Mr. Bowman, tear down these walls!

Another year, another round of buzz about the potential removal of the hideous and disgraceful pedestrian barriers adorning the four corners of Winnipeg’s premier intersection, Portage & Main.

This time the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has brought in Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance and the man instrumental in pedestrianizing a large swath of Broadway in Manhattan, to tell us what we already know: we’re doing it wrong.

City planning has come a long way since the late 1970s, and informed opinion is unanimous that the Portage & Main barriers—emblematic of the longstanding supremacy of cars over people in downtown Winnipeg—have got to go. Mayor Brian Bowman even made getting rid of them part of his campaign platform.

Well Mr. Bowman, you were elected more than a year ago—what are you waiting for?

Were I elected to the Mayor’s Office with a mandate to remove the barriers, there would be no hesitation. Much as the intersection was swarmed upon news of the Jets’ return, at the exact moment victory was confirmed I would invite my supporters to Portage and Main for a celebration rally. With all four corners blockaded and traffic re-routed, I would commence distribution of dozens of sledgehammers and invite the public to usher in a new, pedestrian-friendly era for the City of Winnipeg by smashing concrete like it was 1989 in Berlin. Once the party ended I’d order heavy equipment to finish the job. Pedestrian signals would be set up within the next 48 hours.


There’s a precedent for this. Winnipeg wants to be the Chicago of the north? Well in 2003, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley had enough of the federal airport near downtown known as Meigs Field. The idea of low-flying planes so near the skyscrapers of the city’s vertical skyline was unnerving in the post-9/11 era, and considering they were nearly all private flights for the wealthy he decided it was in the public interest to close the airport and turn it into a park.

Naturally the FAA resisted so what did Mayor Daley do? Showed the feds The Chicago Way. Ordered a fleet of heavy equipment to roll through in the middle of the night and tear up the runway. Goodbye Meigs Field. Hello Northerly Island Park.

The Winnipeg Way seems to be years of dithering. Decades of hemming and hawing. Sponsor a meaningless design contest. Pay to fly in outsiders. Years and years of blathering on about the topic.

Look, if Mayor Daley can break a lease with the almighty FAA, surely Mayor Bowman can grow a pair and void the agreement with the Portage & Main property owners that keeps people out of the intersection. It’s set to expire in 2019 anyway.

These barriers are a national embarrassment. What other North American city does this? Not a one.

Don’t tell me Winnipeg is special. Other cities have intersections where two wide thoroughfares meet. Really, the appropriate thing to do here would be to return the intersection to the people, and have a pedestrian scramble—where traffic is stopped in every direction so pedestrians can cross from all sides, and diagonally if they wish.

Portage Avenue and Main Street themselves could use a road diet. Protected bike lanes. A bus lane. Even then you’ve still got room for street parking and a couple of lanes of vehicular traffic.

Winnipeg grew up around an electric streetcar network but for too long has felt the debilitating effects of automobile dependency. Downtown has turned into a massive parking lot, core neighborhoods have thinned out while becoming increasingly littered with unsightly strip malls. I’ve nothing against cars per se—I own three and I change my own oil, thank you very much—but when there’s no other acceptable option for transportation, when the city’s historic primary intersection has been purposely retrofitted to accommodate cars and exclude pedestrians, you don’t have a city that’s inclusive, or vibrant, or ready for the 21st century and beyond.

I’ve advocated in the past for the 1959 subway plan that was once a serious consideration in Winnipeg but nobody in political power seems to want to touch it today. Too bad. It’s now more relevant than ever.

The subway that could've been

The subway that could’ve been

Meanwhile, the one single action the current mayor can take in order to end the era of car dominance in downtown Winnipeg won’t require a large capital expenditure. Or years of study and endless meetings.

Mr. Bowman, it’s high time to call in the heavy equipment. And if you want to do it right, be the first to swing the sledgehammer.

An open letter to new Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

Dear Mayor Bowman:

Congratulations! You overcame an underdog status to win a hard-fought race and are now comfortably settled into your new office on Main Street. You are the face of the “new” Winnipeg, and, like Nasheed Nenshi in Calgary or Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, are being lauded as a “hipster mayor.” Which is exactly what Winnipeg needs right now.

But being a hipster mayor is about more than the width of your lapels and and which organic fair trade coffee you’re seen sipping at the hippest new café. The policies which you introduce and execute will make the city either cooler, or lamer. And while there’s much about Winnipeg that’s already cool—The Exchange District’s architecture, a great culinary scene, a large stock of historical homes, an impressive network of bike trails—there’s still much that is lame: inner-city poverty, gang violence, sub-arctic winters, an emaciated street culture, an underwhelming transit system. Your job will be to accentuate the former while mitigating the latter.

Which is why I’m writing you openly on a matter of imperative importance to the city’s future, a topic more contentious and controversial than any other in this recent election. And while you might well interpret your victory as a mandate to fast-track the implementation of the so-called Bus Rapid Transit scheme, do hear me out as I explain why this idea is 125% lame. And there’s a cool alternative.

The first leg of the BRT scheme has been in operation for thirty-one months now, and let’s face facts—it hasn’t been a game-changer. The promised ToD or transit-oriented development hasn’t appeared, as I predicted ten years ago when I was writing for the Free Press. Even during rush hours, I never observed mobs of passengers streaming in and out of Osborne Station. Nobody’s giving up their cars for this. Let’s be honest with ourselves—it’s a bus stop on steroids, not rapid transit. And no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig, a bus is still a bus, and riding the bus will forever carry the stigma of being ghetto.

