The height of stupidity
In Winnipeg's troubled downtown core, the T. Eaton building stands as a spectacular reminder of the city's proud history. So how, asks LISA ROCHON, can they even consider demolishing it?
By LISA ROCHON
Wednesday, August 15, 2001 â€“ Print Edition, Page R1
WINNIPEG -- Every once in a while, a story of urban folly comes along that eclipses all others, that takes hold of commonsense wisdom about how to grow good, livable cities and stamps it out. The proposed demolition of the historic Eaton's in downtown Winnipeg, and its replacement by a hockey arena, is one of those rare decisions so bizarre as to warrant a special ribbon for colossal miscalculation.
The setting is a Prairie city of 630,000 people who often live in inexpensive, generously scaled neighbourhoods lined with elm trees. The downtown is strengthened by its elegant, historic architecture, its terra-cotta faÃ§ades, its imposing banks and mercantile architecture, designed by local talent and the best architects from Toronto and Boston. In the midst of it all, downtown Portage Avenue is barely conscious because of the strange prescriptions ordered, since the 1970s, by the city's urban-planning doctors.
Now, bad is about to degenerate into madness. The T. Eaton building is a spectacular example of Chicago-style architecture, built in 1905 as the most significant Canadian commercial building west of Toronto, with a structural steel frame and airy expanses of glass. Designed by John Woodman, a local Winnipeg talent, it is one of the few muscular works of architecture still standing on Portage.
Eaton's is a restrained, modern study in red brick, glass and local Tyndalstone, without any of the historically derived embellishments of the many beaux-arts buildings in Winnipeg. It was designed as a Crystal Palace of engineering, equipped with 29 elevators and a sprinkler system that drew water from artesian wells 60 metres beneath the building. From the exterior, Eaton's flexes a brutal honesty about structure. Its skin is as flat as the Prairies.
When Eaton's closed in the fall of 1999, the city panicked. The monumental building sits on an eight-lane thoroughfare, surrounded by above-ground walkways and vast numbers of parking lots. Nearby theatres have closed. The downtown's interior shopping malls, with limited access to the street, have been all but abandoned. This is not the kind of environment conducive to brilliant commercial successes. When Eaton's closed its doors, the black hole was too big. The commercial void needed to be filled -- by anything.
Eaton's is slated to be demolished this October. Winnipeg's downtown is awash with surface parking lots. But the developers of the arena, True North, exhausted their creative abilities by asking after only one parking lot, located next to the city's Convention Centre. It wasn't available.
It didn't matter. Their decision to swallow Eaton's in their development proposal was met with open arms by local and provincial politicians. Without any public consultations or call for open proposals, the city granted funding to the developer and pledged to forgive all business and entertainment taxes over the next 25 years. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, by contrast, is required to pay an entertainment tax. All of this, and the developer hasn't even bothered to apply formally for zoning approvals from the city.
The madness begins but doesn't end with the Moose. Sculptures of moose wore out their welcome in Toronto last year. But in Winnipeg, the Moose refers to the hockey team that provided the entertainment after the Jets left town. One of the True North principals is Mark Chipman, a co-owner of the Manitoba Moose Hockey Club. Smith Carter Architects and Engineers, a high-profile Winnipeg firm with expertise in bio-tech laboratories, hospitals and native schools, is designing the arena. Their early design models and drawings indicate a polite monolith with an ambition of front-faÃ§ade illumination to, as the architect put it, "evoke the northern lights." Otherwise, the scheme currently bears some resemblance to a parking garage.
True North has scheduled about 130 nights for hockey, but, with 15,000 seats that can be reduced down to 6,000, the arena can accommodate anything from rock concerts to rodeo/motocross events.
The arts community is welcome to perform at the new "multi-entertainment complex," says Jim Millican, vice-president of True North development. (None have been booked so far.) There are plans for a sports bar and restaurant. At the back of the arena, gambling will be available with the touch of a screen by way of 50 VLTs. Also, once the new multi-entertainment complex (read: arena) has been built, Winnipeg's Polo Park arena will be torn down -- an issue of unwanted competition.
The new arena is, in fact, larger than itself: It is, like the malls and underground concourses that have gone before it, a catalyst for revitalizing downtown Winnipeg. It promises to bring large numbers -- in this case, mostly males -- in fits and starts throughout the year to an otherwise deserted section of town. Revitalization of a particular kind is sure to be ignited late at night.
