cars on the road; if we’re lucky, we’ll see less cars per person as our city grows.

There’s plenty of work to be done to make that happen.  For one thing, lazy people like me should really start to think about using the bus a few more times a month, or at least fixing our flat bike tires in time for spring.

Winnipeg’s Public TransportationRapid transit is a hot topic in Winnipeg these days (these days having begun in the 1990s and continued ad nauseum until today.  But there is a secret to Winnipeg’s current transit system that isn’t mentioned often enough: our transit is already pretty quick for a significant number of Winnipeggers.

Transportation is based on the idea that a person needs to get from one place to another, and the biggest reason that there are so many different forms of transportation is because there are many different places that people need to go.  If you’re heading to Mars, you won’t be taking a bicycle, and it would be silly to build a rocket to get to the local park.  If you live in East St. Paul, you generally expect to use a car for at least one leg of each trip into Winnipeg.

Some Winnipeggers work in industrial parks or at out-of-the-way workplaces in the suburbs, including schools or in other people’s homes.  In such cases, it’s expected that public transit to those places will be less convenient than to those places that receive a large number of workers, such as shopping malls, universities, or downtown Winnipeg.  So any rapid transit solution will logically exclude industrial parks and thinly-populated suburbs, and focus on major routes and work centres.

Here is a quick sample of transit times to downtown from neighbourhoods that are fortunate enough to have direct bus routes:

1.    East side of Transcona to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 40-43 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 45-48 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 41-44 minutes

2.    Charleswood  to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 49-56 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 48-54 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 47-56  minutes

3.    Westwood to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 42-48 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 51-58 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 50-57 minutes

4.    North Kildonan to Downtown (Portage and Main)
Morning (rush hour): 33-37 minutes
Mid-day (after lunch and before rush hour): 38 minutes
Evening (around 10pm): 30-36 minutes

These times can increase significantly when your point of origin is off the main routes; this is the last mile problem, as it becomes far less efficient to bring buses out to the far points of the suburbs.  Assuming that these last mile people will be expected to either time their commute well or drive their care for the first leg of their trip, we would concentrate on routes such as these for rapid transit.

The biggest problem with rapid transit is that once it’s built, there’s no guarantee that the level of use will justify the expense of construction.  The rapid transit corridor from downtown to the University of Manitoba may cut travel times by ten minutes each way.  Assuming a base time of 35 minutes from Downtown to U of M by bus, we can estimate a 25 minute trip to the university using bus rapid transit

So for the average student in Transcona, Charleswood, or Westwood, the trip could be brought down from 70 minutes to an hour.  Will that be enough for a significant number of students to abandon their cars and parking passes in exchange for a bus pass?  I don’t think it will.

In the other direction, there will be people from South Winnipeg who will be able to use the busway  to get downtown.  From St. Norbert to downtown is around 40-45 minutes by bus, so this could be reduced to 30-35 minutes.  However, this assumes that the commuter lives right on the bus route; the last mile could add 10-15 minutes of walking time to this trip, instead of a couple of minutes by car.  Again, it’s hard to believe that a faster bus with fewer stops will increase ridership by enough to justify the expense.

So if we can’t guarantee that rapid transit will increase ridership, why are we building it?  Is it simply because we want to hop on the bandwagon?  Is this a way to fill the void from when the Jets left?

The truth is, rapid transit does not remove the reliance on cars that exists in suburban areas; even people who take the bus to work, such as myself, still use cars for other trips in the suburbs.  When I need to buy groceries in East Kildonan, I either walk to the Sobeys or I drive to Superstore.  Taking the bus doesn’t even enter into my mind, even though if I time it right I can leave at 9:00pm and get to Superstore by 9:15.   That’s my window, and as long as I’m willing to wait until 10:20 to catch the bus back home, it can work. That’s because I live right next to Henderson Hwy and McLeod Ave, which are both bus routes.  If I’m too lazy to look up bus times to get to Superstore and to wait for the return bus (and miss the Daily Show at 10pm), how can I expect someone who lives away from any bus routes to give up their car?

I do not believe that we will see a large reduction in the number of cars in Winnipeg over the next fifty years; what I do envision is far more efficient cars, including plug-in hybrids that may never see a gas station along with flex fuel and electric cars.  If urban populations rebound, we may see a higher percentage of Winnipeggers who live downtown and choose not to keep a car, but that won’t mean that suburbanites are going to send their cars to the wrecker.

If the success of rapid transit is based on seeing significant numbers of residents from Winnipeg suburbs abandon their cars in favour of public transportation, it will not succeed.  Either rapid transit is a bad idea at this time, or the goal of rapid transit needs to be something other than increasing overall suburban ridership.

So let’s leave the concept of failure for a while, and look for positive ways of making rapid transit work:

Increase density along rapid transit routes

This is part of the city’s plan for rapid transit, including the Ikea spur along Sterling Lyon that passes through the home of the Parker Avenue land swap.  The idea is that greenspace and brownfields will be converted to mixed-use developments, including apartments and condos.  The residents of these buildings will have a real choice of whether or not they want to own a car, because they would take the busways to work (assuming they work in a serviced area, such as downtown), and they would buy their essentials at stores in and around the new development.  The University of Manitoba will also be building their own transit-oriented developments on the former Southwood golf course, which will be located close to the second stage of the busway currently under construction.

This idea is better for the tax base and the environment than more sprawl, but is not as good as downtown residential development.  I would like to see more effort put into expanding residential development downtown before we see spurs out to empty fields.

