Sunday, March 09, 2008

Another long post on Upper Fort Garry

Comments Closed was bang on when it waded into the Upper Fort Garry discussion.

"We have a Fort Garry that is a "world-class tourist" destination. Its on the highway to Selkirk. The only people who go there are school kids on field trips. Its really cool though. And its a nice nod to our history and heritage. So, why are we talking about replicating it in the middle of what should be a modern centre of commerce?"

Indeed, were the kind of attitude that favors a parking lot over an apartment building governing the decisions of Winnipeg's ruling elite 127 years ago, the CPR would have been routed to Selkirk, and a thriving major Canadian city would stand where Lower Fort Garry is today. Winnipeg would end up being a small city with an intact fur trading fort to the south of it. Would that have been better?

(For more UFG commentary, please see: Policy Flog, the Free Press'Sausage Factory, The British North America blog, the The Great Canadian Talk Show, or this little blog called The Black Rod.)

Anyway, here is something that should hopefully appear in this week's edition of The Uniter:

Around the time that the City approved Crystal Development’s proposed 15 storey apartment building near the site of Upper Fort Garry, the campaign to develop a heritage park at the Fort’s site by a group called the Friends of Upper Fort Garry--a cabal of Winnipeg’s brahmin elite--began. The land that Crystal had won for the apartment wasn’t part of the Fort’s site, but was wanted by the Friends so they could construct an interpretative centre and parking lot there.

Given the clout that the Friends wield, it’s unsurprising that the local media sides with them on this issue. What is surprising is how the public has been so misled. There seems to be four key facts of the Upper Fort Garry development have all but disappeared from the debate. Ignoring these facts has no doubt helped the Friends in leveraging millions in private donations, and in making anyone who believes that a park and an apartment can share the same block out to be a cold-hearted philistine.

Half of the Fort’s footprint is under Main Street anyway
When Upper Fort Garry was demolished in 1882, the City of Winnipeg took the opportunity to straighten Main Street, which had up until then bended around the fort to the east. This rerouting covered over where the eastern portion of the Fort stood.

None of the Fort’s footprint was sold to developers
The land in dispute is immediately west of the Fort’s site, at the corner of Assiniboine and Fort Street, and does not include any land where the Fort stood. Archaeological digs recently completed here found nothing of historical significance. The land where the Fort stood (the part not below Main) is not going to be anything but a public park. The City’s Downtown Development Committee gave permission to the Friends of Upper Fort Garry to develop a heritage-themed park within this land in May 2007.

The cause of the Friends does not seem as noble as they make it out to be, since the preservation of the Fort site is ensured already, and they have already won the right to the develop it into a park. Their fight is not to preserve the site of Upper Fort Garry from an apartment, but to get free land in which to build an interpretative centre and parking lot.

The gate is not being demolished
No plan threatens the stone gate of Upper Fort Garry. This gate is not only the last remnant of Upper Fort Garry, but of any of the five forts that once stood in modern-day downtown Winnipeg. It is the oldest structure downtown, and the only remaining physical link to the city’s fur-trading past. It also happens to be a feature in the City of Winnipeg’s coat of arms, and of itself is a stunning, beautifully primitive structure. It is not going to be demolished, and it should not be.

There’s this little thing called Contract Law...
When the Downtown Development Committee gave the Friends until March 31st to raise the necessary funds to acquire the land next to the Fort, it pre-empted the Purchase of Sale Agreement made between Crystal Developers and the City in October 2007. However, with the growing public interest and historical significance of the Fort, Crystal decided to agree with giving the Friends this window of opportunity to raise funds. But in a letter presented to the Downtown Development Committee earlier this month, Crystal stated it is not willing to negotiate further.

Were the City to back down on this binding agreement, such as to extend the Friend’s fundraising deadline beyond March 31st, as Councillor Dan Vandal has raised a motion to do, it would “contravene basic principles of contract law,” Crystal said, adding that they are “not prepared to stand aside and agree to any further changes or to be deprived of its legal entitlements...”

Anyway, on Wednesday, the City’s Executive Policy Committee will vote on Vandal’s motion. I’m confident the outcome will favor the realities of contract law.

For years, it was OK for this immensely historic site to decline and be ignored: for litter to blow around the Fort gate; for the land around it to flood each spring because of poor drainage; for the historical plaques, the grounds, the gate itself, to dilapidate--all within mere feet from a gas station's unsightly garbage bins. This occurred over time, to the shame of the City, and incidentally right under the noses of many members of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry who are long-standing members of the Manitoba Club next door.

Why the Friends and their allies suddenly care so much for Upper Fort Garry is an enigma, but I would guess it has less to do with a genuine love of heritage, and more to do with a jealous and antiquated fear of change, particularly toward enterprising outsiders like Crystal Developers, who encroach upon the Friend’s little fiefdom called Winnipeg.


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