The rest of the plan is only looking worse. While Osborne Station is at least relatively adjacent to high population densities, take a look at this map and tell me what you see.

I’ll tell you what I see. The Western Corridor is a passageway to nowhere. Nobody lives south of Wilkes, and hardly anyone lives north of it—and of those few who do occupy those low-density Charleswood neighbourhoods, only a tiny minority will use the route for commuting, never mind as an inducement to car-free living. The Southeastern Corridor isn’t looking much better. None of the neighborhoods it serves has a high density or a large proportion of transit users. The Eastern Corridor services the south periphery of Elmwood but runs too far from most homes to be a practical replacement for the 45 Talbot or 47 Regent buses. The Northwestern Corridor fails to be of practical use to the North End’s largely transit-dependent population base. Billions of dollars will be spent—wasted, I should say—on roadways and infrastructure to run frequent buses to places where people do not want to go, and the majority of passenger trips will remain on regular local and express buses on major arterial routes: Portage, Main, Henderson, Osborne, Salter, Corydon.

That millions of dollars went into studies that resulted in this map is to me a source of major second-hand embarrassment. It should be plain to anyone who knows the city and its transit patterns that this is a complete non-starter, but somehow it got started. It must be stopped.

The billions of dollars spent building these busways to nowhere could be much better appropriated toward upgrading the existing system: replacing the fleet, adding 24-hour Night Owl service, restoring frequency of service to pre-Thompson Administration levels, freezing—or even lowering—fares. But that wouldn’t be game-changing either, nor would it fit within your promised mandate of implementing “bold actionable plans that will deliver this city to where it should be.”

It’s time to take another hard, serious look at the Norman D. Wilson subway plan.

Now here’s a scheme that parallels major arterials and actually goes where people live and work. River & Osborne? Yup. Health Sciences Centre & St. Boniface Hospital? Covered. City Hall and The Exchange District? Right there. The Manitoba Legislature, Polo Park, Portage and Main, and The Forks? All of the above. The North End, the West End, Elmwood, Weston, Norwood and Old St. Vital are all represented. It could be expanded: south, to the U of M; west, to Assiniboine Park. And it’s underground. Truly rapid. Protected from the elements.

Before I go on, let me address all the pat objections. This has been studied more than once (1958 & 1966) and, from an engineering perspective, a subway is totally doable with Winnipeg’s subsoil conditions. So let’s move on to the ostensibly unaffordable price tag. When you consider the ROI [return on investment], it’s the BRT plan that’s looking unaffordable. A bunch of busways to and from peripheral suburbs servicing mostly uninhabited areas aren’t going to do much for the city except perhaps enrich some already wealthy construction contractors. On the other hand, this subway plan would create an entirely new Winnipeg, with high density nodes around every station.

Can’t you see multi-story mixed-use projects at, say, Isabel and William? Main and Mountain? Osborne and Morley? These are urban intersections whose base densities were established during the streetcar era, and this density can be further built upon once served by a transit system that is an actual conduit to car-free living. We need to work within the existing grid rather than pray for prairie to magically turn into vertical homes because a glorified bus route opens nearby. That’s never going to happen, and we shouldn’t want it to happen.

Let’s now address the obvious—in a jobs and labour marketplace that’s increasingly global, Winnipeg is faced with a massive, almost insurmountable, liability: it’s cold. Really cold. On average, 113 days a year the temperature never rises above freezing. Given a choice, talented, educated workers are generally more repelled by than drawn to extreme cold climates. That’s why my brother, a chiropractor, and my best friend from high school, a teacher, are enjoying life in Singapore. It’s why so many of my former classmates have settled in Vancouver. It’s why I’m writing this from Los Angeles. It takes an almost masochistic temperament—or, at the least, vested business interests—to endure such painfully extreme polar vortexes so many days of the year when one is free to leave. There has to be an equalizer. The BRT plan simply ain’t it.

Toronto and, especially, Montreal are both cold (albeit less so) cities that enjoy robust car-free cultures. Surely I needn’t point out why. In the absence of comparative proportions of transit usage, Winnipeg will by comparison always be lame. It will bleed talent and struggle to attract newcomers. The critical mass of density and street culture that Winnipeg needs to compete in the global marketplace as a world-class city capable of attracting top talent—it won’t ever arrive if we continue building busways. It’s going to require building a transit system that, much of the time, is more attractive than driving. That means going where people already go—along existing major arterials. And it means being protected from the elements—underground, with warm, indoor platforms and trains unaffected by the amount of snowfall outside except insofar as the more the streets are covered in snow, the greater the demand for subway services.

Mayor Bowman, are you thinking this vision too bold, too impractical? Duff Roblin too dealt with naysayers, and where would the city be today were it not for the Floodway—which 1997 demonstrated was in fact too timid an ambition and had to be expanded at a cost much greater than if it had been built sufficiently in the first place. Calgary is finding out that its Light Rail system, opened in 1981 after intense naysaying and opposition, was actually too timid a scheme as its station platforms are currently being modified to accommodate larger trains. From the Legislature to the Aquaduct to the Esplanade Riel to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, this city’s greatest gems are the result of grand ambitions.

Where will the money come from? Find it. Squeeze the province for Hydro dollars—the subway would be a showcase for electric-powered transport. Shake down the feds—the impoverished state of the inner city is a national embarrassment. Implement a civic sales tax if necessary. But ultimately a subway would pay for itself, in growth. Naysayers might well say that no one moves to a city for its transit system, and even if that’s untrue people—especially talented, educated people—will move to a city to enjoy the sort of culture that a great transit system will create. The real question is, how can we afford not to do this? In a parallel universe, Winnipeg has already completed this subway system, and we never fell behind Edmonton or Calgary.