Develop a downtown transit system

Actually, Winnipeg already has a downtown transit system called the Winnipeg Walkway System or Winnipeg Skywalk.  It’s for walking only, so it can be a long trip from one end to the other with groceries or library books.  The walkway connects from The Bay along Memorial Blvd all the way to the Grain Exchange Building in the Exchange District.  There are also two shorter Skywalk systems along St. Mary Ave that are not joined to the main system.  It would take approximately 25 minutes to walk from the Exchange District to The Bay, and the entire trip would be indoors.  This walkway system could be expanded to reach the Convention Centre, Union Station, the Manitoba Legislature, and even City Hall and the Centennial Centre underground.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnipeg_Walkway
http://www.mtscentre.ca/location/directions.php

In addition, the walkway system could be enhanced by the addition of a lightweight automated transit system.  This system could be low-fare like Detroit, or completely free as in downtown Miami.  A single line bidirectional guideway with loops at either end could run from Fort St, along Graham Mall/Avenue to The Bay, and then south to the Legislature and Osborne Street bridge.  The guideway and rolling stock would cost around $100 million.  A downtown loop, also reaching Centennial Centre, Union Station, and the University of Winnipeg, would cost around $150 million.  It would then be possible to create an Osborne route extending to the busway under development or to replace the busway with a uniform system.  (The Osborne-University route would cost an additional $200 million.)  None of these estimates include property acquisition, which could add up to $50 million to each concept, but only for loading platforms, as the guideways themselves would fit over existing sidewalks and streets.

This automated transit system would consist of rubber wheels on a concrete guideway, which would reduce noise and which could be cleared of snow and other obstructions by a specially-equipped sweeper/plow car.  This transit system would be elevated for the most part, but would have much smaller pillars than would be required for a light rail system.  This is an important consideration, because Winnipeg’s architecture is too important to be blocked by large elevated platforms.  The loading platforms would be built into the existing walkway system where possible, sometimes floating above the street with ample clearance for trucks.  The walkway and transitway would complement each other, which would give both systems far better coverage of downtown.

If fare is collected, it would be done through smartcards, with cards being available for purchase through vending machines throughout the walkway system.  This would mean that the loading platforms would require a minimal amount of space, reducing property acquisition/leasing costs.

Park and ride, kiss and ride

Park and ride areas in Winnipeg usually consist of parking spaces leased from shopping centres and other businesses, including Garden City, McPhillips Street Station Casino, Kildonan Place, and the Whyte Ridge Shopping Centre.  A new park and ride is the Taylor Park & Ride, which includes electrical outlets and costs $3/day or $32/month; it also has its own bus route to downtown, the 39 Taylor Park & Ride.  This concept was designed in part to encourage workers from Manitoba Hydro to take the bus from their former workplace on Taylor, rather than driving downtown.

Click to access PandR-map-oct2009.pdf


Click to access 39_Taylor.pdf

Park and ride stations with guaranteed parking and electrical outlets are a good way to tempt suburban commuters, but the 80 available stalls at Taylor Avenue won’t be enough to make a big difference in ridership.  By looking at the traffic flow map of Winnipeg, we can deduce good locations for serviced park and ride.

Click to access 2008TrafficFlow.pdf

It looks as though many of the existing park and ride locations are well-placed, and could support expansion of park and ride facilities.  Stalls with electrical outlets could be developed for paid parking, and improved heated shelters could be constructed, perhaps with vending machines and a lounge area.  Basically, any shelter at a park and ride bus stop should be able to pass the book test: a good shelter should be comfortable enough that a passenger with a book will be happy to pull it out and start reading.  This means a well-heated and well-lit shelter with comfortable seating; as part of a pad site leasing agreement, shopping centre security could monitor the shelter if available, or Transit could hire a separate security monitoring service.  In addition, the shelter would be equipped with security cameras and a panic button.

Better incentives in transit fares

The majority of city council seems to be opposed to reducing bus fare, favouring the idea of subsidies for lower income users.  For me, high bus fares are a big part of why I don’t take the bus more often.  As part of my lifestyle and family situation, we have chosen to have a car; because this decision has been made, we already pay significant transportation expenses, including a lease payment, car insurance, and licenses for two drivers.  On Fridays, my wife and daughter sometimes pick me up from work so that we can go out together; at other times, appointments may result in me being picked up instead of taking the bus.  Because of this, I find that every week I use between 7 and 9 bus tickets, which means that I spend less money on tickets than I would on a bus pass.  I could decide to buy the monthly pass, but that would require 36 trips to break even.  This December, I probably won’t even reach 25 trips due to Christmas vacation, while in summer I try to ride my bike at least some of the time.

Winnipeg Transit is planning to move to Smart Cards in the next year or so; if this happens, it’s a great opportunity to reward transit usage with dynamic fare reductions based on frequency.  Here’s how such a system could work: I sign up for a smart card, and either hook it up to a credit card, or choose to load a balance onto the card up front (with the ability to load additional funds).  The first number of trips would cost the full cost of a ticket, while subsequent trips would gradually reduce that fare until it reached the monthly pass level, at which point the trips would be free or at a minimum floor price.  (Transfers would be automatic within a time frame; after a certain lapse time, the transfer would expire, and a new fare would be charged.)

Here is one such breakdown based on 2010 fares:

Trips 1 – 10: $2.25    10 trips/month: $22.50
Trips 10-20: $2.00      20 trips/month: $42.50
Trips 20-30: $1.75    30 trips/month: $60.00
Trips 30-40: $1.50    40 trips/month: $75.00
Trips 40+: FREE

This fare breakdown gives commuters an incentive to use the bus for other trips, but does not penalize commuters who don’t take the bus every day.  Serviced park and ride access could be handled the same way.  For bus users who don’t want to worry about loading funds or using a credit card, they would be able to bring their card to a participating merchant at the start of the month to pay their $75 monthly bus pass fee, and can be pleasantly surprised one in a while to see that they have a small credit from the month before.

There are other benefits that smart cards can bring, including different fares for different routes and different times of day; express routes could cost more than regular routes, and evening bus travel could cost less than daytime in an attempt at putting more riders on the bus during off-peak times.

