Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Save Broadway-Assiniboine from everything

City Hall's downtown development committee did the right thing yesterday and threw out the appeal to stop the construction of a 15-storey condo and retail building on Assiniboine Avenue between Hargrave and Carlton, the Free Press reports.

The building is, judging from this conceptual rendering, positively disgusting in its design, and shouldn't be built to look like that. With better design, however, it should be be built, and could be a great addition to Assiniboine Avenue.

The appeal to stop it was made by the owner of the Bessborough apartment block next door to proposed development site, which is where a 106-year old house which houses Restaurant Dubrovnik stands, and by other residents of the Broadway-Assiniboine neighborhood. What were the reasons for opposition?

Was it because the proposed building is too tall for the surrounding neighborhood, as the owner of the Bessborough argued? Since the two buildings across the street from the Bessborough are nine and 17 stories respectively, and some of the tallest residential hi-rises in the city are on the surrounding streets, it's hard to argue this.

One thing people must understand, is that scale is not just a matter of height. Because of the small surface area the proposed condo building will take up--one city lot--it is actually more appropriate than some of the shorter yet more sprawling apartment boxes that were built in the area in the '60s and '70s. (The 11-storey building in the photo below, for example, on lower Broadway in Manhattan, built on a 25'x100' lot, demonstrates this.)

Perhaps it was because the condo units will be priced high, and the proposed ground floor retail uses will be a plastic surgery clinic and a sushi restaurant--decidedly non-conforming to the modest socio-economic demographic of the neighborhood, architect Mel Michener worried. (It must be nice to be a professional who shuns job opportunities.) Since the building will be built where Restaurant Dubrovnik--one of the most exclusive and costly fine dining establishments in the city--it's hard to consider this argument anything but redundant. "The rich can eat here, but they can't sleep here", the thinking goes...

If anything, a sushi restaurant is likely to be more "accessable" and attractive to the young, modestly-earning denizens of the neighborhood than Dubrovnik's is. It could add some much-needed life to what is now the city's most densely-populated bedroom community.

Was this project opposed because it is "a project driven by engineering ego and money..." and because "[t]he people behind this have no interest in this neighbourhood," as a Mr. Michael Clarke of Edmonton Street said? Since the construction of every privately-funded multi-family building in Winnipeg (or anywhere) was driven by money, including whichever building Mr. Clarke lives in, it's hard to say why this one in particular should be opposed.

From a historical perspective, the Bessborough Apartments--which rise three and-a-half stories, and nearly meet the property line on all four sides, would have been entirely out of scale in a neighborhood of single-family houses when it was built in 1931. The infusion of luxury dwellings is not new in Broadway-Assiniboine, either. The Dubrovnik house was once home to Joseph Maw, a member of the city's ruling class a century ago. At that time, Broadway-Assiniboine was a genteel enclave for the wealthy. Maw, like many of his neighbors, like H.J. Macdonald on Carlton, and J.H. Ashdown over on Broadway and Hargrave, had maids, cooks, and chauffers in their employ.

It seems that, really, this opposition was probably just a simple matter of NIMBYs gone BANANAs (from Not In My Back Yard, to Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), which seems to be rearing its head with every new construction proposal of any kind that occurs in an established residential neighborhood.

To be sure, the architecture for this building is hideous: think deconstructivism designed on a Commodore-64. If the downtown design review board had any teeth, it would prevent the building from leaning over top the Assiniboine River and Avenue, and demand that the architect Ernie Walter head back to the drawing board and come up with something befitting of Winnipeg's architectural heritage.

The city has to resume growing upward (not just outward) at some point, and cannot stay static forever. Let's oppose buildings with informed opinions, not just desperate opposition for opposition's sake.


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