Other kinds of tested urban-design initiatives might relieve the systemic disaffection that is digging into the downtown, such as widening the sidewalks along Portage Avenue and reducing its eight lanes. Street parking might be encouraged, and planters, street furniture and intimate courtyards built. None of which is meant to trivialize the social decay in the city -- but subsidizing artists' studios or providing tax breaks for the restoration and conversion of industrial lofts would help to secure the downtown.
And, let's face it, a downtown vibrancy will not be returned to the Portage area until the above-ground skywalk system is relegated to history. Since the weather-protected tunnel system was initiated in 1977, a total of 20 skywalks, located about 15 metres above ground, have been constructed to link buildings. Rather than designing streets and public spaces that are inviting and sheltering for all seasons, Winnipeg's urban designers have endorsed a system that robs the street of pedestrian movement. By contrast, several cities in northern countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland use artificial light combined with the reflection of snow to create more luminous public spaces in winter. In Copenhagen, there are cafÃ©s that provide patrons with blankets to extend the season of open-air terraces.
Rather than offering a warm blanket to its citizens, Winnipeg has endorsed the most offensive skywalk with the proposed True North development. Only 78 metres wide, the Eaton's site is too small to accommodate the proposed 90-metre width of the arena. But by building a skywalk that extends across Hargrave Street at the western edge of the site, the developers gain sufficient concourse space for their arena patrons, a space that can effectively double as a skywalk. A tunnel, running south from Portage for an entire block, is one consequence that most urban designers might find offensive.
Do all developers think so little of historically significant buildings? Thankfully, not always. Chicago's Reliance Building, designed in 1895 by Burnham & Root, has recently been converted into the boutique-style Burnham Hotel (with tax breaks from the city). Chicago's famous Sears, Roebuck & Co. Store, designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1891, and now known as the Second Leiter Building, has been recently converted into a youth hostel.
The proposed demolition of Eaton's has ignited a furor among many citizens. A 40-hour hug of the building was organized in June following the news that the city's executive committee refused to designate it as a heritage structure. The Save the Eaton Building Coalition was organized, a Web site (http://www.saveeatonsbuilding.ca
) was created and the group launched a legal campaign against the city for acting without adequate public consultation or due diligence. The coalition is fighting for a mixed-use conversion of the Eaton building. Their legal case was dismissed last month; the city has ordered legal costs to be paid by the coalition.
Throughout, the actions of Mayor Glen Murray have been hard to figure. Murray is the progressive politician who sat as chair of the city's heritage committee for many years. In April, he stated publicly that he was not in favour of demolishing Eaton's. Meanwhile, local and provincial heritage agencies were scrambling to provide reports recommending the building's designation.
But, says William Neville of the Manitoba Heritage Council, a curious thing happened: The city refused to schedule a meeting to allow the recommendations to be heard. Frustrated, Neville resigned his position as chair -- but too late. True North had already announced its plans to redevelop the Eaton's site, and a funding promise of $40-million was issued by all three levels of government.
The hurry-up deal made Mark Lubosch, a Winnipeg councillor and acting deputy mayor, uncomfortable. Lubosch had initially voted in favour of the development but, after learning of the full architectural and social significance of the building, he changed his vote. "This deal shouldn't go forward," he says. "Our goal for Winnipeg as defined by about every planning document is that we need to get more people living and working downtown."
Wanda Koop, a prominent visual artist and community activist, has lived all her life in Winnipeg. Her downtown studio neighbours the Eaton's building. "To me," says Koop, "the Eaton's building is hallowed ground." And like the very best architecture, it is a repository for the city's collective memory.
Eaton's was once the largest employer in the city. And the most gracious. John Woodman designed the building with a rooftop playground for children, and there were restrooms equipped with writing desks, pens and paper for ladies. During the 1920s, some 140 horses were used to deliver goods to customers for free. During the blizzard of March, 1966, hundreds of stranded people spent the night in Eaton's -- the women in the furniture department, the men in carpets. Food was served and TVs were turned on.
"I spoke to a senior citizen about the demolition of Eaton's," says Koop. "And her eyes welled up with tears. She said, 'How can we tell our stories?' "
Perhaps, to keep the memory of Eaton's alive, the city will organize storytelling sessions in the heated skywalk adjoining the new arena. Turn up the heat -- it's just turned bitterly cold in Winnipeg, but this time it has nothing to do with the weather.
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