Verticality. Walkability. Density. These are the hallmarks of a “world-class” city, and if your campaign rhetoric is to become anything more than empty words we’ll need a world-class transit system to go with our world-class hockey team and world-class National Museum. This BRT plan was conceived while Winnipeg was still stuck in the minor leagues. And, real talk—it was forged so thoughtlessly one can only wonder whether it was proposed by incompetents or, for whatever reason, intentionally introduced to fail.

The proper function of a rapid transit system is to move people to and from various neighbourhoods and points of interest within a city. Need I remind you that in 1972 Winnipeg amalgamated twelve towns, cities, and rural municipalities to create the 464 km² behemoth it is today? The Southwest Corridor excepted, the point of the BRT plan seems to be to feed residents from far-flung suburbs, where almost nobody lives, into the downtown centre, where almost nobody from the suburbs wants to go. And if they do, it’s almost certainly not by bus. The Wilson subway plan would do more than give commuters a way from the suburbs to downtown—although it would do that too. Primarily, it would provide an efficient means of transporting, regardless of weather, people around the city core, the pre-1920 grid. Where the greatest densities remain, and where there exists the greatest potential for added density through vertical infill.

Downtown Los Angeles is in a residential building boom. Hotels, condo hi-rises, and multi-storey mixed-users are popping up where surface parking lots once were. Forty years ago Downtown LA was synonymous with urban decay. Now it’s one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. It’s no coincidence that between 1963 and 1990 there was no rail transit serving DTLA. Now there are the Metro Gold, Blue, Expo, Red, and Purple Lines (the latter of which just broke ground on a westward expansion yesterday) and LA, having run out of lateral space on which to build, is by necessity going vertical. Winnipeg will never run out of lateral space. Inducing wide-scale vertical development is going to require a powerful incentive to keep the city tight. The only possibility is proximity to subway.

I realize being mayor doesn’t make you God. You’re just one man. But you can work on building a consensus for this. You can foster the political will. You strike me as a sincere man who wants what’s best for the city, and you’ve been told that this BRT plan is the best way to go. But now that you’re elected, you can change course. You’re a relatively young man. Young enough to see the ribbon-cutting on Winnipeg’s first subway line well before you reach old age. Demand the impossible. Don’t sell us short. This is your chance to have your name become as synonymous as Duff Roblin’s as this city’s saviour.

Now how cool would that be?

Yours concernedly,

Dallas Hansen

Obama, first urban president since 1881

Along East 53rd’s sidewalks bustling with well-dressed families both black and white, he found a neighborhood perfectly befitting a bi-racial Ivy League man

Friday 23 January 2009

Upon leaving office, George W. Bush returned to the seclusion of his 1,600-acre ranch 20 minutes out of tiny Crawford, Tex. — itself two-and-a-half hours from Dallas-Forth Worth. Bill Clinton came to the White House via the Arkansas Governor’s mansion and exited into a modest 11-room Neo-Dutch Colonial in exurban Chappaqua, N.Y. — an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Ronald Regan lived in Bel-Air (the Los Angeles suburb made famous by the Fresh Prince), Jimmy Carter on his peanut farm in Georgia, Gerald Ford in Virginia’s wealthy Alexandria, LBJ in the Houston sticks. Even JFK, who spent two boyhood years in the Bronx and enough time in Boston, made his primary home at the six-acre Kennedy Compound in small-town Hyannis, Mass.

So vast has been the succession of country and suburban gentlemen to the Executive chair that finding an urban president — a man who lived and worked primarily within the core of one of America’s great metropolises — requires looking back to 1881, when, following James Garfield’s assassination, the nation’s highest office fell to vice-president Chester A. Arthur, a lawyer and civil servant who before and after the White House lived and worked in Manhattan.

In 1984, a 23-year-old Barack Obama, freshly graduated from Columbia, vacated his Manhattan apartment to accept directorship of the Developing Communities Project, a non-profit in South Side Chicago. Here, along East 53rd’s sidewalks bustling with well-dressed families both black and white, Obama found a neighbourhood perfectly befitting a bi-racial Ivy League man: Hyde Park.

It’s a salt-and-pepper, middle-class mix, an educated enclave encrusted with architectural gems, bordered by Washington Park to the west, the splendid University of Chicago to the south and to the north, wealthy Kenwood, where Obama’s mansion lies a quarter block north of tree-lined Hyde Park Boulevard.

Hyde Park is the American Dream manifested — a model of integration and an oasis of prosperous civility in a South Side desert that saw much of its housing stock razed in the 1960s and 70s as landlords walked away from their properties. Incredibly, for the first time in 127 years, we have a president whose primary residence sits where he can walk just minutes to shop for groceries, dine at dozens of restaurants, visit a museum or take a dance lesson. Unless he’s leaving the neighbourhood, Obama can leave his Ford Explorer Hybrid parked at home. Or he can get downtown in minutes via the 6 Jackson Park Express or by hopping on the Metra commuter train. At least he could’ve until the mandatory motorcades.

“Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives,” said Obama’s Office of the President-Elect Web site,, before his confirmation. “As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account ….”

Coming from Obama, these words actually carry weight. Indeed, the Web site included an entire page devoted to Urban Policy with a promise to create a “Director of Urban Policy [who] will report directly to the president and co-ordinate all federal urban programs.” Other big ideas: a $7,000 federal tax credit for new hybrid vehicle purchases, and a goal of one million plug-in hybrid cars on America’s roads by 2015. And knowing that Chicago’s elevated train system is what has kept the city’s centre strong, look for Obama’s planned National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to invest big-time in mass transit with new lines, extensions to existing lines and brand new light-rail train systems being rolled out.

