Best bet – where not many people usually go

Five years ago the City of Winnipeg rewrote the downtown zoning by-law.  As part of the process, the planning department reviewed the range of building and land uses that would be appropriate in the city’s centre.  This review was carried out amid an international consensus that more diverse types of use are best for downtowns – and that blanket restrictions prohibiting certain land uses should be implemented only with great restraint.  The authors of the new zoning bylaw noted that an asphalt plant would not be permitted in our downtown, and that only extremely noxious, or obnoxious, land use would be prohibited.

The relaxation of use restrictions is probably a good thing for urban centres.  A fairly permissive environment makes it easier for entrepreneurs to initiate projects, and for unexpected uses to appear as the marketplace explores new directions.  This represents a sea change in planning attitudes – a welcome change to the overly predictive and restrictive zoning most cities had for the preceding 50 to 60 years.  Yet as this new laissez-faire consensus has become law, we may want to determine what projects really do deserve prohibition.  What kinds of development really are destructive to the economic and social health of our cities’ downtowns?

One obvious candidate for such prohibition in a lively downtown is large-scale surface parking.  Another is a stadium.  Manitoba’s senior federal minister, Vic Towes, announced this spring that Winnipeg’s new stadium should be built “downtown”.  In this context, downtown was defined, rather surprisingly, as Point Douglas, and the announcement was made with the apparent belief that any government largesse should, in principle, be located in the city centre, and that it would inevitably lead to an downtown growth.

It is a truism in city planning that there is a significant difference between arenas (hockey, basketball, boxing, mid-scale rock concerts) and stadiums (football, mega-concerts) in relation to their impact on urban surroundings.  The emblematic arenas in North America are probably Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden – mid-scale urban venues that have a large number of diverse events year-round.  Our arena, MTS Centre, now has over 250 events each year – an astounding five per week.  This level of relatively constant and steady use fosters, over a period of years, a certain equilibrium between users, local infrastructure, and local spin-off commercial activity.   The general experience has been that arenas like ours prove to be positive urban generators of business and city life.

A stadium, however, is a different animal.  The number of events in stadiums is limited by their size, and they often showcase only 15 to 20 events per year – each attended by a massive and sporadic influx of audience members. It is difficult for normal urban enterprises to coexist with such a variable presence.  The Hubert Humphrey Stadium was built in 1980 in central Minneapolis as the home of the Minnesota Vikings.  Even though the stadium was covered, and thus able to house more events than an open-air facility, the sporadic-massive-influx characteristic of large stadium was inevitable.  The only neighbours to survive the powerful presence of the stadium are surface parking lots and sports-oriented drinking establishments – and even these have to survive on intense, occasional business opportunities.

Chicago’s Soldier Field might be considered “downtown” because it is on the lakefront and central to greater Chicago; however, it is a good distance from any area that might be considered downtown, or mixed-use, or urban.  Because it is in a large park, far from any urban environment, the massive sporadic influx of users in Soldier Field has had little negative impact on Chicago’s downtown, and the relationship, if not one of spurring urban development, seems to be non-destructive.

Montreal’s Percival Molson Stadium sits in urban surroundings in ways that are very similar to Soldier Field – it is centrally located but is not an integral part of downtown – and it is surrounded by mixed-use, populated urban areas.  Montreal’s stadium is tucked away in a corner of Mount Royal at the north side of the McGill University campus.

Cincinnati has built two massive new stadiums in its downtown over the past decade.  Both are architecturally handsome, and both were meant to contribute to the rebirth of Cincinnati’s centre.  They were constructed side by side along the Ohio River, isolated from downtown by urban expressways, and surrounded by large parking lots.  One has simply to look at an aerial view of Cincinnati on Google Earth to understand how misguided the two large projects were in terms of creating downtown vitality, and how sad it was to turn the city’s back, once again, on the river that was the community’s original raison d’être.

The new Winnipeg stadium, wherever it is constructed, will not have a roof. This is because caveats were placed against the stadium in order to protect the MTS Centre from competition.  An uncovered stadium will have fewer, and necessarily more sporadic, events than a covered facility.  And the impact of this restriction will be to heighten the “black hole”, or vacuum, impact of the stadium on its surroundings.

