Can an old idea get a second chance?

Planners and urban designers are always full of great ideas.  These great ideas rarely see the light of day, and most remain buried in reports, sketches or daydreams.

However, some of these ideas take on a life of their own.  They may sit unheard and unseen for many years, yet they occasionally percolate to the top of someone’s agenda, and – sometimes in bits of pieces – begin to re-define the city.

In the 1960s, the city’s planning department developed a plan for the redevelopment of Winnipeg’s downtown.  There were many parts of this plan that were realized – most to the detriment of our central core.  But some parts of the plan remained as no more than ideas. One of those ideas was that Edmonton Street become a main pedestrian and “green” corridor in downtown, linking Central Park and the north-central core area with Broadway, Assiniboine Avenue, and the Assiniboine River.

A part of this dream was realized in the 1970s when a park was developed linking Central Park and Ellice Avenue, north of Portage Place Shopping Centre.  Though this park has contributed perhaps little to the quality of life of local residents, it kept the flame alive, and resulted in a little-known arrangement in Portage Place shopping centre.

The North Portage Development Corporation, as part of its development of the Portage Place, established a binding and perpetual agreement with the original developers (Cadillac Fairview).  In return for North Portage paying to make the Edmonton Court in the mall a great big airy greenhouse and gathering place, Cadillac Fairview agreed to make it a quasi-public place in which the city and the North Portage Development Corporation could stage public events at their discretion in perpetuity.  This right has not been exercised often, but remains in place.

This large-scale indoor public open space has been mostly forgotten, and most people see it as no more than the part of the shopping mall that happens to have a big glass roof.

In 2002, the City engaged NDLea Engineers and Planners, and a team of consultants, to prepare a strategy for revitalization Portage.  The report mainly concentrated on tools for attracting commercial activity along The Avenue.  In addition, other initiatives were suggested which were intended to enrich the areas north and south of Portage – with the understanding that only with an active hinterland could The Avenue become, once again, the core street of Winnipeg.

One of the hinterland initiatives presented in the planning report was to develop Edmonton Street as a pedestrian-friendly and commercially active link between Edmonton Court and the Convention Centre.  Edmonton Street has carried little traffic since it was closed north of Portage Avenue.  If there is one downtown street that could be easily closed for special occasions, it is Edmonton between Graham and Portage Avenues.  And Edmonton Street closed to traffic for one block for public parties could become a perfect counterpart to the great big public greenhouse just north of Portage Avenue (remember Edmonton Court?) for really big street parties (even in rain and snow).

Though it was officially accepted by the city’s administration, The Portage Avenue Revitalization Plan was never made public, and it has sat un-read in the city’s shelf for the past three years.  There has been no particular reason to open this file, and everyone has been comfortable with it as an incidental piece of urban history.

Four years ago the City swapped Winnipeg Hydro for a guarantee that Manitoba Hydro would build a great big building downtown.  That building is now under construction.  It will be on Edmonton Street just south of of Edmonton Court.

All of which got me thinking.

Edmonton Court North (glazed) and Edmonton Court South (open to the sky) could easily become the new hub of downtown activity.   Events could be scheduled for both the atrium and for the closed street south of Portage Avenue.  Manitoba Hydro could be the patriarchal donor of public space improvements along the west boundary of their land.  The City could facilitate construction and approval.  The North Portage Development Corporation could coordinate events – as they already do under their other name at The Forks.

The first step in making this happen will be for Manitoba Hydro to volunteer to take a lead role in redevelopment of the street – with street narrowing, a bike lane, trees, seating, and equipment to easily close and re-open the street to traffic. Manitoba Hydro’s role should be to sponsor this development and to include the construction work as part of their building development.  The city’s role should be to put up some money and to facilitate this development at every step of the way.  And the North Portage Development Corporation’s role should be to act as champion for the project before and following construction.  These roles fall easily within the mandates of all three players.

The Winnipeg Hydro deal was too sweet for Manitoba Hydro for them to express any hesitation about supporting this initiative.  Support for Edmonton Court South (call it Hydro Court if we have to) represents a fly on the elephant of the Hydro building budget.  And this is an excellent opportunity for Manitoba Hydro to show its true colours as a responsible and enthusiastic corporate citizen.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, September 14, 2006

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