Revitalizing Downtown Winnipeg: The Next Steps Forward

It’s a question that has stumped Winnipeggers for more than a generation: how to reverse the decline of downtown Winnipeg and, in particular, Portage Avenue.

At one time, downtown Winnipeg was the place to be. Portage Avenue was one of Canada’s great downtown boulevards, lined with office buildings, restaurants, retail stores and movie theatres.

It was the kind of place where a person could spend the better part of an entire day without getting bored.

The future of downtown, however, became a cause for concern in the ’60s as the opening of more and more suburban shopping centres and the development of increasingly far-flung suburbs challenged downtown’s supremacy as the place to go for everything from groceries to entertainment. This was followed in the ’70s and ’80s by a series of controversial revitalization schemes: the opening of the Winnipeg Square and Eaton Place (now Cityplace) shopping centres in the ’70s, the construction of an overhead pedestrian walkway network that continues to this day, the expropriation of numerous small businesses on the north side of Portage Avenue in the ’80s to make way for the half-million square foot suburban-style Portage Place Shopping Centre, the opening of the Forks Market in the late ’80s, and the transformation of part of Graham Avenue into a transit mall in the ’90s.

Aside from The Forks, none of these developments had the desired effect. By the late ’90s, many Winnipeggers associated downtown Winnipeg with a high crime rate, empty storefronts and streets that were deserted outside of standard Monday-to-Friday business hours. If this weren’t bad enough, the venerable Eaton’s department store chain had gone bankrupt, forcing their legendary 94-year-old Portage Avenue store to close its doors permanently on Oct. 19, 1999. Its demolition and replacement with an arena — the MTS Centre — caused further controversy.

Downtown has recovered somewhat from the nadir it reached with the closing of Eaton’s in 1999, but will need many more years of recovery in the minds of many city residents before it will become competitive with the suburban shopping centres or fashionable urban neighbourhoods outside of the downtown area, such as Winnipeg’s bohemian Osborne Village or the slightly more upscale Corydon Village.

The most recent revitalization plan comes from Centre Venture, an agency created by Winnipeg’s city council in 1999 to revitalize the downtown. This plan calls for the division of downtown Winnipeg into four zones: a university zone surrounding the University of Winnipeg campus, a retail zone encompassing Portage Place and The Bay, an 11-block sports, hospitality and entertainment district (SHED) incorporating the MTS Centre and the Convention Centre, and a commercial zone nearer the corner of Portage and Main.

As a public service to increase the amount of quality information available to Winnipeggers, The View from Seven contacted several academics who have not only made a career of studying cities but also have a passion for understanding the reasons why some cities are successful while others struggle. They were each provided with an outline of the plans for downtown Winnipeg (courtesy of Bartley Kives’s reporting for the Winnipeg Free Press) and asked for their thoughts.

The View from Seven went outside of Manitoba to collect the comments shown below with two goals in mind: to obtain fresh perspectives from beyond our local area; and to bring into the discussion residents of other jurisdictions whose own local successes and failures might not otherwise be heard about by Winnipeggers but might prove instructive all the same.

Seven of these specialists were able to provide detailed responses on the new downtown plan, which are summarized below.

Zone divisions a sound plan. “The plan for [Portage Ave.] seems very sound. Breaking the street up into different development zones will provide a focus for each, while allowing marketing, implementation and phasing to occur as needed. The zones, although different, will complement each other,” wrote Prof. Morton Gulak of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Too ambitious? “The SHED is a huge area. It will take a long time before the whole area fully develops. If development lags behind that of the retail and commercial district, the chance for balanced development, even with tax-increment finance, [could be] jeopardized by pockets of under-developed area or even derelict buildings not being renovated,” wrote Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof of the University of Queensland. “Consider to scale back this development,” she added.

“The CBD [central business district] revitalisation plan seems to be very ambitious in terms of the extent of the area that it covers. That seems to offer significant challenges in what appear to be difficult on-going financial problems, as it may be difficult to attract sufficient redevelopment capital to sustain all the projects. In the proposed sport, hospitality and entertainment district you already have three existing buildings, the Metropolitan… the Burton Cummings Theatre and the Convention Centre [which] are all struggling to upgrade themselves which may signal a limited interest in developing such facilities,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of New Zealand’s Massey University.

