Government Policy Hamstrings Downtown Revival

Essay, Municipal Government, Peter Holle

Winnipeg’s Renaissance Man – Tom Dixon brings Life to Downtown’s Dying Buildings

Outside the window, a light snow gently falls on downtown Winnipeg. Below is the corner of Portage and Main, if not the most famous intersection in western Canada, certainly the coldest. Seated behind his desk on the sixth floor of the 100-year-old Hammond Building is Tom Dixon, an award-winning preservationist of heritage buildings.

Manitoba’s capital was once grandly described as a future “Chicago of the North”, but time, shifting trade patterns and poor public policy have eroded this historic urban centre’s position. Once Canada’s third largest city and the dominant centre of commerce in the rapidly expanding West; Winnipeg finds itself steadily slipping down the list of major Canadian communities. Now it is Western Canada’s fourth largest city, trailing Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Its population is stagnant and aging. Concern is subdued but rising about the large influx of native “refugees” from the reserves, cast adrift in their strange new environment.

Winnipeg has world-beating firms in the aerospace sector, financial services and broadcasting. It remains a centre for light manufacturing, distribution and government, but even some of these old core industries, particularly transportation and grain trading, are quietly shifting west. Corporate headquarters that lined its once thriving downtown have steadily transferred to more competitive Calgary. With the second highest property taxes in Canada, housing construction has migrated steadily outside the perimeter. The traditional downtown area has been hit hard, like most city centres, by suburban shopping malls, perceptions of crime, changing work patterns and technological innovation that have diminished the reasons for central city commerce.

“But Winnipeg is still my Nirvana,” emphasizes Dixon, a worldly-wise 60 plus year?old industrial design consultant of Icelandic origin, who has designed plants and equipment and provided management and marketing consulting to dozens of industries. During his travels in nine or ten countries he learned what different cities have to offer. San Francisco and Minneapolis rank among his favourites, but he still prefers the grand old dame of Western Canada, Winnipeg. Dixon is the rare individual who is prepared to put his time and money into saving the heritage buildings that form the city’s soul and make Winnipeg an architectural historian’s paradise.

The Exchange District’s heyday was the early 1900s. This was the distribution and emigration hub – the gateway to the West. Massive Greek columns project substance and security from the imposing bank buildings lining Main Street. Here was the financial industry, the world’s busiest grain exchange, and thriving print media, plus thousands of warehouse and manufacturing enterprises. They fuelled a robust downtown economy. Elaborate facades, gargoyles and terra cotta facings testify to the prosperity of the exploding commercial district.

They still do today but the pulsing concourses are no more. Dozens of empty buildings are at constant risk from the wrecking ball, vandalism and arson. Conservationist groups have temporarily managed to stave off destruction with a city “heritage designation”. Many structures, thrown into the city government’s lap by owners who could not pay property taxes, remain in real peril. They are victims of bad urban policies as well as changes in economic patterns that have pushed commerce from the centre and from Winnipeg.

Jane Jacob’s Self-Generating Downtown Economy

Dixon remembers the vitality of the Exchange District as a kid. One of his early jobs was delivering linens off the back of a truck to the enterprises that inhabited the street fronts, the back alleys and the great post?and?beam brick warehouses. This was Jane Jacob’s self-generating downtown economy at its finest, with micro-businesses springing up constantly to substitute local product for expensive eastern imports. For Dixon, who was artistically inclined, it was a first?hand experience with structures that embodied Old World construction techniques and craftsmanship.

That fascination eventually drew Dixon into rejuvenating and saving Exchange District buildings, which he now refers to as his expensive hobby. In a world of characterless prefab office towers, he remarks, Old World quality is simply no longer available. He embarked on a string of small-scale redevelopment projects between his various consulting assignments. His goal was to play a meaningful part in saving the artistic and architectural heritage of downtown Winnipeg.

