That certain zig-zag quality

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton was deservedly well-known for his charm. There was a dark side, however: the Bill Clinton who could be short-tempered and sometimes show it publicly.

Twenty years ago next month, the public got a glimpse of that Clinton temper when the new president — less than six months in office — abruptly ended a press conference after ABC News correspondent Brit Hume questioned him about “a certain zig-zag quality in the decision-making process” in the Clinton White House.

Clinton was, of course, hardly the first politician to be good at zigging and zagging as needed. In a profession where the three forbidden words are ever, never and forever, being able to zig-zag as conditions change is practically a necessity.

Zigging and zagging is “business as usual” in Winnipeg, where disorder and confusion are as deeply embedded in our cultural DNA as the diametrical opposites are embedded in Switzerland’s DNA. The latest zig — or was it a zag? — came in two recent city council decisions setting the stage for new land developments.

One would see a new mixed-use residential/commercial development go up on currently undeveloped land on Taylor Ave. in south Winnipeg. The other proposal is for a “mostly low-density development” in Ridgewood South, replacing farms and forests along Wilkes Ave. in Charleswood.

At the same time, the city nominally supports further expansion in downtown housing to build population density in the struggling core area, and council will likely be asked to approve a “massive new mixed-use development” on Graham Ave.

The City of Winnipeg, of course, has to look after its own interests. It needs to pay its bills like everyone else, and if it gets the needed revenue from new downtown, inner and outer suburban development simultaneously, all the better for the City as an organization.

This does, however, expose a certain zig-zag quality in urban development policy.

Adding new suburban real estate capacity to the market changes the economic viability of inner-city housing as well. Two years ago, this blog noted the strong correlation between overall housing prices and propensity to live in the city centre: the more expensive housing is, the more inclined people appear to be to see living in a small, yardless downtown home as economically attractive.

Adding additional real estate capacity outside of the city centre reduces the incentive to make such trade-offs.

When the price of living in outlying areas hurts too much, or the commute hurts too much, then people will choose to live downtown. Public policy in Manitoba, however, has been to ease suburban cost-of-living pressures by adding capacity — even to plan to offer a sanitized suburban version of Osborne Village in a provincial government-sponsored outer fringe suburb — and to build new roads, bridges and rapid transit stations as needed to ease the commute.

These are not necessarily sinister choices. For many Winnipeggers, the ability to sit out in the back yard and enjoy a beer is one of the most cherished features of Manitoba life. For condo dwellers like me, sitting on a balcony well above the tree line and watching the sun go down is equally pleasant.

The people we elect to City Hall and the Legislature know that these are important parts of how we like to live, and cater to that accordingly. To expect them to commit career suicide by condemning these things would be a bit unfair.

Being an area resident, I would even go so far as to say that I welcome the expansion of the Grant Park area to the south with a cautious sense of hope.

One of the favourite aspects of living in this part of town is that it offers the best of both the urban and suburban worlds.

Like the ideal urban neighbourhood, there is a lot within walking distance, even if it is a butt-ugly walk in places. Four grocery stores serve the area — Safeway, Sobey’s, Price Chopper and Piazza De Nardi. Shoppers Drug Mart, McNally-Robinson, Starbucks and the future Target store are within a 15-minute walk. Sabai Thai and Falafel Place — now the quintessential Winnipeg neighbourhood restaurant since Kelekis’s packed it in — are about a 20-minute stroll away.

Getting by without a car is easy under the right circumstances: about one-fifth of Grant Park area commuters traveled to work by public transit according to the 2006 Census, significantly higher than the 13 percent city-wide average. Door-to-door commutes to and from downtown are about 15 minutes by car, 25-30 minutes by bus.

The area has never felt unsafe. On a warm summer’s night, front doors will still be open as late as 11 p.m.

Additional residential and retail in the area should add to the neighbourhood’s existing strengths. It might even make inter-neighbourhood competition more intense by diverting potential buyers away from more central neighbourhoods, or at least be a secondary choice for those prevented by circumstance from living in Osborne Village or the downtown area.

I’ll freely admit that all that would be good for me, personally. But the point remains that real change rests on people becoming dissatisfied. Like the many newcomers who come to Canada every year from the world’s many badly run countries — compared to the very few that come here from wonderfully successful places like Australia, Switzerland or Denmark — Winnipeggers will move into the centre of the city when they become dissatisfied with their lot in life.

There are many, of course, who love their neighbourhoods and couldn’t be paid to leave, including me.

But we need to understand that civic and provincial policy is strangely contradictory: it promotes more urban and more suburban living simultaneously, and avoids any mention of choices or trade-offs.

That works well for both levels of government, which benefit from the resulting economic activity and from being seen to be in tune with public opinion that wants both a nicer looking downtown and an expansion of the Manitoba Dream of a house with a yard, or a condo with an unobstructed view.

There is no question, however, that the public needs to keep in mind that the road to urban renewal remains a long and difficult one — a job that will continue to take decades, not just years — and to tailor their expectations accordingly.

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

One Response to That certain zig-zag quality

  1. That proposed Bridgwater development looks pretty sweet! But as a condo dweller in both Moscow and Riga one might expect me to say that.

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