Paved paradise, put up a parking lot

Preparations for postwar boom made downtown Winnipeg a bust

Gwynne Dyer , whose syndicated column appears in the Free Press, normally writes about global politics and evolving economic realities.  Yet, a couple of years ago, he broke out of his usual range of concerns and wrote an article about cities that started me thinking about some of Winnipeg’s history over the past 50-60 years.

Dyer’s main proposition was that the cities of the world are developed at their cores very early in their lifetimes – and that the defining character of a city’s downtown is established at this early stage of its life.

This observation gains significance when we study occasions where there have been self-conscious attempts to redefine city cores – and when the inherent character of a place is stripped away.

Central Winnipeg experienced one of these well-intentioned attempts at redefinition in the years after the Second World War – and the results of this effort have had a long-lasting and negative impact on our city.

Our downtown area between Portage Avenue and Broadway was well developed by the time the war ended.  It was full of four- to six-storey apartment buildings and small commercial enterprises.  The streets were lined with hundreds of elm trees.  And there was a general sense of continuity and coherence in the area.

After the war, it was decided that our downtown should be prepared for the coming boom in development.

In order to pave the way for this to happen, several things were done.  The first, and most violent, was that the streets of downtown (especially between Portage Avenue and Broadway, and between Main Street and Isabel) were widened and turned into one-way traffic carriers in the belief that more efficient traffic movement would bring development.  When these streets were widened, those hundreds of healthy elm trees were deemed to be in the way of progress, and they were all cut down.

Once this groundwork was completed, the second initiative of modernization was carried out in the form of a zoning by-law change that allowed for a substantial increase in the allowable scale of buildings – and which demanded an accompanying increase in parking provision.

Because the land costs were relatively low, it became attractive for developers to build large buildings, and to buy neighbouring older buildings and lands on which to put the surface parking lots to serve their buildings.  (It was cheaper to purchase existing buildings – and to demolish them for surface parking – than to build parking structures for their new buildings.)

The long term result of these policies was that by the mid-1970s, this area of our downtown looked more like something hit by a bomb more than a healthy downtown.

In the last 30 years, the area has been slowly healing itself with new buildings.

The healing process might be seen to be about half done (through an optimistic lens), and if we can fill our current plethora of surface parking lots in the area with real building projects, with parking structures, and (please) with some small public parks, this hole in our downtown will no longer be a hole.

However, even if we are able to fill in the holes, and achieve some reasonable level of urban coherence, we are unlikely to achieve the pleasant character which was so blithely destroyed with visions of a new world 50 years ago.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, February 14, 2004

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