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