How not to kill Corydon (and maybe help downtown, too)

Ask many Winnipeggers to name the city’s best street for mingling and people-watching on a Saturday night during the summer, and there’s a good chance they’ll say “Corydon Avenue”.

The street known for its bars, restaurants and small businesses is an urban success story, even if it isn’t right in the centre of the city. Corydon has survived and thrived despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of a major sports facility, skywalks, or a Corydon Place Shopping Centre.

What makes Corydon so popular with Winnipeggers? It has many of the same qualities as Milwaukee’s North Water Street Entertainment Zone, a similarly successful neighbourhood in another medium-sized Upper Midwestern city. An article in the Oct. 2008 edition of the Journal of Urban Design by Daniel Campo and Brent Ryan described nine important characteristics of North Water Street that makes it a destination for Milwaukeeans:

Narrow, Small Buildings: “Only one building occupies more than 25% of the block frontage, and no building is more than four storeys high. Most are one or two storeys tall…”

Diverse and understated architecture: “…[B]uildings run a stylistic gamut ranging from vernacular Victorian commercial to Beaux-Arts and Moderne industrial. Despite these diverse styles, the EZ buildings share a common architectural feel that many people are likely to perceive simply as ‘old.’”

Flexible facades: “At the street level, the design emphasis of entertainment establishments is on distinctive and colourful facades and signage. Traditional, ‘historic’ architectural details are not always emphasized and several structures have been substantially altered.”

No formal open space: “There are no parks, plazas, or other places of repose in the [entertainment zone]. Other than parking lots, the only outdoor open space is private and is associated with bars…”

Continuous commercial frontage: “Every building in the EZ contains commercial space, providing the zone with nearly continuous activity, accessibility and visual interest. Buildings are punctuated by doors and windows that advertise the activity within…”

Commercial frontage is not entirely entertainment-related: “While Water Street contains many bars and restaurants, they do not monopolize commercial space. Other businesses found in the EZ include a design centre, a delicatessen, a frame shop and a silver plating establishment.”

Entertainment establishments are similar: “All 16 Water Street EZ businesses sell alcohol and the majority serve food. All can be considered bars, taverns,nightclubs or some variety thereof. The related content of the establishments gives the district a consistent, distinct image and provides potential patrons with a predictable forecast of the district experience.”

Independent businesses: “Of the 16 Water Street entertainment establishments, only three are part of national chains. The rest are independently-owned and operated, providing the district with a distinct ‘Milwaukee flavour’.”

Frequent changes in configurations and ownership: “…[B]etween 2003 and 2007, there was a net gain of two entertainment businesses (four closed and eight opened, two of which subsequently closed). This small sample of change underscores the dynamism of this zone.”

Many of these same characteristics apply to Corydon Avenue.

There has been, however, a troubling change on Corydon Avenue in recent years: the addition of parking lots in front of Corydon Avenue businesses, creating a wide-open space between businesses and the passing foot traffic, and disrupting to a degree the idea of continuous commercial frontage, with doors and windows that passers-by can readily look into.

What’s done is done. No one is suggesting that Starbucks or Tim Horton’s be demolished and re-built at sidewalk level.

But the next time a plan to build a parking lot or an exceptionally large building on Corydon Avenue comes up for approval, it would be a good occasion to look at the points above — to look at what make North Water Street, Corydon Avenue and other such streets successful — and use that as a basis to say “no”.

These points will also be important to keep in mind as downtown revitalization continues to move forward. Downtown does not have an equivalent of Corydon Avenue or North Water Street, aside from The Forks, which is physically and psychologically separate from the rest of downtown.

The Exchange District and West Graham have potential, but also a long way to go before they catch up to Corydon. (Ironically, the Hydro Tower, which created something of a dead zone between Tavern United and The Second Cup on Graham Ave., might have inadvertently restricted the street’s potential.)

If the Exchange District, Graham Ave., Portage Ave. or any other part of downtown are to fulfil their potential — and if Corydon is to be maintained as the place to go in Winnipeg on a warm Saturday night — here’s a few things that policy makers should opt for as much as possible:

  • Small and Low over Big and Tall
  • Unique to Winnipeg over Brand-Name Chain Stores
  • Doors and Windows to walk past instead of Parking Lots
  • Continuous Frontage over Wide-Open Spaces

The City of Winnipeg is holding a Public Open House on Wednesday, June 22 to offer area residents the opportunity to comment on the future of the Corydon-Osborne area. It will take place at Gladstone School, 500 Gertrude Ave., from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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

4 Responses to How not to kill Corydon (and maybe help downtown, too)

  1. W. Krawec says:

    Great post. The City would do well to heed your advice.

    I’m sure that some property owners seeking to establish large parking lots in front of new developments along Corydon will plead that parking is necessary to attract tenants. But they should be reminded that if all new developments along Corydon (and similiar streets, for that matter) included parking lots separating buildings from the sidewalk, the charm would be gone and Corydon would lose the drawing power that it currently has. Without the type of physical environment you described above, there simply is no Corydon strip.

    I also agree with your comment re: the Manitoba Hydro Building. As happy as I was to see the building go up, I always that thought that the large barren space along Graham Avenue was one of the Building’s more significant shortcomings. It definitely interrupted the continuity of the commercial strip and reduced the likelihood that a critical mass of storefront businesses might some day emerge along Graham. Hopefully future development on the Cityplace lot will help to offset that, provided that it’s done right.

  2. Brian says:

    I dunno if “dead zone on Graham” w/ the Hydro building is quite fair. There was a good crowd S of the Hydro building yesterday when I walked past, most of its members sipping or eating something from nearby eateries along Graham.

  3. marty gold says:

    It would be nice if the business of the Village and Corydon received notice about this Open House, which they have not. Once again the city bureaucracy is skirting genuine public consultation to ram through a secret agenda of special interest groups and lobbyists.

  4. Sam Skunk says:

    I think that criteria makes Selkirk Ave qualify and I can kind of see it as possible in spite of everything. If the public buildings were not there would it revive itself? I Dunno.

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