Even with oil less expensive than it was months ago, the first casualty of many home budgets in any downcycle will be the vehicle — expensive to maintain and largely unnecessary in the presence of good-quality transit. Rather than being catastrophic, a large-scale relinquishing of automobile ownership will add value to neighbourhoods that, like Hyde Park, enjoy 24-hour transit service and a walkable scale.

Hyde Park represents the sort of “regional innovation cluster” Obama’s Urban Policy seeks to promote. If his home neighbourhood has helped shape his vision for city neighbourhoods throughout America, we might indeed be in for an urban renaissance that outdoes even the last decade.

Traditional city neighbourhoods add value

September 23, 2006

There is in Winnipeg a constant chatter about the urgency of reinvigorating the inner city and downtown especially. Unfortunately, the specific, concrete steps that must be made are seldom mentioned, and all the splendid ideas have not been satisfyingly formed into a cohesive plan.

Since the need for a vision is what’s most often suggested, here’s one: Busy sidewalks outside a strip of storefronts. They offer bakeries, groceries, hardware, video rentals, hairstyling, cafs, newspapers and books, banks, clothes and shoes, photo developing, etc. Narrow buildings three to five storeys tall, landmark buildings 10 or more storeys at major intersections, every five or so blocks.

In the storeys above the stores live people whose windows give a great view of the sidewalk below. Natural surveillance from overhead windows and the constant pedestrian traffic flow foster a safe walking environment. A robust retail experience translates into a stalwart social and community one.

The bustle, and the sense of safety, spills out into the residential side streets: Rows of two-storey upright wood-frame houses with front porches, the occasional three-storey walkup apartment block, the odd small storefront in front of an old house. Hundreds of such blocks already exist in Winnipeg.

Traditional city neighbourhoods not only have a powerful attraction upon visitors, they are highly desirable places to live. Renters who live near a well-established city shopping street pay a premium for their location. This is as true here near Corydon Avenue as it is in Vancouver near W 4th Ave., or in Toronto along The Danforth. But many Winnipeg city streets have potential to outshine today’s Corydon.

One squandered resource is Selkirk Avenue. Originally the centre of the city’s Jewish and Eastern European life, it offered a commercial extravaganza, attracting shoppers from outside the area to its delis, bakeries, and sundry services. There was much pedestrian action: Selkirk had frequent light-rail (streetcar) service and residential densities nearby.

Today Selkirk offers pockets of urbanity, a few gems of old buildings, some unique or specific stores and services, but there’s enough abandonment and emptiness to make the strip a failure, which it will remain until continuity is restored.

Envision a continuously safe, walkable urban area, spreading from a cohesive, continuous downtown out along Sargent, and Ellice, until Strathcona. Along Notre Dame to Keewatin, then up Keewatin to Logan, connecting Weston to downtown via a lengthy storefront strip. Walk down Osborne to Jubilee, up Main to Leila, Portage to Assiniboine Park — a continuously walkable strip the entire way.

Commercial Drive in Vancouver exemplifies the componentry inherent in a successful city neighborhood

A large, walkable city environment is something that our Winnipeg competitors Edmonton and Calgary cannot offer to the degree we can. This is our advantage and we have hitherto been ignoring it.

Traditional shopping streets must be fully restored, to complete continuity. It is apparent why. But how we do it is bound to be difficult and at times unpleasant.

Building standards must be introduced. On urban commercial streets, buildings should be required to be of a certain height and to have a faade that meshes with the street’s architectural history. Windows should be vertical, and most buildings should feature several residential storeys above one, two or more storeys of commercial use.

This would expand the Exchange District and send its appealing flavour outward into the city. Along the aforementioned thoroughfares, there are already many old multi-storey buildings, often brick, of this type: Storefronts at bottom, sometimes second-floor offices, and several storeys of apartments above. We should take their traditional features as a stylistic model for infill.

A renowned architect such as the neo-traditionalist, new urbanist Marianne Cusato, who is helping to rebuild a post-Katrina Gulf Coast, should be consulted as we reconstruct ourselves as the Chicago of the North. Someone like Cusato, who offered an impressive design alternative for the new Alaskan state capitol, could be commissioned to design a number of different infill buildings whose pre-approved plans developers could have the option of building.

Most unpleasantly, creating continuity will require recovering lands currently occupied by parking lots, strip malls, automobile service stations, and prairie weeds. Expropriation might be necessary. One-way streets may have to be converted to two-way. Parking along commercial streets must be allowed on both sides, 24 hours a day. Although an adjacent LRT or subway stop offers tremendous benefit to any urban district, frequent and 24-hour bus service along mixed-use commercial strips will put feet on the street.

Restoring the traditional shopping streets would benefit not just those who live on or near them, but everyone who lives near or visits Winnipeg. They make for interesting places to visit, and value spreading from the inside out helps the periphery. Isn’t it preferable to live in a suburb of a safe, bustling, tourist-friendly city as opposed to one littered with abandonment?

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Real estate industry; Architecture and urban planning
Length: Medium, 649 words

New urbanists offer disaster relief



If you survived Katrina but your house didn’t, you might today be living on your lot in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However ignominious, even trashy, these 300 square-foot rectangles on wheels might look, they do offer somewhere to sleep, shower, watch TV, and stash your stuff while you rebuild your home. But if you’re among the 300,000 families still homeless in the Gulf Coast region this spring, you might be lucky enough to get one of the 40,000 U.S. Senate-approved Katrina Cottages ( that could be built this summer.

