Saturday, December 02, 2006

Small storefronts serve big purpose in Exchange District

The problem with being a developer in Winnipeg’s Exchange District is that so many buildings get in your way.

This is the dilemma facing the new owners of the now vacant St. Charles Hotel at the corner of Notre Dame and Albert Street, who want to convert it to a boutique hotel. In spite of a large parking lot already adjacent to the St. Charles, the owners say they will need even more parking facing Albert Street, and the old house and storefronts next door, along with their tenants, would have to go. With so much parking, perhaps it would be more appropriately called a boutique motel.

In simpler times, replacing an old building with a surface parking lot in downtown Winnipeg was an easier process. That changed in the late 1970s, however, as the City began to see its architecture and urbanity as something worth treasuring, and parking lot developers began to face roadblocks put up by historical building bylaws and efforts by groups like Heritage Winnipeg.

Today, cunning developers eager to demolish seem to have found a way around these roadblocks. First by acquiring a property nearby, then by coming up with a plan for the building they intend to keep, and for the building they want razed. This plan attempts to downplay that it will ultimately add another parking lot to downtown’s gap-tooth streetscape. (The St. Charles owners promise an outdoor patio.) To silence critics concerned with things other than making money on parking spots, the developers warn they cannot begin the redevelopment until they get their new parking lot. Therefore, opposition to more parking lots becomes an opposition to rejuvenation. City councillors aid this process by keeping the application of the term “historically significant” ambiguous and relative.

Allowed to use buildings as bargaining chips, developers control the fate of the Exchange District, and surface parking lots are able to keep popping up where there are already too many. This “redevelopment” formula has recently threatened the Ryan Block, the Bell Hotel, the Grain Exchange annex, and now the Albert Street house.

The house, built in 1877, serves as the final vestige of downtown’s earliest era: when Winnipeg was a muddy village of 5,000, hugging Main Street between Lower Fort Garry and Point Douglas--decades before Chicago School office buildings, Romanesque warehouses, and Neoclassical banks sprouted up around it. This little house survived boom and bust by simple luck of the draw: had the advent of the Great War in 1914 not halted Winnipeg’s rapid growth, or prosperity returned after the War, the house would likely have been replaced with a handsome brick commercial block instead of remaining, with a row of small shops annexed to its front in the 1920s, until today.

Far from picturesque, the shopfronts add to the neighborhood something that is often ignored, but essential to its health: sidewalk commerce. Small, plain, and old, they can house small commercial enterprises at affordable rates. For years, two have been occupied by a Chinese restaurant and a tailor, who would likely not operate in the Exchange were it not for the existence of these tiny premises. A tailor--essential in any neighborhood where professionals live and work--doesn’t need warehouse-sized space, they need only a few hundred square feet to ply their trade. As the Exchange slowly becomes a vibrant, mixed neighborhood, it will need small storefronts like these, not for their architectural form, but for their practical function.

In apparent support of the demolition-for-redevelopment formula, Cindy Tugwell, current executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, says there is an “obligation to look at the long-term viability of properties, not just saving them." But as Mrs. Tugwell should know, there is a greater obligation to look at the long-term viability of the Exchange District as a whole--which is greater than the sum of its parts. Cutting driveways across sidewalks, and replacing commerce (a progenitor of vibrancy) with parking lots (a progenitor of vacuity) does nothing to add desirability and rejuvenation, even with an outdoor patio sitting on the shadowy north side of a three-storey building.

If the house and shops on Albert Street were replaced with a new building, something taller and of mixed use, their demise would be much less of a loss, since a new building would be giving to the Exchange District--and its would-be hotel guests--more than another parking lot ever could.


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