Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How Starbucks Could Help Remove the Portage and Main Barricades

When it comes to Starbucks, I tend to agree with James H. Kunstler when he told Good Experience blog:
"Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space... You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it's wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place..."

For me, I know of better independent coffee shops that serve finer tasting coffee, have nicer decors, and don’t play Norah Jones ‘round the clock. Because of this, I don’t get to Starbucks much.

Most North Americans, though, don’t have the time and energy, or don’t care to be in the loop enough to seek out these places. Starbucks is what they know, and it works well for them. It’s a nice place to be. That’s why the company has done so remarkably well.

Starbucks has created a mass market for coffee shops that never existed before. Before them, only a few coffee shops operated in large cities (Winnipeg had several), and were the sole domain of the beats, the jazz crowd, and other segments of 20th-century subculture. In Winnipeg, Starbuck’s influence preceded their own actual presence, via places like Second Cup and The Fyxx.

Even in close proximity, Starbucks creates a market. The Fyxx shop at Broadway and Donald, kitty-corner to a Starbucks, is the small chain’s busiest.

Soon, according to the sign in the window, Starbucks will open a new location on the ground floor of the TD/Canwest building on Portage and Main. Not in the Concourse, or Winnipeg Square--that dingy retail bunker below the intersection, where there is already a Starbucks--but at street level.

Were Portage and Main not such a wholly forgotten, and deplorable place today, this could be seen as another example of Starbucks setting up shop at a city's landmark places, something they've done in major cities across the world. But Portage and Main is no longer a landmark, and no longer Canada's Most Famous Intersection. The city willingly gave that away 30 years ago this year, when it closed the intersection to pedestrians and constructed concrete barricades at the four corners. They now stand as a disgrace; a sick joke among urbanist circles around the world; Winnipeg's greatest example of misanthropy in general, with a particular hostility toward non-locals.

The addition of a Starbucks at the intersection may add more civic and commercial pressure on opening of the barricades than all the re-design competitions and (excellent) Val Werier columns in the Winnipeg Free Press combined. The reason why people--other than those who feel nostalgic, or who possess basic urbanist sensibilities--don't demand the barricades come down, is because people don't go to Portage and Main. There has been no reason to. Starbucks may be one reason for some to go there again, and spending time looking out the window to the unsightly view of nothing but concrete walls, cars and trucks, may give people the chance to understrand why closing the interesection was such a bad idea.

There should be no delusion that allowing people to cross Portage and Main will bring back the days seen in black and white (or in the example above, sepia toned) photos, or that it would possess the worldly thrill of Times Square or the sacred quietude of Piazzo San Marco --respective qualities humans cannot get enough of. The architecture at Portage and Main (save for the magnificent Bank of Montreal) just wouldn't allow for that, neither would the heavy car and truck traffic.

Portage and Main may not be made great with the barricades' removal, but it could function as a normal city intersection again. If nothing else, it could be a place where one could walk to Starbucks from Birk's Jewellers (opening on Main and Lombard this month) without having to enter the vexing and forbidding Concourse below. This alone, when 50 years of downtown decline are considered, would be great enough.

Starbucks may go a long way in allowing the needs of people, commerce, and for “agreeable public space” grow greater at Portage and Main than the need for people to drive through the intersection a few seconds quicker.


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