renewing downtown winnipeg

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renewing downtown winnipeg

Postby Paul Clerkin » Thu Nov 18, 2004 7:31 pm

putting life back into downtown

Downtown Winnipeg is dead. Not half dead. But completely dead. It's one department store is half empty and cavernous, the two small malls are empty except for pensioners and delinquent youth. The smell of dope on the street is obvious.

The magnificent exchange district with its fine Chicago inspired warehouses and office buildings is deserted - a few bars and restaurants, but otherwise after 6pm its dead. Many of these warehouses are empty, awaiting a new use. Others are in use as offices, or speciality stores. But there is no life.

Portage Avenue, Winnipeg's version of Dublin's O'Connell Street has "for lease" signs on almost every building. Others are empty, waiting to fall down. There is only a handful of shop units at streetlevel in use. The streetscape looks poor and dirty. There are some fine buildings but they're surround by single and double storey infil development which take away from the entire street. The width of the street is ruined by a concrete barrier down the length of it, instead of a central mall with trees. The central junction of the city, Portage and Main, is closed to pedestrians, they are forced underground where they can enter the surrounding office blocks without setting foot on the street.

But all this may change.

All of a sudden there is a buzz. On Wednesday night, the first hockey game was played in the new downtown arena. Think of an indoor arena for concerts and hockey that would seat 15,000 and placed on the site of Dublin's Clerys or London's Selfridges. For thats what they did. When Eatons, a massive department store closed, it was razed to the ground and this new arena built. Costing 133M Canadian, its architectural merit is dubious at best, but the value of the building is what it brings to the downtown potentially.

Coupled with that, the local electricity utility firm Manitoba Hydro has announced that it will built its new head office forover 2000 employees on the street, a block west of the arena. This looks like it could be a great building, elegant and modern.

But will all this investment kick downtown into life? Will people stay on after work or a gig for a meal and a drink? Or will they still jump in their SUVs and head for the suburbs? At the opening night gig of the arena, people were quoted as saying that they hadn't been downtown in over a decade and they were impressed by it.

Scary, I've never seen such a depressing downtown and that includes Dublin in the 1970s. What kills me though, is that if I had some money, not a lot, say 500k Euro, there is massive opportunity to be had. Unfortunately I don't have money.

Paul Clerkin, right place, wrong time, yet again.

So what do people think? Can two specific projects kick start a revival in a decaying downtown? Will it create an upwards spiral of demand for more bars and restaurants, which creates more of a buzz so people will actually travel downtown to socialise, creating yet more demand.....
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Paul Clerkin
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Re: renewing downtown winnipeg

Postby Glenn » Tue Jan 12, 2010 8:04 pm


I can't say that I'm all that thrilled to read your impressions of downtown Winnipeg. True, the city centre is not what it used to be, but it's surely not a matter of being "completely dead" today, and I don't think that the same was true, even in 2004 when you wrote this original post.

I think you have to understand that there is a different philosophy and history in Canada regarding cities, unlike Europe, where the concept of "downtown" and the main street are still important. Much of this has to do with post-war history.

In the aftermath of World War II, cities in Canada expanded because of the resulting baby boom, and many families left city centres for the suburbs, where they could own a house, as opposed to staying in the city centre and renting an apartment. Many city dwellers viewed downtown as crowded, and therefore not being a place conducive for the raising of children. In the suburbs, you could also have a back yard for the kids to play in, and not have to worry about them. A building boom occurred, with many returning veterans taking advantage of government programs geared toward home ownership. As families grew, the building boom also grew, and they were able to find bigger houses for sale when they needed them.

In the late 40s and early 50s, this relocation resulted in the building of schools and places to shop, so there was no reason to go downtown anymore. Every suburb had a shopping centre, which was typically configured with a strip of storefronts which was usually anchored by a freestanding supermarket at a right angle to this stip bordering a large parking lot (see example in first picture of Regent Park Shopping Centre in Northeast Winnipeg). The convenience of these shopping centres usually meant that anything one wanted could be located near home, with no reason to go anywhere else.