Transit improvements for the right reasons

Diamond lanes have not been popular with many Winnipeg drivers, and there are valid arguments that there isn’t enough benefit to buses to justify the increased road congestion on some routes.  In addition, while the updated transit signs and improved shelters are nice to have, they are not likely to change hardwired commuter patterns.

Priority in transit improvements should go to items that have the best chance of increasing ridership as long as basic updates for maintaining existing ridership aren’t neglected.  Transit should continue its pursuit of SmartCards, and should continue to expand and improve Park and Ride.  The City of Winnipeg should spend more effort on transit-oriented development, with more emphasis placed on downtown instead of suburban areas.  And lazy people like me should really start to think about using the bus a few more times a month, or at least fixing our flat bike tires in time for spring.

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Q: What do pet adoption rates tell us about our economy?

A: It tells us quite a bit more than we get from stats on consumer spending or consumer confidence.

If I were to buy a TV or even a car, it could be for one of two reasons:
a.    I need a TV/Car
b.    Wouldn’t it be cool to have the latest/fanciest TV/Car?  I’m going to buy one!

You could argue that people who NEED an item would not be buying the newest or best example of that item, but that’s not always true.  When we needed a car because the last one was attacked by a falling tree, we didn’t buy the cheapest used one available; we found a more expensive one, because it had the features that we had been without with the last car.  Yes, we have to pay every month for it, but we decided that we wanted a safe car to take our daughter places that aren’t particularly bus-accessible (or for when we have a case of the lazies).  So we would have bought some kind of new or almost-new car, and we didn’t feel that economic circumstances could bring us to a different result.

When we finally buy a new TV (we’ve lost three in the past year, and have been taking other people’s TVs to our palliative care facility), it won’t be the cheapest; it’ll be the one that best fits in our living room (probably 32 or 36 inches).   And with the TV, we’ll buy it once, and that’ll be it.  We won’t be financing it or leasing it, so we don’t need to worry if we’ll have money to make payments in three months.

Pet adoption is a different story.  Adopting a pet is a commitment to take responsibility for another life.  If money is tight, or a family is worried about keeping their jobs, adopting a pet will seem like a luxury they can’t afford.  At least that’s my assumption, since pet shelters are overflowing with animals, and adoptions are nowhere near keeping pace.

When I read in the paper that consumer confidence is up or that Christmas retail sales are at a good level, it doesn’t say nearly as much as when I hear that many pet shelters can’t take any new animals and that foster families are maxed out.  That information, coupled with the personal stories of bankruptcy that are becoming far more common, tells me that we’re still in the middle of this economic downturn.  And Manitoba has not escaped the effects; we’re just seeing them happen in slow motion compared to our friends in other provinces, and as transfer payments are slashed, it’ll take us longer than our neighbours to recover.

And following that uplifting anecdote…

Q: Why is downtown parking becoming the polarizing debate of our time?

A: People seem to have deluded themselves into thinking that parking is the core issue of downtown revitalization.

I know that parking is an important part of the character of our downtown, and I don’t like staring at surface parking lots or the WRHA’s tribute to urban decline on Main Street.  But realistically, I know that the city will continue to worship parking, just as I do between Christmas and Easter, and fighting downtown parking is like chaining yourself to the McDonalds at the Louvre to protest the lack of McRibs while museum staff is busy painting a bra onto the Venus de Milo.

There are two issues in downtown that turn parking into a boneless pork patty: historic preservation and residential growth.  I agree that surface lots don’t disappear when parkades are built, particularly when surface lots are left intact while adjacent historic buildings are torn down to make space for new parking; I know many people who will gladly exchange a bus pass for a parking spot if supply outstrips demand and prices start to drop.  Personally, I like the idea of incentives for surface lot redemption, to be followed after several years by a surface parking levy to finance further incentives.  In addition, it should be made impossible for ANY structurally sound building to be replaced with a parking structure or surface lot as long as there are existing surface lots on the same block.

But that doesn’t mean that parkades should be banned, or that all surface lot owners should have to pay five times the taxes because “there ought to be a building there”.  If they want to put a parkade in the East Exchange, I wouldn’t stand in their way if:
a.    No existing buildings are demolished
b.    Street-level commercial space is incorporated into the parkade
c.    The architectural design of the parkade is deemed acceptable by city council

Obviously, in a perfect world, I would put far stricter requirements on the construction of parkades in the Exchange District; one item I’d love to add is that construction materials for the building façade should come from reclaimed brick, but I don’t think that’s realistic in our current political environment.  As with everything else, city council will not back the Exchange District 100% until they are utterly convinced of just how valuable the area is.  I find it strange that the East Side of Lake Winnipeg is considered UNESCO-worthy by the province, but the Exchange District is left to be demolished one building at a time.

Why is it that a provincial park around Fisher Bay is touted as being worth $38 million, while the Exchange District, a national historic site, is completely ignored?  Do our governments have no concept of how much that neighbourhood is worth, or how much potential it has?  In the words of Councillor O’Shaughnessy: “The debate is getting lower and lower and lower. Please don’t compare this building or even our whole exchange district with the walled city of Quebec.”   Because the Exchange District will have no historical value no matter how old it gets,  we should replace it with parkades while financing is cheap.

And lastly…

Q: Why do NDP apologists feel the need to defend every action by every member of the Manitoba government?

A: Because it seems to work?  Does it?

I understand the idea of supporting your party; I even launched an incredibly successful fundraising campaign for the Manitoba Liberals: Help Block Out PC Websites! (as of today, only 6% behind the Progressive Conservative Fundraising Campaign!)

But sometimes, the men and women of your political party make mistakes.  I won’t list any Liberal mistakes, but I will admit (shockingly) that mistakes have been made.  If bloggers such as Never Eat Yellow Snow and Just Damn Stupid were to focus on defending more defensible actions on the part of the NDP, wouldn’t people be more convinced that their points of view have merit?