A hit at the 2006 International Builders Show back in January, the Katrina cottage comes in several design variants with a style architect Marianne Cusato describes as, “vernacular Gulf Coast.”

“It’s a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer,” says Cusato on the phone in her apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. Traditional home styles in the Gulf Coast Region inspired her designs, which feature a large, eight-foot-deep porch, upright casement windows, and pitched tin roof. Some floorplans include a 308 square foot studio, a one-bedroom of the same size, and a 434 square-foot two-bedroom. With bunk beds, even the smaller houses might accommodate four people.

“Human nature is actually to look for a small, cozy place,” says Cusato, whose Manhattan apartment, no larger than a Cusato Cottage, lends her a certain hands-on expertise in designing small spaces. But she grew up in Anchorage amid Alaska’s wide-open spaces, from where she visited Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in her youth. Falling in love with those cities’ traditional buildings, she went on to study architecture at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“Notre Dame,” she says, “teaches traditional and classical architecture, which taught me to articulate what it is about a building that makes it resonate through time.”

Indeed, another of her notable projects is a design alternative to the proposed Alaska state capitol, featuring a set of domes reminiscent of the many Russian Orthodox churches — many of which stand today — that were among the first structures erected in Alaska. Her forthcoming book, Get Your House Right: How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Today’s Traditional Architecture, contains a forward by England’s Prince Charles, whose neo-traditionalist, new urbanist Poundbury Village is a manifestation of his strong views critical of post-war planning and architecture.

Never mind Katrina, some New Urbanists contend that post-war suburban development and its attendant car culture constitute a much bigger economic and aesthetic disaster. John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism, was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 until 2004 and is credited with transforming his city’s reputation from rustbelt backwater to modern, Midwestern metropolis.

When I reached him via phone at his office in Chicago, where he now lives, Norquist explained how he did it. Downtown, one-way streets were converted back to two-way traffic, and parking restrictions were lifted. Surface-level parking lots were targeted for development by any means necessary.

“You have to stop permitting new surface lots,” he says. “If land goes on the market, the guy who buys it can’t pave it. There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary parking lot.

“But if you want to get rid of the old ones you have to pay — that’s a legitimate use of eminent domain,” he says, referring to a legal practice known in Canada as expropriation. Parking lots can then be broken into smaller lots, and sold to developers under the stipulation that they must be built upon, and not used for parking.

Most audaciously, however, Norquist was behind the decision to demolish Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, freeing 26 acres of downtown land that’s being developed according to New Urbanist principles: Mixed storefront-apartment buildings four- to six-storeys high, three-storey rowhouses, and landmark buildings up to 20 storeys high.

A few years ago, as a guest of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Norquist had the chance to meet then-mayor Glen Murray, who is often credited as having a “visionary” approach to Winnipeg’s future. Norquist’s opinion is that, despite Murray’s claims, our former mayor was no friend of the late author (and new urbanist inspiration) Jane Jacobs.

Eliminating parking restrictions and converting Winnipeg’s downtown streets back to two-way traffic could be accomplished inside of a week, if city hall were serious about bringing retail prosperity back to our city centre. But Mayor Sam Katz, like his predecessor, tries to be too many things to too many people, and thus remains rudderless, clueless, and ineffectual. Tax-tweaking alone won’t suffice; big changes to the physical makeup of our city are necessary to undo the mistakes of our modernist past. For so long as we fail to do so, the disaster that shut down the once-impressive retail and entertainment presence — indeed, the urban life — along Portage Avenue and Main Street will only continue to worsen.

Des Moines can’t touch Winnipeg



IS Des Moines Winnipeg’s twin? Recently, (Winnipeg through our eyes, May 1) the Free Press proffered that Iowa’s state capital is our “Mirror image.” Although I have visited Des Moines, it’s easier to see the differences via Google Earth. Just zoom in on any residential neighbourhood just off the central business district; then do the same with Winnipeg.

Whereas the sparsely laid houses in inner-city Des Moines occupy large lots, houses in Winnipeg are built right next to each other, and three-storey apartment blocks appear throughout our city grid. Winnipeg is much denser.

How much denser? In Des Moines proper (2000 census population 198,682) the overall density is 835 persons per square kilometre. In Winnipeg proper — i.e. pre-Unicity Winnipeg, excluding suburbs — the overall population is about the same (around 190,000, according to the 2001 census) but the density is 3,092 persons per square kilometre. In several urban neighbourhoods — Central Park, Roslyn, Broadway-Assiniboine — density exceeds 10,000 persons per square kilometre, and densities above 4,000 persons per square kilometre exist as far out as Weston. Even the semi-rural Charleswood neighbourhood of Roblin Park has a population density of 1,491 persons per square kilometre — far above the average of Des Moines proper, never mind their sprawling seven-county census metropolitan area (2000 census population 550,659).

Unlike Des Moines, Winnipeg is truly a city, with a vast, dense urban grid. It’s not just downtown and suburbia; there’s a city in between, and it’s big.

During the streetcar era, most of urban Winnipeg’s homes lay within quick walking distance of a mixed commercial-residential strip offering such essentials as a corner grocery store, a barber shop, a bakery, a caf, a hardware store, etc. Everything else was downtown, just a speedy streetcar ride away.

But a half century of de-urbanization has destroyed storefront continuity along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Selkirk, and Sargent. Parking lots, empty lots, strip malls, and gas stations lie interspersed between old brick mixed-use buildings that were somehow spared, lending our major urban streets a look resembling a smile with missing teeth. Inner-city shoppers, today mostly motorists, now tend to look outward, often toward the St. James Industrial Park’s big-box stores, for their needs.