How people will move between the zones is unclear. “How is the whole plan connected?” the University of Queensland’s Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof asked. “Transport connectivity between the university, retail, SHED and the commercial district is unclear. Will it be through a dedicated busways network (a cheaper alternative) or perhaps an LRT (expensive, but is there enough population threshold?)”

The need for better public transportation was also noted by Prof. Larry Bourne of the University of Toronto.

Involving the University of Winnipeg a good idea. “Cultural and educational institutions should be encouraged to locate in the core — Red River College is a good example; expansion of the U. of W. is another good example. Add students and residences [and] services will follow. The U. of M. could do more,” wrote Prof. Emeritus Larry Bourne of the University of Toronto.

“[An] excellent idea. My own campus is an example of a university that has tried successfully to interface with the downtown, assisted both by its real estate decisions and by the orientation of public transportation (rail systems as well as buses),” wrote Dr. Carl Abbott of Portland State University in Oregon.

“The plan employed a commendable strategy to integrate the Uni of Winnipeg located at the west end of the strip as [a step in] revitalising the downtown area. Universities are nodes that generate a lot of traffic: students potentially are paying customers of cafes, restaurants and pubs, therefore an important market segment. Expansion of university activity to the centre will definitely boost local economic development. In the USA, the University of Portland [possibly influenced] development in areas around the fringes, pushing the development density up,” wrote Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof of the University of Queensland.

“I also like how the plan relates to larger and surrounding elements of the city (e.g. U of W and its need for extended development),” wrote Prof. Morton Gulak of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Skywalks not such a hot idea? “[The university] will require good connectivity from the university to the hub of activity. The proposed skywalk is good in the short to medium term, but to sustain the flow of students from the campus to the core activity area, then long-term planning may want to consider better modes of connectivity, for example, continuous pedestrian network at-grade. The Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane is an example of a university expanding into the centre with good pedestrian links at-grade. The advantage of this form of access is that it creates a sense of a living street that encourages street activity and generates the robustness to support businesses and economic vitality and enhance social interaction. Skywalks usually by-pass certain activity areas depending on where it starts and ends,” wrote Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof of the University of Queensland.

“Improve the pedestrian street environment,” urged Prof. Larry Bourne of the University of Toronto, noting that Portage Avenue does not constitute a good pedestrian environment in its current form.

Grocery stores and a diverse range of amenities are a must. “Downtown housing is always a challenge until there is a critical mass that can support small business and services (grocery store) and make residents feel like they are in a neighborhood rather than an isolated tower,” wrote Dr. Carl Abbott of Portland State University.

Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

“In Wellington in New Zealand the promotion of inner city living has partly worked because one of the supermarket chains was very pro-active in developing two boutique supermarkets in the core CBD and two large supermarkets just on the edge of the CBD which serve inner city dwellers everyday needs,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of Massey University in New Zealand.

“A diverse mix of mid-to-high end shopping, hotels, restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theaters, and historical sites (buildings) complete the variety of experiences that contributes to the making of a vibrant centre,” wrote the University of Queensland’s Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof.

New amenities must be able to draw in people after normal business hours. “It will also be important to get the right mixture of activities in an area such as this so that it has on-going and regular use as opposed to intermittent use associated with single one-off events that bring in large numbers of people for relatively short periods. This can lead to significant expenditure to develop facilities for peak periods which remain relatively underused at other times. It is about creating a vitality in the area that is sustained over time and it may need a strong civic presence to ensure this is achieved and sustained over time,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of New Zealand’s Massey University.

“Ensuring overall sustainability of the whole development will also require that the area is designed for day and night activity. The proposed Retail District and the Commercial District should be a downtown area featuring mixed-use development that caters for the local population (family, young people) and tourists. Importantly, there must be a residential population in the centre who are the day-night and year-round users of services and facilities. Moreover, it makes more economic sense that good infrastructure in the centre is used by the local population and not just catering for daytime workers and tourists,” wrote Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof of the University of Queensland.

“What are the downtown amenities that might attract people during the day on weekends, since theater, sports, etc. are usually nighttime attractors?” asked Portland State University’s Dr. Carl Abbott. “Parks, public squares, farmer’s market, access to the river?”