Note: I do apologize if any of my past actions mixed with this post now warrant a BlockReganHypocrisy.ca.

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Update: Moonlight Movies will happen at 9:30pm on Thursday and Friday night (July 30th and 31st) at Old Market Square.  more info…

Background:

This has been a very busy summer for me, and I think the pace is accelerating.  What started as a few outings a week has become a marathon of summer activities.  My daughter has been even busier than I have, having gone out to somewhere exciting almost every single day since June.  She’s gone to the zoo a couple of times this summer, to the Children’s Museum, to Folk Fest, to Kids Fest… she actually missed the kids shows at Fringe due to scheduling conflicts; my 16-month old daughter has more scheduling conflicts than I’ve ever had.  This past weekend we had Ballet in the Park, Sesame Street Live, a social gathering, strawberry picking, a beach visit, a farm visit, and a family dinner.  Coming in August: Folklorama, a trip to another beach, a trip to the Whiteshell, and perhaps a return visit to Hecla (her third trip to the island).  This in addition to her trips down Corydon, in the Exchange, to the Forks, to the dog park, etc.

Even if I took every day off for the rest of the summer, I don’t think we’d be able to show my daughter everything we’d like her to see in and around Winnipeg.  ChrisD.ca just reminded me via Twitter about the Winnipeg Beach boardwalk; we haven’t been there at all this year.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to talk about some of these jewels of Winnipeg.  I won’t focus on their history or take any photos, because there are already some very good people doing just that (Mr. Christian, Bryan Scott).  But I’ll talk about what’s happening now, what we’ll hopefully see in the near future, and I’ll mention the hazards ahead.

Rorie Street – from Bryan Scott, Winnipeg: Love and Hate

Jewel #1: The Exchange District

The Exchange District is North America’s most extensive collection of turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, and is also a place that is becoming livelier by the day.  New businesses are moving in, more residents are on their way, and the cultural events keep growing.  There are many jewels in Winnipeg, but the Exchange District is the jewel that’s most likely to put us on the map.  In fact, the Exchange District is the downtown of the month for the International Downtown Association.

Cultural Centre of Winnipeg

The Exchange District is teeming with events, particularly in the summer, but with galleries, music venues, and theatres offering year-round entertainment.  This summer has already seen the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, the Soca Reggae Festival, and the Fringe Festival in the heart of the Exchange District.

There are also festivals at other times of year in the Exchange, including the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival and Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival, which features the work of a different playwright each year.  2009 was MillerFest (Arthur Miller), and 2010 will see ChurchillFest in honour of Caryl Churchill.

Heritage Under Siege

A portion of the Exchange District, around 20 blocks, is a National Historic Site.  In theory, this should offer protection to heritage buildings, but there is definite concern among many heritage-minded Winnipeggers that many of the buildings could be demolished simply because they are not deemed “interesting” or “historic” enough.  For instance, the Grain Exchange Annex will soon be demolished to create a loading zone and surface lot.  The reasoning used by the city, the property owner, and even Heritage Winnipeg was that the building was not significant enough, and that it was built in 1920 as opposed to 1913 (the “upper limit” for the described characteristics of the national historic site), so it was not considered historic.

Other buildings that could be at risk are any that currently have no designation, along with any with Grade III designation.   Grades I and II are more secure for the time being, but Grade II buildings can be demoted to Grade III status through city council.  Familiar buildings on the Grade III list include:

mcdermot

McDermot Avenue streetscape

Bailey’s Restaurant, a building built in 1900, isn’t even on the historic buildings list, which means that it has no heritage protection at all.

Despite the increasing vitality and reputation of the Exchange District, this jewel of Winnipeg is not safe from demolition by neglect or the cancer of parking lots.  Here are some excellent articles on the constant attack on the Exchange District:

Under Siege (Bryan Scott)
Community News – Hydro (substation plans) (Residents of the Exchange District)
Small Storefronts Serve big purpose in Exchange District (Robert Galston)

The Liveable Neighbourhood

The Exchange District, while only home to around 600 people at present, is slowly gaining in residential population and in services.  Most Winnipeggers have heard of the new condos being built along Waterfront Drive (The Strand, The Excelsior, Sky Waterfront Condominiums, Ship Street Village), but not as many people are aware of The Edge on Princess.  This is a heritage building converted to New York style loft apartments, with bachelors priced at $750/month, including heat, water, and electric.  One bedrooms are priced at $950-1,150 and there are also some two bedroom units available.  Another interesting project is YouCube, which promises a total of 18 townhouse condos priced between $196,450 and $300,000.

Other condos in the Exchange are Fairchild Lofts at 110 Princess St and Old Market Square Lofts at 283 Bannatyne Ave.  Due to the high price of homes in the Exchange District, the incoming population will be composed mainly of affluent professionals.  However, there will soon be a 100-strong student component as well as the Union Bank Tower is renovated into a space that will include the Red River College hospitality programs as well as the college’s first student residence.

Our Billion Dollar Asset

The Exchange District is on its way to becoming… wait for it… a “world class” destination.  Actually, in this case, there is definitely no exaggeration.  When you take one of the best preserved (for the time being) commercial districts in North America, add in some of the finest cultural institutions in Canada, and include the entertainment and festivals that we see every year, you end up with something that is truly special.  Combined with several other attractions (some of which I’ll be writing about), the Exchange District has the potential to make Winnipeg a tourist destination.  This sounds like fantasy to many Winnipeggers, because we’re so used to the Simpsons’ take on our city:

Now Entering Winnipeg / We were born here, what’s your excuse?

simpsons-winnipeg
But the reality is that several accidents of history and geography have blessed us with a one-of-a-kind historic commercial district, and the people of Winnipeg have filled the district with culture and excitement and commerce.  Our next steps should be to start leveraging our billion-dollar asset into a genuine international draw.  This isn’t done simply by throwing money at the Exchange, although there are dozens of buildings that could use some money for restoration and renovation.  It’s done by building up the amount of attractions within the district, growing the number and size of festivals and events, and capitalizing on what we already have.  I won’t go into details on this today, but I’m sure we all have a few ideas on what could come next for the Exchange.