But imagine our city rebuilt and restored, with a giant, continuous walkable storefront environment reaching far out from the downtown. It’s a Winnipeg better compared to Chicago, not Des Moines, and such an urban continuity would make for a potent attraction for both residents and visitors.

Restoring storefront continuity along inner city streets was not among the 10 suggestions offered by the Free Press in its series on downtown, but it should have been.

The city also needs a subway system and not a bus-rapid transit network that eliminates on-street parking along commercial inner-city streets and imperils storefront business while making it harder for pedestrians to cross the streets. (Parked cars on both sides of a four-lane street mean you need only cross two lanes of traffic.) Simultaneously, the Free Press articles encouraged the city to spend whatever it takes to build 10,000 new housing units downtown, but having eight subway stations servicing our large downtown, as per a plan first proposed in 1959, would be a greater incentive to build than any number of subsidies or tax tweaks.

Unlike any other transit idea proposed for Winnipeg, the 1959 plan would offer heated indoor platforms and would bring pedestrians to the greatest number of major destinations — the Health Sciences Centre, Red River College, St. Boniface General Hospital — and urban street corners where people already walk and where rapid transit service is most needed: Portage and Hargrave, River and Osborne, Selkirk and Salter, etc.

According to a 2000 report by the World Bank, subway systems average $50 million per kilometre. That means a 40-kilometre stretch in Winnipeg would cost about $2 billion. A lot of money? Yes. But $2 billion couldn’t buy anywhere near the amount of urban regeneration it would initiate — and Main Street needs more than a light makeover. Between a billion-dollar dam, a half-billion dollar airport terminal, and a mooted $300 million human rights museum, not to mention a the floodway expansion, Manitoba has proved we can afford big projects. Private markets, to flourish, require solid infrastructure, and the urban environment is lost without real rapid transit. A chintzy, bus-based system will only compound our problems both downtown and in the city in between.

Jane Jacobs: First, she saved Manhattan

The Winnipeg Free Press
Focus, Saturday, April 29, 2006, p. a17


For those who followed and admired her work, the death Tuesday of urban philosopher Jane Jacobs was moving and profound. Among the many achievements of her long life, it could be said she was, more than anyone else, single-handedly responsible for saving Manhattan from a destructive disaster far worse than Sept. 11, 2001. Were it not for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her indefatigable activism, there would today be a freeway connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan Bridge, sacrificing the beloved neighbourhoods of SoHo, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village.

Soon after moving to Toronto in 1969, she saved that city from a similar fate, leading the protest against the planned Spadina Expressway that would have razed that city’s Chinatown.

The Death And Life of Great American Cities was a moving work whose effects can be seen throughout North America in efforts to rebuild inner cities damaged by modernism. Her identification of four key generators of city diversity — mixed residential and commercial uses, short blocks, aged buildings, density — have helped planners crack the code that defines what makes some neighbourhoods safe and successful and others dull and dangerous.

Her work profoundly influenced the direction of my own life, leading me to pinpoint Commercial Drive in Vancouver as an ideal place to live, and live there I did for six years. It was during a visit home to Winnipeg in June 2000 that I saw my hometown’s urban problems. I was moved to write my first-ever piece for the Free Press opinion page, “Replace modernism with mixed use.”

There’s little evidence that Jacobs’ ideas have had an impact in Winnipeg. There’s some mixed-use proposals for St. Boniface’s Provencher Boulevard and downtown’s Waterfront Drive, but Jacobs, who never wrote about Winnipeg, probably would have best liked Main Street in the pre-modernist era, when the streetcars kept the streets teeming and certain single blocks of storefront businesses offered a diversity of services — cafs, grocers, boutiques, hardware stores, barbers, tailors, etc. — far greater than today’s automobile-centric shopping malls.

“The activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people,” wrote Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “[T]hat the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. People’s love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere.”

Besides her famous rows with Robert Moses, New York’s expressway-mad master builder, Jacobs aimed her most ruthless criticism at the ideas of Ebenezer Howard — the late 19th century utopian planner who envisioned a low-density, town-country hybrid “Garden City” separating residences, industry, and agriculture — and Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose “Radiant City” schemes of Internationalist-style towers-in-the-park living became the archetype for public housing projects throughout the U.S. and especially in East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Jacobs stayed at work well into her 80s; her last book, Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) lamented the breakdown of communities and families (“families rigged to fail”), society’s emphasis on credentials rather than education, and the mass amnesia associated with dark ages, where even the memory of what was lost is lost. “When Portland, Oregon, bought some [streetcars] recently, it had to order them from the Czech Republic,” she writes, “because the U.S. streetcar manufacturing industry, once the largest and most technologically advanced in the world, no longer exists.” Indeed, an often-mentioned theme in Dark Age Ahead is the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, in which streetcar systems were torn up in 146 jurisdictions throughout North America. Many young people living in those places today might not be aware that streetcars once served their streets; even if they are aware, they might not know how extensive were those systems. (How many Winnipeggers today know our city streets once enjoyed over 200 kilometres of streetcar lines?)

At the time of her death, Jacobs was at work on two manuscripts, but they are sure to find their way to print. Her body may have passed, but her ideas have more life than ever.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Real estate industry; Architecture and urban planning

Chicago hope: The Windy City offers an ideal urban model



LAST Saturday, as my girlfriend and I emerged from the Apple computer store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the sidewalks were buzzing with talk of a looming anti-war protest. As we rounded the corner onto Oak Street, a massive crowd began marching toward us chanting, whistling, waving signs and banners. For the next quarter hour we sat on a stoop, watching the spectacle of thousands of protesters walking past, and it struck me that even if so many Chicagoans dislike their country’s foreign policy, they do love their city’s downtown.

