Inner-city blues

On March 9, representatives of CentreVenture, Winnipeg’s supposed vanguard of development in the downtown area, appeared at City Hall to elaborate on their three-year business strategy. Not surprisingly, the focus is on business development. CentreVenture hopes to build on the success of the downtown’s existing money-makers, such as the MTS Centre, by encouraging bars, restaurants, retail outlets and the like to open up in adjacent areas. The ultimate goal is to transform downtown into a “retail hub and entertainment destination.”

The use of the word “destination” speaks volumes about CentreVenture’s strategy. The stated goal of the organization is to increase pedestrian traffic in the downtown core and to bring shoppers into the area on evenings and weekends, when office workers flee to the suburbs. Rather than enhancing downtown’s existing residential neighbourhoods, CentreVenture is simply devising ways in which they can draw suburbanites into the area for leisure and recreation. They do not envision downtown Winnipeg as a neighbourhood; they see it as a “destination.”

This approach may certainly help large downtown businesses profit, but it won’t produce anything that resembles revitalization. Under this model, downtown would act as one giant shopping mall — open for business during the day, but empty and foreboding after businesses close and shoppers return to their sprawling commuter hamlets. The absence of personal, neighbourly relationships and customers’ lack of any permanent connection to the area makes it hard to develop a true sense of community downtown. However, there are even larger problems created by the massive influx of suburban shoppers and workers in the morning and the corresponding exodus out of the downtown in the afternoon. Many of these people drive cars, and cars and downtowns just don’t get along.

In 1959, a man named Norman Wilson was hired to research the feasibility of a subway system in Winnipeg. Yes, a subway in Winnipeg. Wilson, along with the editors of the Winnipeg Tribune, insisted that a subway was crucial if downtown were to remain the vibrant commercial hub that it was at the time. He warned city council of the dire consequences they could face if they chose to accommodate downtown traffic by building new roads and freeways instead of providing effective public transit. According to Wilson, more roads would only bring more cars and more congestion. Parking space would become so valuable that landowners would have an incentive to actually demolish their buildings and turn them into parking lots. Wilson stated in his final report that “if a metropolitan city were to be wholly or even largely dependent on the private automobile for transportation, so much space would be taken up in roadways and so little left for business purposes, as to destroy the value of the district for the business uses that attracted the traffic in the first place.”

It seems things have played out exactly as Wilson predicted. Today, surface parking lots are scattered all throughout downtown Winnipeg. The buildings that remain are separated from each other by these large, ugly tracts of pavement. The density of both business and residences is much lower than it once was, making the area less pedestrian-friendly. The dangerous rush-hour traffic and the choking vehicle emissions don’t help either.

They key to a vibrant downtown is to increase the number of people who actually live in the downtown area. Simple, everyday errands for downtown residents, such as walking to the grocery store, would help maintain a healthy buzz of pedestrian activity in the area long after the office towers have cleared out. Catering to these mundane routines may not be as glamorous or as profitable as CentreVenture would like, but it is the only way to a healthy downtown.

Shawn Defoort is a fourth-year global political economy student.