If stadiums are a necessary part of large cities, where are they best located?  I suspect that Chicago, Montreal tell the story rather nicely:  Such facilities belong in areas that already endure sporadic incursions of large numbers of people. And they belong in areas in were there is no adjacent existing fine-scaled urban fabric or mixed-use.  In Winnipeg the location of our existing stadium in Polo Park seems to fit the criteria for good location rather well.

Land values also have a bearing on the location of a stadium.  Car dealerships and large-scale athletic facilities are both attracted by large parcels of low-cost available land.  As land values rise these facilities tend to search for lower-cost locations, where their relatively low-per-square-foot earning power is more closely related to land value.  Might it be that the high land values in the Polo Park area (possibly the highest in the city) may be too financially attractive to waste on sporadic athletic use?

If this is the case, we may wonder about who would benefit from the sale of the current stadium lands – and whether the idea of moving to riverfront lands in Point Douglas is driven more by the search for easily expropriated, relatively cheap land than by dreams of a revitalized urban core.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Impact of urban university leaves no room for cheap architecture

The decision to locate Manitoba’s major university far from Winnipeg’s urban centre may have been the most unfortunate planning decision in the city’s history.

At first glance we might think that a university is a university – and that as long as the appropriate educational statistics are satisfied then campus location should be irrelevant.  However, the experience in other cities reminds us of the important contribution large urban universities make to the richness and vivacity of their cities (in Canada, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax come to mind).

Winnipeg is fortunate in that the University of Winnipeg is expanding.  Though the U of W may never grow to become our major provincial university, it does show promise of becoming much more of a presence in this city’s downtown.  If the current building campaign is successful, the U of W may bring at least a taste of the impact McGill, the University of Toronto, or Dalhousie have had on Montreal, Toronto and Halifax, respectively.

The architectural heritage of the U of W is surprisingly strong.  The original Wesley Hall (now home to the U of W Collegiate) was a beautiful sandstone structure which has recently been restored.  At the north end of the main campus, along Ellice Avenue, sits an imposing – though generally forgotten – brick building (Lockhart Hall).  Lockhart Hall was designed by Moody Moore and Partners, and is an excellent example of the architecture of the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, the U of W launched an adventurous rebuilding campaign.  This initiative resulted in the construction of Centennial Hall, designed by Louis Morse of Moody Moore and Partners.  Centennial Hall may be seen today as a lot of steel and glass hulking over sidewalks and smaller buildings below.  In fact it was an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: how to double the size of the university’s facilities without buying more land and without destroying all of the buildings that already filled the campus.  The grand scheme grew out of current theoretical work in Europe, and was recognized in the international architectural press as an important breakthrough building.

As the University of Winnipeg expands, we can all hope that this tradition of excellent institutional architecture will be continued – guaranteeing that new buildings will reflect the long tradition of urban universities constructing high quality, durable buildings.  Unfortunately, there is reason to suspect that architectural quality is not high on the institution’s agenda.  Work that has recently been completed at the north end of Lockhart Hall, the handsome brick structure along Ellice Avenue, provides a telling case-in-point.

Road works were completed at the Ellice Avenue entrance to create the main campus drop-off.  The concrete ramp, which provides access for wheelchairs, received a new red vinyl roof.  It is this roof that caught my eye.  It appears that the roof was constructed to reduce snow-clearing costs and to make life for those who need the ramp more comfortable. Given the quality of the work, it also appears that the cheapest methods and materials were chosen to put a roof on the ramp.  The result is an arched vinyl roof supported by randomly spaced galvanized steel pipes.  The new roof stands in startling and disturbing contrast with the building behind it – both in terms of construction quality and in terms of architectural excellence.

Our institutions are clearly strapped for funds.  This malaise seems to be a permanent reality for universities, and public sector bureaucracies are perennially afraid to be seen “wasting” the taxpayer’s money.  Too much attention to this sometimes imagined political hot potato can, and often does, lead to short-changing of our society’s broader goals.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of excessive budgetary caution we have to, from time to time, remind ourselves of the underlying mandates of our public institutions, and assure that those mandates do not suffer.

A university works within clear and well-understood mandates: to provide good-quality educational services reliably and within established budgets.  There are, as well, other mandates: to enrich our society; to establish and maintain a presence and status in our culture; to be a beacon of excellence; and to be a permanent and significant reflection of our society’s pride and aspirations.  These mandates extend well beyond technical and short-term fiduciary responsibility.