Although I had other business in Chicago, one of my intentions was to see what The Windy City has in common with the Chicago of the North.

Certainly Winnipeg’s Union Bank Tower, Lindsay Building, Electric Railway Chambers Building, and the Paris Building are scaled-down versions of the scores of original-era Chicago-style buildings that abound within Chicago’s downtown loop. But what impressed me more than the vestiges of a bygone architectural era were how scaled and sympathetic new buildings were to their surroundings. Usually brick exterior, they tend to follow a classic formula that has worked to enliven the downtowns of so many cities: ground-level storefront, second-floor offices, and anywhere from four to 18 storeys of apartment dwellings.

There is no reason why Winnipeg shouldn’t seize upon this winning formula. Obviously Winnipeg is a fraction of Chicago’s size, but we should certainly aim to mimic its urban successes on our own scale. No one’s suggesting we build to the scale of Hancock Center or the Sears Tower; depending on the street, five, seven, 10, or 15 storeys will do fine. Winnipeg already has many buildings of 15 stories or higher. Rather than spreading out to the Perimeter and beyond, it would make sense to restore not only densities lost in the latter half of the 20th century, but to build even more densely than we did in the streetcar era, thus adding to our tax base without having to expand services such as roads, sewers, garbage collection, snow removal, street cleaning, etc. It’s possible, indeed desirable, to add another 250,000 people into Winnipeg’s pre-1970 boundaries.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Blue West Construction, a condo development firm, has illustrated plans for the southwest corner of Main Street and Bannatyne Avenue that would see an existing three-storey heritage building incorporated into a seven-storey storefront-condo building. After a few hundred similar projects, downtown Winnipeg would seem much more like Chicago, at least as much as it did in 1920.

Chicago, too, has made its mistakes. Many of its new mixed-use buildings are taking the place of parking lots and strip malls that took the place of devalued buildings in the modernist era. Cabrini-Green, a giant housing project that epitomized the failure of public housing in America, has been mostly torn down for mixed-use buildings and new townhouses built in a traditional Chicago style. Peripheral downtown streets feature close, detached houses of various classic styles that could’ve been built in 1896 or 1996.

Chicago's signature 19th-century mixed-use storefront apartments. Photo: Dallas Hansen 2007

Chicago’s signature 19th-century mixed-use storefront apartments.
Photo: Dallas Hansen 2007

All this would be impossible without the services of the Chicago Transit Authority, whose subway and elevated rapid transit stations feed thousands from every station each day, sparing any need for automobile storage. Rapid transit alone is the difference between bustling, prosperous Chicago and desolate, failing Detroit.

Wicker Park, a neighbourhood on Chicago’s northwest side, was when I visited it last a decade ago rather rundown by comparison to today. Many of its buildings were abandoned, its storefronts filled with such services as pawn shops. Artists and bohemians moved in and gentrification followed, so that today Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park is lined with upscale boutiques, friendly watering holes, and trendy hair salons, in addition to the usual sorts of services, such as drug and grocery stores, that neighbourhood residents need. Above the storefronts are newly renovated lofts. Chain outfits such as 7-Eleven and Best Buy move into the ground level at the sidewalk rather than box stores with parking lots.

For all its walkability, Chicago is still friendly to the motorist. The main objective of this trip was to pick up a used car purchased via the Internet. Although parking was scarce outside our hotel in the northside neighbourhood of Wrigleyville, I did find a spot on the street overnight and area residents with a neighbourhood parking permit would have no trouble. A similar permit plan would benefit Winnipeg’s downtown and inner city residents with nowhere to park but on the street — yet constantly inconvenienced by parking restrictions.

Winnipeg would do well to strive to become known again as the Chicago of the North. Neither Calgary nor Edmonton could ever pull it off.

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Source: Winnipeg Free Press (MB), Mar 25, 2006, pa17

Item: 7BS7BS4038359476

Buildings should respect traditions



Recently in the Free Press, David Witty, Dean of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture, wrote about the importance of good design without specifying what might qualify as “good,” and without stepping on any toes by labeling anything bad.

Dean Witty did come close. He offered vague praises for the Provencher footbridge and the new Millennium Library. Yet he neglected to mention that upon its opening, the 1977 Centennial Library also was praised for its modern design — the original architect certainly thought it good — even though the Millennium project came about only because, by 1999, most Winnipeggers regarded the Centennial Library as unbearably hideous.

In 1965, our new city hall was considered a major aesthetic improvement over the 1886 “gingerbread house” it replaced; today, the Civic Centre’s monolithic modernism comprises some of the city’s most reviled structures, while the old Victorian City Hall remains much-lamented.

“Good design” is relative. Trends do come and go, but most buildings in Winnipeg that are universally accepted as beautiful were constructed before 1920. These designs were based not upon an architect’s egotistical whim or desire for experimentation. Rather, they conformed to the classic forms that manifested themselves in the contemporary styles of the day: Chicagoan, Richardsonian Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Edwardian Commercial, Victorian Italianate.

Examples of each can be found in the Exchange District, a national historic site of which Winnipeggers are rightfully proud. But, before being demolished for the sake of modernist experiments or surface-level parking, Exchange District-style buildings were once laid over a much larger area of the city, throughout the downtown and into the inner city along such streets as Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Logan, Sargent, and Selkirk.

At the time, the demolitions may have seemed convenient, but they permanently transformed the urban environment into something comparatively repellent.