I can’t think of a more exciting time for Winnipeg since the turn of the century, when we were the Chicago of the North.  And a large part of that excitement is coming from Winnipeg Jewel #1: the Exchange District.

<!–[if !mso]> <! st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –>

This has been a very busy summer for me, and I think the pace is accelerating. What started as a few outings a week has become a marathon of summer activities. My daughter has been even busier than I have, having gone out to somewhere exciting almost every single day since June. She’s gone to the zoo a couple of times this summer, to the children’s museum, to Folk Fest, to Kids Fest… she actually missed the kids shows at Fringe due to scheduling conflicts; my 16-month old daughter has more scheduling conflicts than I’ve ever had. This past weekend we had Ballet in the Park, Sesame Street Live, a social gathering, strawberry picking, a beach visit, a farm visit, and a family dinner. Coming in August: Folklorama, a trip to another beach, a trip to the Whiteshell, and perhaps a return visit to Hecla (her third trip to the island). This in addition to her trips down Corydon, in the Exchange, to the Forks, to the dog park, etc.

Even if I took every day off for the rest of the summer, I don’t think we’d be able to show my daughter everything we’d like her to see in and around Winnipeg. ChrisD.ca just reminded me about the Winnipeg Beach boardwalk; we haven’t been there at all this year.

Over the next week or so, I’m going to talk about some of these jewels of Winnipeg. I won’t focus on their history or take any photos, because there are already some very good people doing just that (Mr. Christian, Bryan Scott). But I’ll talk about what’s happening now, what we’ll hopefully see in the near future, and I’ll mention the hazards ahead.

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As expected, City Council voted 9-6 (Councillor Browaty having excused himself from the debate and vote) to not grant heritage protection to the Grain Exchange Annex.  Winnipeg Free Press

Councillors O’Shaughnessy and Fielding made it very clear that they felt the Annex had no heritage value whatsoever, with Councillor O’Shaughnessy trying to make it quite clear that in his opinion the Exchange District (a billion dollar asset in my opinion) has no value in his mind whatsoever; I assume he’s not a fan of 19th and early 20th century architecture and the tourists and commerce they can bring.

The most interesting thing about the debate was the fact that the argument towards demolition was based primarily on Heritage Winnipeg‘s decision to stand with the developer in saying that the Annex was not worth saving.  The dynamic of heritage preservation in this city has been changed, and not for the better, by Heritage Winnipeg’s decision to actively support the destruction of built heritage.  This was an odd choice for an organization whose mission is “to promote and encourage the conservation of historic/heritage structures and sites and attend to those matters which enhance and complement this purpose”.  As Councillor Gerbasi asked, why did Cindy Tugwell not just stay home if she didn’t think the Annex was worth saving?  Why did Heritage Winnipeg go out of its way to promote the demolition of a 1920 office building in good condition?

This odd change in behaviour, which was made with no public comment to Winnipeggers who have supported the organization in the past, comes just after the Dennistoun House situation, where Heritage Winnipeg’s Executive Directory Cindy Tugwell stated publicly that she hadn’t even realized that there was a heritage building facing demolition.

I sent an e-mail to both Cindy Tugwell and the President of Heritage Winnipeg, Penny McMillan, to find out if a representative would speak at council in favour of preserving the Annex.  I received no response to that correspondence, other than seeing that Cindy Tugwell had chosen to speak for demolition, even before the property owner and architect were added to the delegation list.

I don’t say this lightly, but I feel it needs to be said: when the next heritage building is at risk, I have no faith that Heritage Winnipeg will provide any advocacy whatsoever.  It’s not their job to compromise with developers; that is the job of city staff and city council.  The mandate of Heritage Winnipeg, like that of any defence attorney, is to defend their client to the best of their abilities.  When regular citizens are required to speak at council to defend heritage because Heritage Winnipeg has switched sides, it becomes obvious that the organization is no longer serving the purpose for which it is intended.

I would like to see a new organization created to work for the betterment of the Exchange District and the core area as a whole, because it’s clear to me that at the moment there are no citizen-run organizations we can rely on to ensure that we don’t lose the Exchange District piece by piece.  I’m imagining an Internet-based group, which relies on its members to lobby all levels of government when necessary to advance our agenda of a vibrant downtown, modeled on cities that truly know how to foster a healthy urban environment.

Is anyone on the Intranets willing to stand up for downtown Winnipeg and our billion-dollar asset?  I just watched Fight Club, so there’s a chance it may require wearing all black and shaving your heads.  Let me know if you’re interested.

Note: I also want to be clear that I do not fault the property owner, Artis REIT, or the architect, Ray Wan, for their plans.  As a business, even a business with an eye for heritage, Artis REIT is going to make choices that in their mind carry an acceptable amount of risk for a worthwhile return.  In their opinion, this plan was a better horse to bet on than preserving the Annex as part of the new development.  However, that does not mean that the city should absolve itself of any responsibility to negotiate for preservation.  Councillor O’Shaughnessy, as part of his statement, took us on a quick tour of all of the surface lots and new buildings that were a result of the city’s utter failure to preserve its heritage.  He also reminded us that the city made promises to support Artis REIT in the past with a heritage restoration but backed out, resulting in serious losses for the company.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that Artis REIT isn’t asking for a similar plan for the Annex.  Why should they risk their company on a city that isn’t willing to support its unique heritage district?

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Grain Exchange Annex and new parkade can co-exist

WINNIPEG – July 21, 2009 – The plan to build an architecturally-suitable parkade in the East Exchange District is a welcome development, but that doesn’t mean that the Grain Exchange Annex should be demolished, says Regan Wolfrom, a concerned Winnipeg resident.