All building projects at the university are integral to it’s mandates.  This is as true for a roof for a ramp as it is for a large-scale building project.  It is especially true when that roof becomes an integral and highly visible part of a larger building.  All actions by the university carry the inherent obligation to promote and reflect the significance of the institution.  Especially for building projects, money spent for the long term is better than money spent many times over for the short term.  (The vinyl canopy not only sends a message of lack of care; it will have to be replaced 20 times in the lifespan of a well-designed and well-constructed version.)

One can only surmise that the decision to construct this flimsy and distressing “Band-Aid” grew from the internal administration’s desire to get it done “fast and cheap”.  The results confirm that the departments charged with facility management should not become the arbiters of institutional presence.  They should not be licensed, because of their budget control responsibilities and obligations, to oversee technical performance, to decide what an institution is – in the public eye and memory.  As for every other public or private institution, the head person is where the buck stops, and the president of the University of Winnipeg might do well to keep closer tabs on the physical signals the university is sending.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, July 29, 2007

Castro’s dictatorship has failed the people of Cuba

Though I grew up in a United States that vilified Communism, was aware of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and worked with architects who had fought alongside the guerrillas (and subsequently escaped to the U.S.), I have remained blithely ambivalent about leader Fidel Castro’s role and impact.   After a recent trip to Havana. I am no longer ambivalent.

In the last fifty years, Cuba has achieved near-universal literacy.  Ballet and music receive intensive support.  The government has driven several world-class sustainability initiatives.  Bio-medical research is an important sector.  And Cuba’s educational meritocracy and emphasis on higher learning have resulted in a well-educated management and professorial class.

But even though Castro has been responsible for some real gifts to his people, the net social and economic result is negative.

Havana is a city of 2.3 million.  It is densely built up, and, especially in its original colonial areas, is full of wonderful civic structures, parks and urban vistas.  Yet there are, throughout the city, millions of square feet of abandoned and nearly-abandoned buildings.  These buildings were once fully occupied and maintained, and the decline from an earlier state of vitality and health is unavoidable.   (There are, by Cuba’s own admission, 40,000 people “living in sub-human conditions,” but the impression one receives walking the streets is that the number is substantially higher.) This intense urban poverty is a significant indicator of Cuba’s underlying condition.

The U.S. embargo is often blamed for Cuba’s increased poverty.  However, a closer look at business and social life in Havana suggests that there is more behind Cuba’s current economic state than the U.S. embargo.

Before arriving in Cuba, I asked several friends who had visited Havana why there were only 1950s-era U.S.-made cars in the country even though the rest of the world was still trading with Cuba.  I never received a knowledgeable answer, so I was surprised to see that the famous old cars make up only a small proportion of Havana’s automobiles, and the streets are full of recent-model Asian and European cars and trucks.  The rest of the world – and has been for 50 years – exchanging goods with Cuba.

Cuba has a thriving (mostly government-run) hotel and hospitality industry.  The well-dressed, impeccably-trained staff arrive from their modest homes and are paid $20 per month to smile and be gracious to tourists from Europe, Canada, Asia, and from the wealthier parts of South and Central America.  Outside the tourist and transportation industries, the lack of business development is startling. (The Havana telephone directory is the size one would expect for two million people; while the yellow pages directory is about the size of a Harlequin romance novel.)

Cuba was robbed of a large and vibrant middle class in 1959, when Castro took control of the country.  Those who operated small- and mid-scale businesses were seen by the revolutionaries as basically selfish and destructive, and their evil was equated with that of the Mob and of Batista and of “Big Sugar”.  Their properties were taken, some were executed – and many fled to Miami, where their knowledge, abilities and ambition have driven the economic re-birth of south Florida.

Without an ambitious and knowledgeable business class, and with governmental discouragement of creative business development. Cuba has been effectively strangled as an economic engine by its own internal policies for 50 years.  During this time profits available from government sale of sugar and oil have been used to support a relatively primitive economy.  This top-down provision of cash and material has also been immensely subsidized by the former Soviet Union, by Communist China and, more recently, by Venezuela. Somewhat ironically, government largesse is fuelled today by the money that arrives from wealthy capitalist tourists.