Recent new construction in the inner city has been unsympathetic to historical surroundings. Across from the brick, five-storey, 1909 Casa Loma Building on Portage was recently constructed a number of single-storey, box-style fast food outlets (and, set back a good distance from the sidewalk, a drug store) no different than those found among the subdivided outskirts of North American suburbs and small towns.

Perhaps the middle-class, suburban men and women who comprise the city’s planning department have decided the best course is to suburbanize the urban? Or maybe the problem is there’s no planning at all.

As legendary Winnipeg planner Earl Levin wrote in a 1984 paper titled Beyond the Core Area Initiative: Prospects for Downtown Winnipeg: “Major planning and development decisions affecting the City of Winnipeg are not being made by city council and do not involve in any formal way the city’s planning department.”

Speaking of Levin, it is he we have to thank for the wasteland of surface parking that exists downtown south of Portage and north of Broadway. Up until the late 1960s, the area was residential — tree-lined streets filled with row houses and walk-up apartment buildings; where now sits the Convention Centre once lay a school. Levin had a grandiose vision of a modern, Le Corbusier-inspired, towers-in-the-park sort of downtown, and the first of it was completed in 1972 between Hargrave and Carlton streets between York and St. Mary avenues — Lakeview Square. While the plaza in the centre of it all didn’t turn out to be the hit Levin expected — I find it a solitudinal spot to enjoy a surreptitious beer on a weekday afternoon — those who sit amid its shade might look at their surroundings and think, “That’s a lot of concrete.”

But Levin’s vision, minus the subway he and Bernie Wolfe had hoped for, only compounded the parking problem and left our landscape filled with holes.

If Winnipeg’s Exchange District might be compared to Vancouver’s Gastown, we would do well to do what they have done. New buildings in Gastown have aped the scale and the style of historical surrounding structures, often with a postmodern twist.

Winnipeg should work aggressively to develop empty lots and parking lots into new buildings of the old styles, expanding our Exchange District into the neighbouring neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Centennial, and West Alexander, while demanding that all new development in the inner city be aesthetically rooted in one of the historic forms we all agree to admire.

Petro prices could drive more to bus, try walking

Focus, Tuesday, November 8, 2005, p. A13

Repopulating of core, better transit are key to going without car


ECONOMISTS and geologists have offered ample warning that the days of cheap oil would not last. This year, however, their words took on new meaning when gasoline prices rose beyond a dollar per litre.

Were it any other product, consumers might be induced to substitution, even a change in lifestyle. But most Canadians have instead opted to take the hit and keep on motoring, with many venting their anger in nasty letters to our dithering prime minister, demanding he take action.

On a macro level, even a complete elimination of the gasoline tax would do nothing to change the laws of supply and demand, conditions over which the government is helpless. But on a micro level, householders decrying the unaffordability of petrol could adopt one simple policy to rein in their transportation budgets. They can quit driving.

It’s not impossible. Motorists living in such urban enclaves as Toronto’s Bloor West Village or Vancouver’s West End will admit to seldom using their car for anything other than weekend getaways that seldom happen every week. Even here in Winnipeg there exist districts scaled to the wayfarer rather than the driver.

Upon closer inspection, the Everyday Low Prices of suburbia’s big boxes aren’t necessarily so low. To begin with, their location and layout presuppose automobile ownership.

At current gas prices, owning and operating even a basic vehicle will average over $400 per month. Driving something that invites ignominy will cost closer to $700 per month. Shopping at local grocers in the walkable central city might mean paying more for some items, but there’s little chance that the difference will add up to hundreds a month.

Corner store

Moreover, the overpriced independent grocer seems to be more myth than substance. Recently I ran to the corner store for an emergency bottle of lemon juice which I bought for $1.99. The nearest chain supermarket sold the same bottle for $2.69.

Besides the fiscal, other benefits to quitting driving concern one’s quality of life. Having somewhere to buy fresh produce between the transit stop and one’s home means fresher food. Missing ingredients can be had without wrangling through traffic and navigating a sea of seemingly endless parking. Smaller grocers are often family owned, and some, even in this day, still allow regular customers to run an informal tab.

Quitting driving can improve health too, for walking offers us exercise without the tedium or cost of visiting a fitness club.

While few would disagree that the automobile is unessential for the bachelor life, most Canadians would say that a car (or minivan or SUV) is a must for raising families. But the inner cities are filled with zero-car households that often comprise more than a kid or two. Many of these families can’t afford a car, but many can. Their children are obliged to get around on their own: walking, bicycling, skateboarding, even riding public transit. Our nation of chauffeured children is really a nation of coddled, overprotected, spoiled brats.

Until gas prices rise yet further, life sans auto won’t be a catching trend. How far up need they go? It’s possible that oil at $100 a barrel will draw mass demonstrations, even rioting, before it will draw people from their auto-centric lifestyles.

But in the last year or so, Winnipeg Transit buses have seemed much fuller, with many routes standing-room-only not just during peak hours, but throughout the day and indeed even the evening.

Most of these new riders likely did not opt out of driving; they were forced out, by economic circumstances. It would be an interesting statistic, the number of Winnipeggers who spend more on transportation than they do on housing.

Winnipeggers frequently congratulate themselves on having a lower cost-of-living than Canada’s three overpriced metropolises. What they fail to mention, however, is that in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver — in the central city at least — it’s possible to live without a car and not be stigmatized, ridiculed, or inconvenienced.

In Winnipeg this might not be so, but given a proper transit system and the repopulation of the inner city, more of us who can afford to drive will make the choice not to.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Inflation, prices and salaries; Oil and petrochemical industries
Length: Medium, 584 words

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