What the downtown really needs


Winnipeg Free Press – By: Robb Dobson

Winnipeg Free Press archives. The Easton’s sign glows over a bustling Portage Avenue in this 1970 scene.

Development priorities for downtown Winnipeg are still upside-down.

A year after the SHED planning was revealed — designating the downtown blocks between Portage Avenue and Broadway a sports, hospitality and entertainment district — the “Big Idea” for developing the two vacant MPIC parking lots south of Graham Avenue also includes no residential space.

Any urban planner will tell you the key to a healthy urban environment is a permanent population density. The best way to revitalize Winnipeg’s downtown core is to add residents. Instead, we are promised more office space and shops to add to those already failing at Portage Place and The Bay.

There’s nothing new about any of that.

Office space, and the SHED venues being prioritized rely on attracting people temporarily into the city’s core. That does nothing for downtown except create traffic jams. Only a large permanent population will anchor a solidly healthy downtown when those transient workers and entertainment tourists go home and leave all that emptiness behind.

Permanent residents are also the key to successful shops and stores, not only in new developments, but in places such as Portage Place and The Bay. Only a larger number of permanent residents, for example, could support the much-needed full-services grocery store that Zellers in The Bay is closing this weekend.

In the 1960s, Winnipeg’s downtown was a busy, friendly place, with two full-service grocery stores, in Eaton’s and The Bay. The city’s population then was about half a million, with some 50,000 — 10 per cent of Winnipeggers — living downtown. Then came the suburbs, and downtown was left in the doughnut hole. As Winnipeg’s population rose by about 50 per cent in the 50 years since the early 1960s, the permanent residential population downtown fell by 40 per cent.

In 2012, with Winnipeg’s population at 750,000, CentreVenture, the city’s development arm, estimated 20,000 people will be living downtown when the residential developments now being built are filled. To have stayed safe and healthy in the 1960s population ratio, downtown Winnipeg should now have some 75,000 permanent residents, three or four times CentreVenture’s projected target.

No wonder the streets here are bleak on nights and weekends.

We got suburban sprawl because building large developments on empty farmland costs developers less. Building new structures where city services already exist — more expensive for builders — ultimately costs taxpayers less. Even when developers put in new suburban road, sewer and water infrastructure, the taxpayers pay for their maintenance and for new schools, libraries, transit service and fire and police protection. And that doesn’t count the commuting costs now rising out of sight with the price of gasoline.

We all pay the time and social costs of that twice-daily traffic jam.

It’s plainly time we subsidized downtown living with more than the 10 per cent tax relief that the $40 million worth of presently planned downtown residential development is due to get. Winnipeg taxpayers paid about 35 per cent of the cost of the MTS Centre. The living centre of Winnipeg’s core deserves as much or more.

No large development in downtown Winnipeg should be without a large residential component. Fortunately, there are still six months for that essential element to be added to “SoPo Square” before its plans are finalized.

Ross Dobson is a Winnipeg writer and former broadcaster, and holds a master’s of city planning degree.