Saving Heritage


Saving heritage, block by block

By: Stefano Grande

Winnipeg Free Press – Monday, January 3, 2011

The recent decision to allow the 129-year-old Shanghai Restaurant building in Chinatown to be demolished showcases the clash between preserving our city’s history and moving our downtown forward.

It must be extremely frustrating for both developers and historical preservation experts entrenched in the tug-of-war between preserving our downtown heritage buildings and wanting to build incredible places for people to live, work and play.

The public sitting on the sidelines must be thinking how backwards this all is, no matter what side of the argument they sit on.

But it does not have to be this way.

The preservation and restoration of these assets for the use and interpretation of future generations, and their reuse being environmentally correct, is indeed important. But where real progress has been made is in those smart cities that recognize that preserving and revitalizing historical assets is the key to creating unique districts and tourism developments, which no other city in the world can ever lay claim to possessing. Talk about creating a unique brand for our city, and letting the markets do all the work, leading to employment and new and unique small businesses, the lifeblood of any downtown.

To the credit of many local developers, advocates and even local politicians, many buildings in our downtown have been preserved, and they are now the ones usually demanding highest rent or sale price, being in the biggest demand. I can speak firsthand of how great it is to live in a historical downtown building. The only safety concern I had living in one of the first housing conversion projects in our downtown, the Ashdown Warehouse, was the listing agents scouring for listings door by door every month!

But only a few slow-growth cities have understood the complexity of moving forward in a comprehensive and planned manner which focuses on revitalizing entire historical districts to get this momentum going. By utilizing a block-by-block re-development approach in both Chinatown and the Exchange District — creating a master development plan for each district and designating short- and long-term redevelopment opportunities — the city can actively pursue these old buildings before they are demolished by neglect. The city can decide to move even quicker by being aggressive and assembling these properties, which the private sector is reluctant to do.

Then, the city can determine their best use based on the market needs of the community and market demands, put in place the appropriate economic tools, and attract the private sector to do all the work to deliver on this vision. With the arrival of the province’s tax increment financing (TIF) program and Mayor Sam Katz’s commitment to facilitate more downtown renewal, it’s possible to reverse the current confrontational approach which is not healthy for our city.

Can’t be done? Ever heard of the Pearl District in Portland, Cleveland’s Historic Warehouse District, the 5th Ward in Milwaukee, Dallas’s West End Historic District? How about the LoDo district in Denver or the auto-centric Fort Worth Sundance Square in Texas?

It can be done. And don’t tell me, “Well, not in Winnipeg.” These cities are comparable to Winnipeg. What it takes is vision, leadership and commitment from political leaders, with dedicated resources for our planning department and our development agency, to do more.

The only question that really matters is this: does our city truly understand the amount of economic growth potential in densifying our downtown by preserving our historical building stock? This approach will lead to an incredible downtown people will want to live in and visit from abroad, just like these other downtowns undergoing renewal.

Stefano Grande is the executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.