“The proposed parkade will sit beside the Annex, so there’s no compelling reason to demolish a building in good condition,” Wolfrom says.  “The Exchange District is a billion-dollar asset, and every demolished building strips some of that value away.”

According to architectural renderings, the Annex will be replaced by several surface parking spaces, and an enlarged loading zone is also a possibility.  The parkade will be constructed on the adjacent property, and would not intrude on the existing footprint of the Annex.

“Tearing down a heritage building to expand a loading zone is the old way of doing things,” Wolfrom says.  “The end result will be less potential density and less tax revenue.  How does that make our downtown better?”

The owner of the Grain Exchange Building and the planned parkade is Artis REIT, a Winnipeg-based company that owns several other prominent buildings in the city, including Johnston Terminal and the Hamilton Building on Main Street.  Wolfrom says that he appreciates the work that Artis REIT is doing to preserve Winnipeg’s heritage.

“Artis REIT is a part of the solution in Winnipeg, and I know that they can come up with a viable plan that preserves the Grain Exchange Annex as part of their parkade project.”

Regan Wolfrom will be speaking at City Council on Wednesday, July 22nd in opposition to a recommendation from the Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development that delists the Annex portion of the Grain Exchange Building, removing its heritage protection completely and allowing a demolition permit to be granted.

For more information:
E-mail: info@reganwolfrom.ca
http://www.reganwolfrom.ca/

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Update: Councillor Gerbasi’s Post

More info:
Average City, Rise and Sprawl

Apparently the Forks North Portage Partnership and the Winnipeg Parking Authority want more parking in the eastern Exchange District because of growth on Waterfront Drive and the upcoming Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  The owners of the Grain Exchange Building, Artis REIT, would like to demolish the Annex that was built in 1920 in order to add more parking spaces to the area in the form of a new parkade.  As you can see on the parking map from the Grain Exchange Building website, there are quite a few surface parking lots nearby.

Unfortunately, the Grain Exchange Annex building has not been used since at least 2004, and with room available in many other buildings in the Exchange District, it may not be easy to lease the space.  Currently, the Annex is a liability to the owners of the Grain Exchange Building, and they are losing money on it.  Converting the Annex into a parkade would bring revenue for the property owner, so it makes sense from a business perspective.  So it’s hard to fault the owners for wanting to turn a money-loser into a money-maker.

The problem for the owner is that they can’t touch the annex because it’s considered part of the Grade II Grain Exchange Building, attached via a small overpass.  In order to demolish the annex, they would need to have the Grain Exchange Building’s status changed from Grade II to Grade III.  That would be inappropriate, as the Grain Exchange Building is far too important historically to be designated Grade III (the minimum level of historic protection).  A better alternative is to create an exception that allows the annex to be considered a separate structure with Grade III status, along with the stipulation that if the overpass were to be demolished, the Grain Exchange Building would need to have the hole in its wall at the connection point be restored as closely as possible to the original brick.  At that point the owner could proceed with their request for demolition of the Annex without the Grain Exchange Building being involved.  Any thought of the Grain Exchange Building being reduced in grade is unacceptable in the context of the Exchange District being a valuable historic site.

As far as the parkade construction is concerned, I personally do not agree with the idea.  I accept the business motives, but the city has greater motives than business when dealing with historic properties.

grainannex

Whether or not you believe that Grain Exchange Annex to be an attractive building, from what I can tell it is an important building from the standpoint of Winnipeg architectural history: an example of a 1920s transitional structure between turn of the century and modern architecture.  This gives it historical value.  Of course, some would argue that it’s not historic enough to be saved if a better need for the space is found.  That is an argument that could be made, but only if there weren’t several surface parking lots directly adjacent to the Grain Exchange Building.

At this time, I do not know who owns those surface parking lots, but I would guess that it’s not the same owner as the Grain Exchange Building, or else Artis REIT would probably be considering a parkade on a surface lot.  They should still consider it; it’s possible to conceive a partnership between the owner of the Grain Exchange Building and the owner of a surface lot to arrange jointly for a parkade.  For instance, Artis REIT could build and operate the parkade while property ownership would remain with the original lot owner, providing a lease that brings a higher return than keeping the same old surface parking lot in place.  There are many combinations possible, but at the end of the day we wouldn’t be losing a 90-year-old building to make way for more cars.

Winnipeg is a city where people can work together to achieve a compromise that works for everyone.  I hope that our city councillors will provide the leadership for a better development plan on Lombard that delivers a win to every Winnipegger.

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http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/Hydro-backs-away-from-Exchange-plan39148167.html

We’ll have to wait to see what types of alternative proposals will be coming from Hydro regarding their King St. substation.  I think there are two ways this can go:

  1. Hydro finds a suitable alternative which doesn’t require huge expense, leaving most citizens wondering why they didn’t look at the alternative before they so proudly confirmed their original plans.
  2. Hydro returns with a statement that there are no alternatives available, and the fight begins anew.

No matter what the result of the re-examination, I don’t think it will make most residents feel any better about how things are being run at Manitoba Hydro.

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I am not sure what to think about the deal reached between Bedford Investments and the City of Winnipeg to build a parkade behind the North and East façades of the King Building at King and Bannatyne.

Ryan Block - c.1895

Ryan Block - c.1895

Ryan Block - 2004

Ryan Block - 2004

(both images from Heritage Winnipeg)

The new structure will apparently span across the surface lot to the south of the King Building.  I have not seen any architectural renderings of this structure (I’d love to see some if anyone knows where to look), so I’m uneasy about the end product.

I believe wholeheartedly that we will need redevelopment along with preservation in order to have the Exchange District reach its full potential, and I think that some parking will always be needed in these areas.  My concern is that we will see an ugly example of façadism, where we just have two brick fronts attached to a concrete parking monstrosity.

