Sam’s parking lot

The city is set to make a decision that could set back growth at The Forks

The city’s executive policy committee voted Thursday to award CanWest Global Park a 16-year-lease on a parcel of land at The Forks, overturning the past practice of signing year-to-year leases for lands the ball park uses for parking.

This decision if it is allowed to stand following council’s meeting next week, raises a number of important questions, particularly the appropriateness of approving a deal that may sweeten the bottom line of the park’s owner, namely Mayor Sam Katz.  But before we get into that, here’s a little background.

Many people have different ideas about where The Forks begins and ends; it is in fact a 32-hectare site extending from the confluence of the two rivers, west to Main Street and north to the CN Rail bridge by the baseball park.  Part of this area is owned by Parks Canada, part is owned by The Forks Renewal Corporation, and part is owned by the City of Winnipeg.  The Forks were used as a rail exchange yard for nearly 100 years, until, in 1986-88, the three levels of government obtained the lands from CN, and created The Forks Renewal Corporation (FRC). The FRC was given the responsibility of planning the Forks Mandate Area, which includes all of these lands.

As part of its mandate, the FRC developed a long-term planning framework and planning guidelines, that were approved by all three levels of government.  The gist of these guidelines is that The Forks is to become an integral part of the city, with a rich mixture of commercial, residential and recreational development; the vacant lands left by the rail yards are to be filled with a network of integrated, inhabited places.  The intent of the guidelines is being realized. In the past 20 years, new buildings and finished public parks have replaced much of the empty lands, and the Forks has become, more and more, an important destination for tourists and an integral part of our city.

The FRC has adopted a policy regarding surface parking lots:  There should be few of them, and each should hold fewer than 50 cars.  Most surface parking should be replaced with parking structures and separated from public areas.  This will take time, but the policy includes the city-owned lands north of York Avenue and in particular, the land to be discussed by council next week.

When a new arena for the Jets was proposed for the site of the current baseball park, extensive studies were completed to determine whether there was enough parking in the area to satisfy the needs of a 22,000-seat facility.  It was established that there were enough existing spaces within a five to ten minute walking distance, none of which were on the Forks site.  This would suggest that there is more than enough parking available to meet the needs of the ball park, which holds only one third as many seats as the ill-fated arena.

The mayor and the owners of our baseball team have had a year-to-year lease on several parcels of land around the ball park since it opened.  These lands are used for parking, but the right to use them for parking can be taken away with a 12-month notice from the city.  If there is viable development proposed for these lands, they will be made available.  This policy is not an accident.  It is an integral part of the long-term plan for The Forks Mandate area, and was developed with the full co-operation and support of the city’s planning department.

Special care was exercised by the city’s property department to assure that the land immediately southeast of the baseball park would fall under this year-to-year arrangement in order to facilitate development of the site.  (This area lies between the Hu’s on First restaurant and the intersection of Water Street and Waterfront Drive.)  The long-term plan identified the site as key to the area’s development, and as a potential place for a gateway structure between St. Boniface and downtown.

That plan will no longer be possible, at least not for another 16 years, if council approves the recommendation from executive policy committee.

The city’s own experts in the property department have recommended against awarding the lease, but executive policy committee apparently believes the site is necessary for restaurant parking, and that it is too small for development anyway.  Both of these claims are highly suspect.  If there is plenty of parking in the area for 22,000-seat arena, there is surely plenty of parking for a 7,500-seat ball park 40 nights per year and a mid-size restaurant.  The site is approximately 135 feet by 200 feet, and it is larger than most of the new development sites along Waterfront Drive.  It is large enough to support a significant private-sector development.  A quick calculation suggests that a six-storey 90,000 square foot building could be built on the site, and still leave 60 feet clear on the side facing the ball park.  To put this into perspective nearly one quarter the size of The Bay.

There is a growing consensus that we have too much surface parking downtown on serviced land, and that this land could better support productive, multi-use development.  If city council awards this 16-year lease to the ball park owners, it will prolong and extend this deadening condition.   The mayor should ecplain to the public why it should not interpret this deal as anything but an example of political and economic self-interest trumping the general good.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, September 23, 2006

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