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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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Here are the renderings for the Grain Exchange parkade:

annex-parkade-02annex-parkade-01

By comparing these renderings to a current  photo of the Annex…

grainannex

…you can see that the parkade footprint just barely encroaches on the footprint of the Annex itself.  It also appears as though the parkade will be built in an L shape, reaching behind the Northern Sales building (1953).

The question I have is this: why can we not find a compromise that allows the construction of the parkade while preserving the Annex for a time in the near future when space in the building will be in demand?  The loading zone issue can be rectified by modifications to the parkade design to allow loading access under the second and third decks (as height permits).  The lost space could be made up by a fourth deck, and extra costs could be offset by city incentives that bank on the continued growth of the East Exchange.

I understand the need of the property owner to maximize profitability.  However, I believe that the long-term viability of the Grain Exchange Building and the Exchange District as a whole will be improved by preserving the Grain Exchange Annex.  Even if we do see the surface lots in the East Exchange slowly decommissioned in the next few years (although there is no incentive for that to happen at this point), we won’t be able to replace them with buildings of historic character in order to increase density.  By removing the Annex, we are making a permanent decision to reduce density on Lombard and in the East Exchange.

While the argument can be made both ways that more parking will either increase or decrease the viability and tax growth of an urban area, it’s pretty clear that removing density will not result in future tax growth.  Revisiting the parkade design and finding innovative incentives to preserve the Grain Exchange Annex is an opportunity to bring both the benefit of parking revenue and the benefit of future commercial real estate potential to the property owner.

It’s also an excellent way to satisfy the needs of all parties affected, and it brings Winnipeg one step closer to being a premiere city for historic redevelopment.

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Everyone has a lobby these days, and we’re always hearing about “special interest groups” and “vocal minorities” and so on.  But in Winnipeg, we are too silent on the biggest issue of the day, which is our core area.  We have various groups that are working and advocating on issues in our core area, but I’m not seeing a vocal movement to fight for a stronger urban environment in Winnipeg.

The pending demolition approval for the Grain Exchange Annex is a good example of our problem.  The bloggers who have written about it (Rise and Sprawl, Progressive Winnipeg, Average City, Kenton, The View from Seven, Regan the dirty liberal) are not only in favour of saving the Annex, but are collectively disgusted that the Winnipeg Parking Authority, The Forks North Portage Partnership, CentreVenture and the Exchange District BIZ are all apparently in support of demolishing an historic building within a National Historic Site to build a parkade beside half a block of existing surface parking lots.  So we write on our blogs, and readers comment on our blogs, usually in agreement, but that seems to be the end of it.  We’re not mobilized enough to bring real change to our city.

lombard-streetscape

Now, two things about the Annex:

1.    There is no need to demolish the Annex is order to build a parkade.  Including the Annex in the parkade project is an easy way to dump an historic building that the owners do not find profitable at this time.
2.    Several years from now, when the Annex is long gone, there will be a desire on the part of developers to build commercial space along Lombard Avenue.  At that point, one of the existing surface parking lots will be converted to a new building, creating about the same amount of space as the Annex building before it was demolished.  We will then see approvals at to build a brand new building in our National Historic Site, to make up for space that was lost when City Hall allowed the Annex to be destroyed.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to build parkades on surface parking lots, and save the buildings for the expected increase in demand over the coming years?  If the Annex is unprofitable, couldn’t the city look at incentives for the property owner to save the building until demand increases?

I was torn about Dennistoun House, because there was a true conflict between two important goals: heritage versus increased core density.  But there is no conflict with the Annex: it’s an historic building in a National Historic Site, and there’s plenty of room for parkades beside it.  Even though many people will argue that parkades should never be built (and in an ideal world they wouldn’t be, but that’s not our world), few rational people can argue that there’s any sense in destroying a building we’ll all wish we still had five years from now.

So what can we do to save the Annex?  Heritage Winnipeg has been working to save the building, but that hasn’t been enough.  I personally think the issue with Heritage Winnipeg is that they exist to preserve, but that their mandate does not include economic and social development in the core area.  I think we need to take on a holistic mission to save our core.  We need to get together and build a strategy for saving this city.

There are many people in various groups in this city who care about the core, including members of the Active Transportation lobby, progressive political groups, and environmentalist organizations.  There are also business owners, civic leaders and academics who are passionate about this issue.  Why aren’t we banding together to communicate our common position to the city?

A movement to save our city starts by getting a little face time.  There is an EPC meeting on Wednesday, July 15th, and a city council meeting on July 22nd (a very big city council meeting, with the water utility, the Annex, and other fun).  These are the final meetings before summer break (as I said to Councillor Thomas, it must feel like getting out of school for the summer).  Unfortunately, we cannot have a voice at EPC on historical buildings, so our only chance to speak is at City Council on the 22nd.

Who is willing to speak at council?  If those of us who care about this issue work together, we can rotate our schedules to make sure we always have a voice when these decisions are being made.  I’m thinking about going to City Council, but it’s hard to get the time off (activism was much easier when I was self-employed).

Is there anyone who’s ready to speak for all of us at City Council?

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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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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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