Here are some nice examples of parkades designed to fit into their historic neighbourhoods:

New Street Parking Garage - Staunton, Virginia

New Street Parking Garage - Staunton, Virginia, This is new construction meant to match the style of the surrounding historic properties.

(more info)

Justice Center Parking Garage - Chester County, Pennsylvania

Justice Center Parking Garage - Chester County, Pennsylvania. Another new construction.

(more info)

Parking Garage - Fredericksburg, Virginia

Parking Garage - Fredericksburg, Virginia

(from http://flickr.com/photos/army_arch/2482996361/)

Hoboken Automatic Parking Garage

Hoboken Automatic Parking Garage

(more info)

I believe it would be possible for the King Building to be rebuilt with an innovative design (whether with masonry or glass) that makes the historic components the focus of the structure.  I hope that masonry from the rest of the building could be reused as a component in the new construction, so that we don’t just have two mismatched pieces of building sitting beside one another.  If we are unable to hide parking underground (or reduce demand for parking) in our downtown, then at least we can have parking garages that respect their surroundings.

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While the official story is that Manitoba Hydro will “step back”, there is no admission on the part of Hydro that its plan is completely unacceptable.  Here’s a quote from Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider:

We’re taking a step back from this particular proposal and saying let’s take a step back and look at all the options that are available to us and see if this is still the best way to go forward.

Some people may view this as a retreat, but I don’t see it as such.  This is the preamble of a corporation’s attempt to turn three historic properties into lifeless façades, calling the result a reasonable compromise.

The citizens of Winnipeg need to be clear on this matter: there is no room for compromise with historic buildings within our National Historic Site.  Preservation of the buildings is acceptable.  Redevelopment of the buildings is acceptable.  But destroying these buildings for a substation expansion while leaving only the fronts will never be acceptable.

I see three options available to Manitoba Hydro that can be put forward to the community:

  1. Expand the substation as needed using the adjacent surface lots (or the lots across King Street), with any overflow being handled by a separate new or existing substation placed away from the Princess – Albert corridor.  This expansion could be done under existing surface lots.
  2. Find an alternative delivery method for substations, such as creating a close network of smaller, indoor substations in downtown buildings.
  3. Create a new underground substation in an alternative location, such as the surface lots at Hargrave and Notre Dame or the CityPlace parking lot.  An innovative electric utility might want to look at creating Manitoba’s first Smart Park lot, with future parking spaces created underneath solar carports for charging electric vehicles.
Google's Solar Carport

Google's Solar Carport

There are viable options available.  If Premier Doer can route a hydro line for hundreds of extra kilometres and millions of dollars, we can certainly have a substation expansion plan that makes our city better, not worse.

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There has been some discussion in this city about the Smart Bag Co. building (1884) at 145 Pacific Ave.

See Robert Galston’s posts:
Don’t act surprised
A silk gym on a parkade’s head
Saved for now

An application was made for it to be demolished, in order to make way for a 3-level parkade and a high-performance gym.  Sport Manitoba decided to alter its proposal, sparing the heritage property for the time being.  This was in exchange for the building becoming a Grade III listed property, rather than Grade II, Grade III being far less restrictive for developers.

Rendering

This drawing (not a final version, so there is definitely room for some good ideas) seems to indicate that only the façade of the 1884 structure will be kept.  The demolition of the Smart Bag Co. building is phase two of the project, so it may not happen if the funding doesn’t materialize.  However, this doesn’t change the fact that the city appears to be using the Grade III listing for the preservation of façades as opposed to buildings.  Of course, it is possible that City Council will reject the application for demolition of the Smart Bag Co. building, if the demolition is sent to Council for a vote.  (see the RRC addendum below to understand my wariness of the process)

The three grades of listed properties

Here is the description of the three protection grades, from the City of Winnipeg’s Planning, Property and Development Division:

Grade I buildings are Winnipeg’s outstanding examples of architectural and historical merit, which are to be preserved in perpetuity. Restoration and maintenance of the entire interior and exterior of these structures are the only types of work permitted. In general, alterations, deletions, and additions to these buildings are considered unacceptable.

Grade II buildings include the majority of Winnipeg’s heritage stock. Sympathetic alterations and additions to the exterior and listed interior elements of these buildings may be allowed in order to maintain the economic viability of the structure. In certain instances, the adaptive re-use of listed interior elements may be permitted.

Grade III buildings have been identified as moderately significant heritage examples worthy of listing. Suitable exterior alterations and modifications may be permitted. There is usually no restriction on interior alterations.

Very few buildings in Winnipeg are listed as Grade I, including the Walker Theatre, the Grey Nun’s Convent (St. Boniface Museum), the Union Bank Building (home of the planned RRC expansion), and the Upper Fort Garry Gate.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the Union Bank Building; the Red River College expansion should need to follow very strict guidelines due to the building being a National Historic Site (which should carry more weight than its Grade I designation).

But as a Grade III property, what can happen to the Smart Bag Co. building?  Here’s what The Historic Buildings By-Law (1474/77) says about Grade III:

(c) Grade III; the objectives of which are:

(i) to prevent demolition, removal, alteration or repair of the building, erection or structure unless and until shown to be necessary to the satisfaction of the Designated Committee in cases of removal,
alteration, or repair and Council in the case of demolition, and

(ii) to regulate any necessary demolition, removal, alteration or repair of the building, erection or structure so as to preserve the special architectural or historical interest as far as possible, and

(iii) to record, or preserve where possible, components deemed to have special architectural or historical interest prior to, or in the course of, any necessary demolition, removal, alteration or repair.

So what does this mean?  It means that the building can be altered to preserve its architectural or historical interest as long as it meets the approval of the Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development.  Grade III structures can be demolished or removed through a vote of Council, while the Grades I and II require delisting or at least a downgrade to Grade III.