Economies of the world grow through invention, risk, exchange and profit.  This profit becomes a resource for subsequent cycles of invention, risk, exchange and profit.  There are clearly dangers and abuse in these cycles of business, and protections against these problems are constantly evolving in the developed world.  Castro and the Cuban government chose to protect against the abuses and dangers of capital growth by prohibiting it and by permitting only the most primitive form of barter economy.  It is this prohibition, and the missing (exiled) middle class, which has caused Cuba’s lack of exchange and local economic vitality.  The U.S. embargo has been incidental. Trade within Cuba and between Cuba and Europe, Asia and Canada could have easily counterbalanced the U.S. embargo if Cubans had been able to pursue personal and financial enrichment.

Old Havana was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.  With this recognition – and thanks to the efforts of many of Havana’s architects and historians – Cuba and the international community have been pursuing for the past decade an aggressive policy of rebuilding key colonial structures and plazas (literally from the ruins) in the old city.  The results of these efforts are wonderful, and the re-built districts are as delicious as any urban environments I know.  Yet they are miniscule in face of the thousands of buildings and hundreds of streets which have fallen into a state not far from a Mad Max movie set.  Top-down improvements, even at 10 times the speed of the current program, will not make a visible dent in the texture of abandonment which remains.  Only bottom-up economically-driven improvements from thousands of individual initiatives will be able to heal this unfortunate place.

It is clear that Cuba had problems in the 1950s: the Mob had inordinate influence; the gap between rich and poor was immense; educational levels were low and illiteracy high; Batista ran a tyrannical state; and U.S.-owned corporations dictated economic and governmental policy.  All of these had to be addressed, and perhaps a revolution was a necessary first step.  A dictatorial top-down Soviet-style bureaucracy, however, was not the only way to have achieved social justice, economic well-being and cultural enrichment.  The propaganda-rich environment of Cuba appears to have been more successful in infantilizing an entire population than in making a just and thriving society.

A laissez-faire solution is, and clearly would have been, problematic.  The solution was not to have imitated Mexico, where graft, dishonest governance and a chasm between haves and have-nots run counter to the underlying principles of the revolutionary socialists.  An interesting solution, though, may be on the horizon: Hugo Chávez, the purportedly socialist president of Venezuela, claims to consider Castro his hero and model.  Yet Chávez – according to televised advertisements we saw in Havana on Venezuelan television – is offering business development loans to the citizens of Venezuela for all levels of enterprise.  Business loans are the selling to others of the right to use money for their own future profit and well-being.  Capitalism, too, at its heart, is the selling to others of the right to use money for their own future profit and well-being.  Chávez’s loan initiative may represent a chink in the armour of dictatorial anti-capitalist socialism.

The thriving cultures and economies of Scandinavia have realized the goals of socialism yet maintained a thriving middle class, all within a democratic, transparent and capitalist state. Fidel and Raul Castro and their successors should perhaps take a closer look – though after three generations of central planning re-creation of an entrepreneurial class may prove difficult.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Thursday, March 29, 2007

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

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

Owners of vacant land downtown should be taxed at a higher rate to spur development

A recent article in this newspaper bemoaned Winnipeggers’ lack of pride, and our embarrassment about our city as a place to visit.  There is a lot about the city which makes it well worth the visit, and we have, for years, enjoyed showing surprised visitors how large, varied and rich Winnipeg is.  Many years ago we gave a short tour to famed urbanist and thinker Jane Jacobs – whose comment was that Winnipeg was remarkably urban (the ultimate compliment) – and much more urban than bigger and faster-growing Vancouver.

However, there is one overriding reality in Winnipeg that makes it very difficult to convince those who love to experience good cities that Winnipeg is anything more than an overgrown town.  That reality is the immense amount of un-built space in our downtown.

Just 40 years ago this un-built space was full of four- and five-storey buildings, and the lack of those buildings in today’s downtown has resulted in a distressing range of problems for our city.  The most obvious of these problems is aesthetic.  The wide-open spaces between Broadway and Portage Avenue are the epitome of un-inviting place.  With little to attract residents or visitors, and with little to attract exploration or buying of goods, it is very difficult to introduce the small-scale and incremental commerce which is the hallmark of the world’s great cities.

