AL­MOST NEVER WORK IN WIN­NIPEG

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - OPINION - By Der­ick Young

ICAN’T tell you how many times I’ve read mixed-use de­vel­op­ment is the an­swer to the prob­lems caused by Win­nipeg’s sprawl­ing, car- ori­ented ways. Blog­gers, ed­i­to­ri­al­ists and self-pro­fessed ur­ban­ists say it. Any­body who con­sid­ers them­selves a for­ward-think­ing ad­vo­cate of city den­si­fi­ca­tion be­lieves in it.

Many of these same people like to ref­er­ence Jane Ja­cobs, the God­dess of Ur­ban Vi­tal­ity in city-plan­ning mythol­ogy. Ja­cobs, in­deed, was ahead of her time, ar­gu­ing against the heavy-handed ho­moge­nous de­vel­op­ment so com­mon in the mid­dle of the 20th century. Over the years, people have come to re­al­ize, as Ja­cobs sug­gested, a di­ver­sity of uses within a neigh­bour­hood makes it in­ter­est­ing, safe and at­trac­tive. The ben­e­fits of mixed-use de­vel­op­ment aren’t even de­bated any­more. It is the con­ven­tional wis­dom among all who cri­tique city plan­ning from their base­ments, of­fices and cell­phones.

The no­tion of mixed-use de­vel­op­ment as a par­a­digm for city plan­ning is so per­va­sive, it has even seeped into cer­tain cor­ners of Win­nipeg’s city hall. Even as the city ap­proves sub­urb af­ter sprawl­ing sub­urb, it re­leases plan­ning documents that ad­vo­cate mixed-use de­vel­op­ment, and in some cases even spec­ify in great de­tail how and where it should be done.

This ad­vo­cacy of mixed-use de­vel­op­ment has evolved into a vi­sion of densely packed build­ings aligned with the side­walk; shops and cafés on the main floor, liv­ing space and of­fices above that. People en­vi­sion pa­tios along side­walks filled with pedes­tri­ans, in a walk­a­ble neigh­bour­hood where ev­ery­thing you need is mere blocks away in a store­front down the street.

This vi­sion is ex­actly what you’ll find rep­re­sented in the new Co­ry­don-Os­borne Area Plan. An ex­ten­sive pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion process that gave a voice to all those who once read “mixed use” was good for the city has no doubt con­trib­uted to the em­pha­sis on mixed-use de­vel­op­ment. The term is used no less than 38 times in the doc­u­ment. The plan calls for vir­tu­ally all new de­vel­op­ment in the Co­ry­don Av­enue and Os­borne Vil­lage ar­eas, and even part of Pem­bina High­way, to be of the mixed-use va­ri­ety.

I’m sure it sounded great when they were writ­ing it, but I am hav­ing a very dif­fi­cult time en­vi­sion­ing Pem­bina with high­rise build­ings built on top of “high-street” re­tail and commercial store­fronts.

Don’t get me wrong: Mixed-use build­ings can help cre­ate ex­cit­ing and in­ter­est­ing com­mu­ni­ties. I could walk for hours in Barcelona, where you’ll find kilo­me­tre upon kilo­me­tre of gor­geous old six- and seven-storey brick build­ings with apart­ments on the up­per lev­els and shops, restaurants or even auto-re­pair garages at street level. Chicago’s Wicker Park is a great place to visit and shop, with mixe­duse build­ings lin­ing sev­eral streets. How­ever, Win­nipeg is not Barcelona, and Co­ry­don is not Wicker Park. The fact of the mat­ter is mixe­duse build­ings rarely work in Win­nipeg.

The Co­ry­don and Os­borne ar­eas are not suc­cess­ful be­cause they have mixed-use build­ings. In fact, there are rel­a­tively few true mixed-use build­ings in Os­borne Vil­lage and along Co­ry­don Av­enue. What makes these ar­eas suc­cess­ful is suf­fi­cient pop­u­la­tion den­sity and a di­verse mix­ture of sin­gle-use build­ings within close prox­im­ity. Res­i­den­tial tow­ers along Welling­ton Cres­cent con­trib­ute to the crit­i­cal mass of people needed to cre­ate a healthy and vi­brant neigh­bour­hood, while the small, sin­gle-use build­ings on the commercial strips con­tain stores and restaurants that at­tract people from all over the city.

This is re­ally what mixed use is all about. Not in­di­vid­ual build­ings with more than one pur­pose but a di­ver­sity of build­ings and uses in prox­im­ity: old build­ings, new build­ings, res­i­den­tial build­ings, commercial build­ings. This is what makes an area in­ter­est­ing and vi­brant. Most of those who ad­vo­cate for mixed-use de­vel­op­ment in the pa­pers and on­line prob­a­bly re­al­ize this, though the distinc­tion is ob­vi­ously lost some­where along the way.

That is not to say ar­eas filled with mixed-use build­ings can­not be in­ter­est­ing or vi­brant. I could move to Barcelona, buy a scooter and live quite hap­pily in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, but the el­e­ments that are needed to make a vi­brant com­mu­nity do not in­clude mixed-use build­ings.

The rigid and un­re­al­is­tic de­sign stan­dards that re­quire ex­clu­sively mixed-use build­ings along each of the ma­jor streets and sec­ondary streets within the plan­ning area are not only flawed but coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. They will sti­fle de­vel­op­ment and drive away in­vestors. They also threaten to ruin the char­ac­ter of the ar­eas they are sup­posed to en­hance, with va­cant store­fronts or un­sold res­i­den­tial and of­fice space.

In­stead, what is needed is or­ganic growth, man­aged within a flex­i­ble frame­work that pre­vents con­struc­tion that is ob­vi­ously in­con­sis­tent with the neigh­bour­hood. The best ar­eas emerge nat­u­rally, not through rigid plan­ning around some ur­ban ide­ol­ogy. A com­mu­ni­ty­de­vel­op­ment plan should rec­og­nize the foun­da­tion upon which the com­mu­nity is built and strive to pre­serve and en­hance those at­tributes, not change them.

What makes some ar­eas thrive and oth­ers not? Ja­cobs formed her opin­ions sim­ply by ob­serv­ing the ar­eas around her. All of Win­nipeg’s base­ment Twit­ter ur­ban­ists, ed­i­to­ri­al­ists and city plan­ners — es­pe­cially the city plan­ners — would be well-ad­vised to do the same. I can’t al­ways ex­plain why mixed-use build­ings fail in Win­nipeg, but it’s not hard to see they of­ten do.

It’s time to shelve our glossy-eyed vi­sions of streets lined with noth­ing but mixed-use build­ings, and we need to do it be­fore we end up de­stroy­ing our best neigh­bour­hoods with our good but mis­guided in­ten­tions. Go to http://aroundthis­town.ca to read the

com­plete ver­sion of this blog post.

ARTIST’S REN­DER­ING

The new Co­ry­don- Os­borne Area Plan calls for nearly all new de­vel­op­ment to be mixed-use.

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