This means that as long as the committee is satisfied that there is a satisfactory level of preservation involved extensive changes to the interior and the exterior can be approved.  The big question in my mind is where the line is between alterations and partial demolition.  I could not find an explanation of this in The Winnipeg Building By-Law (4555/87).

Façadism

A trend that has emerged in the past decade in development is façadism, where the façade of a historical building is preserved while most of the building is demolished.  This has become popular in Europe and in some American cities.  The best example of façadism in Winnipeg was actually caused by a fire, as opposed to a wrecking ball: the St. Boniface Cathedral (1908).

In 1968, the cathedral caught fire and was mostly destroyed.  Rather than demolish the ruins, which were still quite impressive, renowned architect Etienne Gaboury designed a reconstruction that preserved what had remained after the fire.  The end result is a unique landmark that is probably one of the best examples of façade preservation on earth.

The St. Boniface Cathedral is a much different case than most instances of façadism, as the structure was not demolished by choice.  Most orphaned façades are on purpose.

Some people view façadism as a compromise between preservation and development.  I personally view it as development that pretends to preserve history, while in reality takes life out of the buildings and leaves empty fronts.  The parts of a heritage building that are demolished are gone forever, and the remnants look more like movie set pieces than living history.

I’m not saying that I am condemning façadism in all its forms, but I am saying that it isn’t preservation when almost all of the building is demolished.  In fact, many preservationists view façadism as a danger to their efforts, because what looks at first like a compromise is really a loss for preservation.  A project that takes a historic structure and leaves only its façade is demolition and new development, not restoration or preservation.  In addition to the loss of history, façadist construction is often very unappealing, in my opinion:

Façade #1Façade #2Façade #3

Can this really be called preservation, when it more closely resembles a living death?  I’m not sure the designers and builders of the original structures would appreciate these frankensteins.

Originally, I believed that an attempt to convert a structure such as Smart Bag Co. into a parkade or a sports facility would require delisting, as the only retrofit I can imagine would include the removal of most of the original structure, perhaps preserving the façade alone.  I see now that delisting is not required; however, City Council approval of partial demolition is required.  That is the life and death cycle of a Grade III building; I wouldn’t call it protected — I’d call it buffered.

Middle ground

So is there a middle ground between façadism and preservation?  Is there a way to redevelop a heritage building, rather than only saving the front or forcing it to stay exactly the same?  I’m not sure.

On the one hand, it’s important to preserve our city’s history by keeping the best examples of the past in their original state.  However, if we save all of our historic buildings just as they are, we’ll end up with two hundred beautiful heritage buildings, but half of them will be empty.  Our city cannot sustain the complete preservation of so many buildings in their original states.

(a beautiful photo from Bryan Scott – Winnipeg: Love and Hate)

One proposed project that is receiving some criticism is the renovation of the Masonic Memorial Temple (1895) on Donald.  The existing historic building has very few windows due to its former use for Masonic rites, so the plan that was approved by the city includes a glass addition that will protrude from the North Wall and hang over the sidewalk from the second floor.  Is this an innovative way of improving space in a historic building, or the defacement of a treasured landmark?  I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion.

Corner rendering #1

Corner rendering #2

Can an existing building of historic value be redeveloped?  I think it can be.

The best example of a redevelopment (as opposed to pure façadism) is the Red River College Princess Street Campus.

(Images taken from http://www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca/faculty_projects/terri/sustain_casestudies/princess.html)

Five historical buildings were partially demolished (a bank from the 1960s was demolished with some materials reused), while their fronts were preserved and restored, and large portions of the original buildings were retained.  In addition, a neighbouring warehouse building on William Avenue was completely renovated and joined to the structure.  I find the interior of the RRC building to be more interesting than the façades, because I’ve always had an interest in the more utilitarian parts of heritage buildings.

Here is an excellent diagram that’s part of an article from Canadian Architect:

(More info on the original buildings can be found at http://www.heritagewinnipeg.com/advocacy/redRiver.htm)

In essence, Red River College’s Princess Street Campus is part façadism and part something else.  And it’s that something else that is very exciting.

Rather than removing the existing buildings entirely, the structures were joined together along with new construction to create a blend of old and new.  The original buildings by themselves did not meet RRC’s needs, and they had been vacant and neglected for thirty years.   So by redeveloping as opposed to completely demolishing, the end result was far more palatable than façades alone.  Not everything was saved, but the Grain Exchange trading floor is there, as are some original vault doors.  Doug Corbett, George Cibinel and their team came up with an architectural design that gave the old buildings a second life and created a building that respects the history of the Exchange District.

Perhaps the solution to our preservation problems is to choose the best option for each situation.  For Red River, the vacant buildings on Princess were reused as much as possible.  For the Former Union Bank Building, full preservation is the best idea.  So what about little old Smart Bag Co.?  Hopefully the final proposal will take a page from architects like Etienne Gaboury and the team at Corbett Cibinel; with a little daring, we can have something the breathes new life without snuffing out the history.

RRC Addendum

Note: this might be an error on my part, but it appears that the Red River College Princess Street Campus was constructed without proper delisting of two Grade II buildings, as their alterations were more extensive than a Grade II listing should allow.  The Historic Buildings By-Law still lists 160 and 164 Princess St as Grade II, which I believe means that these changes should not have been allowed.

(b) Grade II; the objectives of which are:

(i) to preserve the entire exterior of the building, erection or structure
and such of its interior elements as are specified in the listing, and

(ii) to ensure that all repairs thereof are appropriate to their special
architectural or historical interest, and

(iii) to prevent or regulate demolition, removal, alteration or repair of the
remainder of such interior in the manner described in subsection
5(c).

The three Grade III buildings may have had proper approval by Council (I haven’t checked at this point) for their partial demolition, but I don’t know how permits could have been given for 160 and 164 without reclassifying them as Grade III or delisting them.  What does this mean for the Former Union Bank Building?  Can its Grade I interior be altered without proper historical appropriateness?

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