If the problem were only aesthetic, an unattractive place can be simply ignored, and we can all go to the park, or explore the Exchange District, or stroll our tree-lined residential streets, or go to the mall.  After all, every city has its less-than-perfect underbelly, and what’s the big deal if we have one too? The big deal, of course, is that a downtown is not a place to be hidden away and forgotten.  It is the symbolic and very real face we present to ourselves and to others.

The costs of a wind-blown downtown are great.  Winnipeggers themselves are embarrassed by our downtown.  We are surprised that someone might want to visit, and we appear to feel that there is nothing worth seeing.  The most rapidly growing sector in the world’s economy is tourism, and we shut out our share of the world’s market because of the downtown we show the world.  The costs of having a city no one wants to visit are real and large.  The attractiveness of Winnipeg is so low that even our children leave for the bright lights of the romantic cities in remarkable numbers, and not many come here looking for our bright lights.

Costs are not just aesthetic and social.  The streets of downtown were built and equipped at great expense to service many times the demands which are put on them.  Sewer, water and road systems are capable of serving at least 10 times their current load at no additional expense. And those under-used systems continue to cost money simply to be kept operational – even though they remain under-used.  Public moneys have been and continue to be spent, and literally wasted, because of our development history.  (Another side of this under-use is that additional serviced lands “have to” be constructed on the city’s outskirts, even though there is a supply of underused serviced land lying fallow downtown.)

When tourists and residents stay away in droves, the snowball effect of inaction is costly.  Businesses are less successful, and either fail, or, at best, pay less tax.  The under-used serviced lands downtown generate some tax revenue from surface parking lots, but the tax which is generated is miniscule compared to that which can be generated by successful continuous urban development.

Winnipeg is not the only city to have this problem.  Cities like Dallas and Houston make Winnipeg look downright dense.  But no one wants to visit downtown Dallas or Houston, either.  Because these problems are not limited to Winnipeg, there is a tremendous resource out there in the rest of the world – of planners, architects, politicians, policy wonks and citizen activists who have been struggling to get rid of the holes in their city centres.  Some of the tools used in other places have worked, and some have not.  Some of the tools which have been successful in other places would not be appropriate here.  But there are lessons to be learned, and a real problem to be solved.

In Des Moines, Iowa the city expropriated abandoned or under-used lands, cleared debris and empty buildings, and installed topsoil and sod – creating so-called greenfield sites in brownfield locations.  The result has been new investment and revitalization.  Montreal passed a law two years ago with a blanket prohibition of surface parking lots.  In Lisbon, landowners in an older section of the city showed no interest in investing – waiting until some magic day in the future when everything would be rosy.  They resisted the city’s efforts to encourage development, and the city expropriated their lands, built what they had been trying to encourage, and, in many cases, re-sold the improved lands to the original landowners – who are now making handsome returns on the entire affair.

In Winnipeg we have a problem similar to that in Lisbon.  Landowners are able to operate surface parking lots at a reasonable level of profit, and pay taxes based on low use of their lands.  The framework is ideal for sitting still until some far-off day when real profits can be made.  And the inertia is killing us; the true civic cost of having to build more serviced streets while the streets downtown remain underused, and the true civic cost of choking a vital and robust downtown are not borne by those who sit on their vacant lands.  Those costs are borne by the rest of us – as we literally subsidize the long-term interests of the wait-and-see landowners.

In response to this problem, there is a growing movement to re-consider the way urban land and property are taxed.

The traditional means of establishing tax rates is to determine the value and earning potential of commercial property, and to tax the land and buildings based on those earnings.  Under this system, land with a building on it attracts high taxes, while an empty parcel attracts low taxes.  This is an ideal framework for wait-and-see owners of vacant land, who can sit back while those who develop and own buildings pay the nearly full share of downtown subsistence.