In the late to mid-60s, these suburban shopping centres began to be augmented by fully enclosed malls, which allowed people to shop more comfortably inside and escape the weather. However, in Winnipeg, the fate of downtown was sealed much earlier than this with the building of the Polo Park Shopping Centre on Portage Avenue west of the city centre in 1959. A roof was put over Polo Park in 1963, making it a mall.

"It's one department store is half empty and cavernous, the two small malls are empty except for pensioners and delinquent youth. The smell of dope on the street is obvious."

You are speaking about the Hudson's Bay Store on Portage Avenue at Memorial, and yes, it is half empty. Why? Because they sell stuff no one wants (and just try to get a clerk to serve you...). This is precisely what killed Eatons, and if the Bay is smart, they would do well to learn from their experience. I don't know what "two small malls" you are referring to, but during the daytime, all three malls downtown (Winnipeg Square, Portage Place, and City Place) are veritable bustles of activity. "Smell of dope...obvious"? Where? I've never had that experience here.

Yes, downtown Winnipeg closes up after the business day is over, but then again, most people that work there don't live there. Lately, however, this is changing. Many of those "fine Chicago warehouses" you mention are being turned into condominiums, and life is returning to the city centre, but slowly.

To be sure, downtown does still have its problems, such as a lack of free parking. Such a thing would encourage people to go there, but it hasn't been implemented yet. To be sure, there are a lot of parking lots, but they're all owned by Impark and people don't want to pay for parking unless they have to. The other problem is that Impark has a habit of buying up derelict buildings, razing them, and creating still more parking lots.

In any event, you just can't compare Portage Avenue to O'Connell Street; to do so is to mix apples and oranges, because of the differences in history. Granted there were a lot of buildings for lease on Portage Avenue five years ago, but a lot of this has to do with the fact that renovation is a major hassle for anyone thinking of buying any of the buildings, most of which can easily be deemed as heritage properties, and any renovation of them would have to be restorative in nature. Some just aren't worth restoring (see second picture). However, there are very few vacant buildings today. Go to Google Street View and see. As for "I've never seen such a depressing downtown and that includes Dublin in the 1970s", what you were witnessing was, in fact, a resurgence. Portage Avenue before Portage Place was built (the late 70s) was far bleaker then than is today, or even was five years ago when you saw it.

As to the "concrete barrier" on Portage Avenue, in reality, it is more like a traffic island, placed there in order to separate the opposing lanes, and yes, some sections of it actually do have trees (third picture, which also shows the three-block-long Portage Place Mall).

"The central junction of the city, Portage and Main, is closed to pedestrians, they are forced underground where they can enter the surrounding office blocks without setting foot on the street."

True, Portage and Main, the historic crossroads around which the city of Winnpeg grew is "closed to pedestrians", but that is more because it is an intersection that is not pedestrian friendly because of very heavy traffic (fourth picture, taken from Main Street and looking down Main with Portage to the right), and crosswalks are now non-existent; to get around this problem, there is an underground concourse attached to Winnipeg Square, with shops and street-level entry ways on each of the corner properties. One can still see the corner at street level, because there are sidewalks on most of these properties as well, you just can't cross the street here. It's not a problem at all, though.

And yes, the MTS Centre has made a difference -- it is now the 19th busiest entertainment venue in the world. It does bring people downtown.

So, I guess the answer to the question you posed ("Can two specific projects kick start a revival in a decaying downtown?") is yes, to a point. These two projects, coupled with others (condo expansion, Human Rights Museum, proposal to build a football stadium) will have the effect of revitalizing the city core.

And hey, Paul, there are still opportunities here to be had.
2 Portage Avenue.jpg
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3 Portage Avenue.jpg
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4 Portage and Main.jpg
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Regent Park Shopping Centre.jpg
Regent Park Shopping Centre.jpg (40.18 KiB) Viewed 1433 times
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Re: renewing downtown winnipeg

Postby L1 » Wed Jan 20, 2010 1:00 am

..and people wonder why, as an architect, I regularly return home from the wilderness that is North America, to the developed world, ashen faced and reeling in horror from what I have witnessed. I'll never get it.
..I suppose the question that has to be asked is whether anything of value (architecturally)came out of those 30 years or so.
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