Reviving Downtown

Commentary, Municipal Government, Peter Holle

Figures from Winnipeg’s assessment department show that downtown property values are plunging. They fell 20% between 1991 and 1995, with another 20% decline expected by 1998.

Other professional assessors suggest these figures understate the collapse. All Winnipeggers will feel it. Given the city’s inflexible cost structure, falling assessments automatically translate into higher property taxes for everyone.

Yet another downtown revitalization plan is on the way, even as shelf-loads of old ones moulder under layers of dust. None has ever worked. And the new one will go nowhere because it focuses on symptoms rather than causes. A stroll past empty shop fronts on interlocking brick sidewalks adorned with pretty street lamps and ornate sign posts is a silent testament to ineffectual efforts of the past.

Recent ideas to save the downtown include a call to re-open the historic corner of Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic, more pretty streetscaping, and something called a "downtown first" policy that encourages governments to relocate their operations to the core. Not to mention more promotional committees to lobby politicians. The practiced skeptic has seen these strategies before.

Good intentions by themselves have never been a basis for effective public policy. The challenge facing downtown Winnipeg is a chronic and growing lack of people who use the area and its facilities. While it would help bring back some life, a pedestrian-friendly intersection doesn’t even come close to addressing the main problem in a fundamental way. Ditto with prettier streetscaping on empty commercial corridors.

The "downtown first" policy ignores unstoppable public sector trends. That sector is set to shrink dramatically as governments narrow their core business and scale back their activities by purchasing more services in the competitive marketplace. Technology is curtailing the need for administrative bureaucracies that occupy acres of high-priced downtown office space. Hitching the fate of our city’s core to an outdated public sector model is unrealistic.

Deeper structural problems underlie Winnipeg’s downtown malaise. Some are uncontrollable, like the national shift in trade patterns from a regulated east-west axis to a free trading north-south one. This reduced Winnipeg’s importance as a transportation hub. Add to that the rise of the suburbs, their shopping malls with free parking, and the advent of new technology which favors home-based businesses and offices. In contrast, the downtown remains mired in a 1960s nightmare of self-defeating policy.

City taxes, both relative and absolute, penalize downtown commerce compared to the suburbs. Divisions of roving parking commissionaires scour the core for quiet revenue. Is anyone surprised that fewer people shop at downtown stores when the City aggressively mines downtown customers for parking fees and tickets?

Policies intended to discourage cars in favour of buses–one-way streets, bus-only street malls, ridiculous restrictions on turning off major arteries like Portage during rush hour–drive away the casual visitor.

Then there are the notorious zoning and planning rules that drive up re-development costs, thus discouraging "non-traditional" downtown residential land uses.

A trip to world-class metropolitan areas reminds us how downtown living can be chic and highly desirable. Sidewalks burgeon with cafes. Theatres and quirky, intimate shops cater to a sophisticated urbanite clientele. Day and night, whirlwinds of activity, thriving and exciting downtown cores, which Winnipeg easily could have.

Let’s inject some reality into the level of debate about reviving River City: Forget about filling downtown office buildings with bureaucracies. Stop expecting a boom to emerge miraculously from the removal of barriers on one street corner. Don’t overestimate the impact of creating a few temporary jobs for landscape architects.

With its rivers and its stunning Exchange District architecture downtown could easily become the most desirable place to live in Winnipeg. We have a diamond in the rough before our eyes. Next to Barcelona, it is said, Winnipeg has the best preserved warehouse district in the world.

Some imagination, dramatically lower taxes, free parking, and a more dynamic urban policy is where we begin downtown’s revival.