Urban revitalization also requires a rethink of suburban growth. “From what I can glean your CBD has declined partly due to competition from suburban based malls which is a common problem worldwide. While a redevelopment strategy is fine it will be made more difficult if the malls on the periphery continue to develop in a relatively unconstrained manner making use of the larger and cheaper land that is available in such localities… You may also need to contemplate stricter controls on development on the periphery of the city to make the development planning field a little less tilted,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of New Zealand’s Massey University.

“Impose some controls on continued suburban sprawl — perhaps full cost pricing,” suggested the University of Toronto’s Prof. Larry Bourne. “Until the city and province do something, there is little chance of revitalization achieving much. To date, it seems the city and province do not want to do so. They cannot have it both ways.”

“In the case of Winnipeg, the overall urban structure does not favour the centre — it is too sprawling so that the centre offers little advantage. Design solutions that may work in places where the urban form makes the centre attractive (because it has lots of jobs and people get tired of gridlock) may not work in Winnipeg where commuting is so easy,” said Dalhousie University’s Prof. Jill Grant.

Watch out for unintended consequences, such as downtown residents being woken up by the party in the SHED. “[T]here needs to be a balance in the redevelopment between enhancements that serve the visitor or daily worker and those that serve the permanent residents. It is also important that any residential developments are fully acoustically treated or you will quickly get the new residents complaining about the noise from your vibrant entertainment area,” wrote Massey University’s Dr. Caroline Miller.

“The zoning plan suggests that it is necessary to protect the area from negative externalities of new development. However, zoning is also cumbersome… Are there tools to convert the zoned areas in view of significant benefits brought about by a new flagship project? For example, a mega development which is contravening the zoned land-use?” Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof of the University of Queensland asked. She also noted that transportation, parking and crowds in the proposed sports, hospitality and entertainment district should not “impinge on the retail and commercial district; it should be complementing activities of the adjoining two areas.”

Tax Increment Financing a commonly used strategy. “The use of tax-increment financing is common in urban revitalization. This allows for funds to be used in the special district for marketing, physical improvements, security, etc.,” wrote Prof. Morton Gulak of Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I think the tax-increment financing zone is a good tool in urban revitalization whereby property tax revenues from new development roll-over to the next development. On the same note, the Business Improvement District concept (BIDs), pioneered in the USA, assists government, including local government, in reconsidering less involvement with direct service provision,” wrote the University of Queensland’s Dr. Yusnani Mohd Yusof.

“TIF has run into some problems in the U.S. — not really providing the benefits promised in the end,” cautioned Prof. Jill Grant of Dalhousie University.  “It can give developers a break up front without really paying back over the long term.”

Street Design Plan will be important. “I have not seen the design plan for the street -which is an important part of revitalization. The design plan should provide for pedestrian friendly walkways, lighting, trash cans, traffic management and commercial visibility. The design plan should have features that identify each zone and yet present an overall consistent feeling,” wrote Prof. Morton Gulak of Virginia Commonwealth University.

“The quality of urban design is vital — there’s no mention of quality of urban design,” Prof. Ivan Turok of the University of Glasgow observed. “That includes convivial public spaces and amenities like bars and cafes. It is vital to create places where people will want to hang out — generally at street level — not clinical hard spaces and separate uses.”

Downtown jobs help boost downtown living. “[Prospective downtown residents] will probably be looking for somewhere to work, and only certain types of jobs can be successfully established in the CBD. If [downtown jobs and shopping facilities] are not available then people will be forced to retain a car to commute to suburban supermarkets and/or to get to their employment. This can create havoc where inner city streets are narrow and ill-designed to support on-street parking,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of New Zealand’s Massey University.

Government will have to play a leading role in getting infrastructure upgraded. “Those redeveloping in the CBD face a major hurdle in consolidating sufficient land for a major development and may face significant costs in upgrading aging infrastructure such as sewage and water services.  Your city government may need to play a quite decisive lead role in facilitating the amalgamation of sites for development and in planning infrastructural up-grades,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of New Zealand’s Massey University.