The concept of taxing the land, rather than the buildings on the land, is gaining support as a tool to counter all of the ill effects of wait-and-see vacant-land ownership.  In a land-tax system, building owners must still pay significant taxes.  The difference is that vacant-land owners must pay taxes based on the real value of their lands, and they quickly find that “sitting” on vacant land is not such an attractive proposition.  They are forced to sell their lands to those who are prepared to build and truly use their lands, or they are forced to build and become real participants in the economic life of downtown.  With a successful cycle of re-birth, land values rise, and gross tax revenues rise, and people do not avoid the formerly empty places, and commercial enterprises can thrive.  It is a pretty attractive picture, and one which makes a lot of sense for Winnipeg.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, September 3, 2006

Good architecture is a vital element of education

Thirty-five years ago it was decided by those who established school design policy that students were at school to learn, and that they must not be distracted. This decision led to what seems now a rather bizarre directive: That schools were henceforth to be built with no windows. The decision was made in the belief that windowless schools would improve education, reduce operating costs, protect against vandalism, and save money.

Several schools were built without windows, but it was quickly discovered that they did not work.  Learning performance fell and absenteeism increased.  Within three to four years the practice was discontinued, and windows were installed in many of the formerly windowless buildings.

From the 1940s through the 1970s there was strong support for innovative school construction and high quality design.  It was understood that a well-designed environment served everyone well.  Learning was improved, and good architecture and planning demonstrated that Manitoba was committed to quality at all levels. A number of schools are still in use from this era. Many of these buildings remain important works of Manitoba architecture and, more important, many remain excellent environments for teaching and learning.

At the provincial level, the commitment to architectural excellence in educational buildings has declined, and public funding policy has tended for the past three decades to focus more on budget management than on education and design excellence.  It is not clear why this change in emphasis occurred, though “lower cost at any cost” seems to have been a mantra of government for a number of years.

In Manitoba, public school construction is administered by the Manitoba Public  Schools Finance Board (PSFB), which in turn operates under the direction of the provincial government. It is the PSFB’s duty to assure that construction budgets are adequate for new educational construction in the province.  When money is scarce, there are two ways to assure that budgets and costs match:  One of these is to reduce the quantity of building that is built; and the other is to reduce the quality of the buildings that are built.  The PSFB uses both of these tools to satisfy its budget management duty.

Many school districts, and their architects, have tried to build schools that are more than the minimal boxes encouraged by the PSFB.  The PSFB budget allocations are often inadequate for anything but those minimal boxes.  Both the ambitious school districts and the budget-conscious PSFB have been frustrated with the process and the results.

In 2004 the PSFB introduced a series of precise standards for the construction of school buildings in Manitoba. These standards are somewhat unusual in that they have been established as the maximum that is to be built.  Even if a building exceeding these standards could be constructed within its assigned budget, the PSFB will not permit designs which violate their standards to receive PSFB funding.

If this policy has grown from a political directive, the politicians who issued the directive should think about the message poor quality in our public environment sends.  If, on the other hand, the low standards evolved because the PSFB wants to please its political masters, perhaps the politicians should signal to the PSFB that the new standards, which actively discourage innovation and the values of well-designed environments, are a mistake.

The Isbister School, Winnipeg School Division’s Adult Education Centre, occupies a prominent downtown site between Colony, Vaughn and Webb Place. The original four-square school sat on its landscaped grounds in a way similar to many county courthouses found south of the border, and this rather stately arrangement has always been an inherent part of the building’s character and quality.

The school was in a decrepit state for 30 years – surrounded by parking lots, chain link and barbed-wire fences, and aging trailer classrooms. The building and grounds have recently been renovated, a new addition has been constructed, and new landscaping has been installed.  Viewed from the east (from Vaughn Street), the Isbister School still presents itself as a stately courthouse in a park. On the Colony side, however, the character of the building has become quite different. The new addition is adamantly not four-square; it stands in an asymmetrical relationship with the original building, and the courthouse-in-the-park is no longer easily recognizable from the west.

There was some critical comment about the new addition when it was first completed, and I suspect that this arose from the new building’s non-historic character and asymmetrical relationship with the original structure.  The design was approved through an extensive process of heritage review, and though there may have been other ways to integrate the old and new buildings, the new design did pass the litmus test of extensive and collegial review.

The addition was designed by Penner Prinz Architects.  It is a handsome structure, and represents a commitment by Winnipeg School Division to the downtown and to quality architecture.  In order to support this foray into quality design, the school division had to ignore the PSFB’s minimalist policies, and overcome its own recent tradition of minimal building.  This is risky ground for them, and they should be congratulated for their conviction, and for their ability to carry it through.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, August 20, 2006