Community facilities needed to attract people downtown. “There appears, as with other cities, a desire to promote inner city living. This raises a range of issues around what we might call ‘liveability’. There is plenty of research that shows that attracting people back to live in the city is more than developing nice housing or allowing for higher density developments. People want to be sure they will be safe, i.e., crime prevention and safety, that there will be good facilities available such as good schools, libraries and other community facilities, that there will be parks where they can walk a dog, kick a ball or fly a kite that are easily accessible, that there will be somewhere to do everyday shopping and that there will be good public transport or somewhere safe to park their vehicle,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of Massey University.

Has interest in downtown living been evaluated? “I would also hope that there has been some investigation into the interest in inner-city living. Generally it succeeds if it offers convenience, i.e., workers don’t have a daily battle with commuter traffic and access to attractions and a life style that can’t be achieved in the suburbs,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of Massey University in New Zealand.

Prepare for the unexpected — such as higher fuel prices. “I also wondered a little about the future proofing of this,” wrote Dr. Caroline Miller of Massey University. “The development of your entertainment and convention facilities does seem to be based on a very traditional model of people travelling to view or attend an event. If fuel costs continue to escalate and we are approaching peak oil, then there may be moves to more use of technology to link people remotely rather than bringing them to a single place. In that case your expensive new facilities may not get the use you expect. It may also mean that any building should be as flexible as possible in terms of their present and future uses.”

The author wishes to thank professors Larry Bourne, Carl Abbott, Ivan Turok, Morton Gulak, Caroline Miller, Yusnani Mohd Yusof and Jill Grant for generously taking the time to provide their comments and to contribute to the quality of information available to Winnipeggers on this subject.  My thanks as well to Drs. Pierre Filion (whose research on downtown shopping centres is worth reading) and Mark Seasons, whom I unfortunately wasn’t able to call due to the irregular hours at which I was working on this project, and to Prof. June Thomas, who graciously wrote back to offer her regrets.

The views expressed here are those of the respective authors, and are not necessarily those of the organizations with which they are affiliated.

[Updated July 21 at 12:14 p.m. — comments from Prof. Jill Grant]

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

6 Responses to Revitalizing Downtown Winnipeg: The Next Steps Forward

  1. Brian says:

    Good post! However, two immediate problems spring to mind with the reactions from distant planners.

    1. Re: skywalks, let’s remember that Winnipeg is sometimes more than a little cold. Did the external observers factor for that?I’m still not 100% sold on the idea that skywalks must be horrible, thanks to my positive experience with them a couple of winters back in Minneapolis.

    2. The TIF they’re talking about – the TIF model your correspondent thinks we have – is not the TIF we actually have. I’d be *more* supportive of the new TIF if it was designed to plow back resources into the neighborhood (provided it was openly done, with clear budgets and rules).

    But as far as I can tell, the TIF recently announced for use in the Exchange is designed to assign those benefits directly to the developer instead. CentreVenture has talked about using the other model for the SHED district, but that’s still just theory.

  2. Graham says:

    Wow that’s fantastic.

    My only comment is that the scepticism towards or downright anti-skywalk feelings are echoed by local architects. Any architect who works downtown will relay three things: how detrimental the skywalk system actually is, the imposed parking ratio to living spaces, and Portage Place.

  3. unclebob says:

    Very nice work but I think the problem has as much to do with failure of leadership as it does with failure of development

    It would make me feel more comfortable if the various experts could be canvassed on the question of what type of leadership has shown most success.

    Is redevelopment best led by a non profit group, an academic, the private sector, government themselves, merchants associations etc?

    Or alternatively is there some other social glue, rah rah meetings, a big flag and a vision, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or simply lemming lemonade that might hold a direction together?

  4. Mr.Nobody says:

    Key point. The U of M could do more.

    We wouldn’t be in this BRT fiasco if they did more, like relocate.

  5. Mr.Nobody says:

    And I might add, the complete revitalization of downtown. Complete with a minimum of 6 towers and scads of pedestrian traffic. Not to mention an existing transit system that could be leveraged to its maximum.

    Just thought I;’d throw that in the conteract the mundane skywalk commentary.

  6. Brian says:

    I apologize for my mundaniety, but frankly I was tired of repeating “street-level experience” for the 1 millionth time.

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