Dixon’s record is impressive. Since 1971, he has restored heritage buildings, saving segments of a unique chapter in Prairie history and preserving a resource that may be a key to Winnipeg’s elusive but realizable renaissance. He is responsible for Winnipeg’s first warehouse conversion, the Donald Bain Building on venerable Bannatyne Street. In the same building, he demolished the garage, being careful to preserve the bricks for accurate reconstruction later.

History’s ghosts hover quietly in another of his properties, the Salvation Army Citadel, a fortress?like building built during the 1920’s. Now sitting for sale on the edge of Winnipeg’s skid row, it once served as a barracks for Salvation Army officers. (The Army aided the immigrant hordes that poured through the nearby river port and railway station on their way to break open the barren prairie frontier.) Adjacent to it, and on the same property, is Winnipeg’s original Jewish bathhouse, boarded up and silent.

In 1984, Dixon undertook the first addition to a heritage structure when he erected a $400,000 penthouse conference facility on the Hammond Building, where he operates out of an eccentric, paper?strewn office. He mildly regrets this expenditure but reconciles himself to the thought by stating these ventures are not profit-makers. His main goal is to ensure these buildings stay around because “they will not be duplicated … the nature of past construction makes it uneconomic.” He also wants other people to become interested in these activities.

A tour of the Hammond Building reveals a diverse tenant list. Here, in the heart of what many believe is the hollowed out city, we find a high-tech DNA lab, Winnipeg’s weekly gay newspaper, a local entertainment weekly, and a gaggle of heritage and environmentalist organizations. Attracted, no doubt, by the modest rents, free tenant access to the glass?walled rooftop meeting room, continuous upgrading and Dixon’s obvious devotion to customer service. Other amenities include permanent staff, a journeyman who looks after mechanical and other renovations, a full-time custodian and a receptionist who greets all visitors.

An Ongoing Battle with Apathy

Such old-fashioned attention to detail has drawn businesses to the Exchange District. In 1984, when Dixon took on the dilapidated Hammond Building, it had nine tenants. Today, there are over thirty. The area has seen small, steady gains that enlarge the local tax base. However, the turnaround has been an ongoing battle against apathy, false perceptions and bureaucratic inflexibility.

Community efforts to revive the Exchange District frequently stumble against officialdom. In the early 1990s, a faceless traffic planner, citing heavy traffic flow, decreed that Albert Street, where the Hammond Building is located, become one-way. Winnipeg’s downtown is beset by turning restrictions, one?way streets and rush-hour parking bans — all part of a generally counter-productive planning bias towards expediting traffic flow into and out of the core. The effect was dramatic. Albert Street quickly became deserted because getting there was too complicated. “You could have shot a cannon down the street,” Dixon says.

The incident pushed the community to petition for the return of two-way traffic. They brought elected officials down to their orphaned street. The one?way edict was promptly overturned. Dixon, an original director of the Exchange BIZ, points to this as one of a string of small victories.

Dixon has much to say about parking rules, zoning requirements and the time and effort consumed in alleviating their effects. During one renovation period at the Hammond Building, he recalls getting a permit to block a side lane for construction activity. On occasion, people involved in the work would park in the strip, only to find their vehicles ticketed by parking commissionaires. Patiently, Dixon would gather up the tickets, bring them down to city hall and have them cancelled. It was only after he threatened to take the tickets to the mayor that the ritual ended.

Inflexible Building Codes

Building codes are another story. The quest for fire safety can lead to expensive inflexibility with ruinous impact on the economics of rehabilitating heritage treasures. Winnipeg’s historic multi?storey warehouses were built to store heavy commodities and to support heavy machinery. Hence the practical yet attractive post-and-beam construction that combines brick and massive wood timbers.

Dixon recalls a battle during the 1977 redevelopment of the Donald Bain Building. Although fully sprinklered, an order required that he cover the wood ceilings with two layers of drywall. Although fire authorities could not think of any instances of an exposed wood beam’s catching fire (it turns out they only char slightly), they persisted in the order to construct drywall crawl spaces. They finally relented after Dixon provided a letter from Lloyd’s of London confirming that crawl spaces invite invisible smouldering and second and third alarm flare-ups. Nevertheless, the story did not end there. The authorities insisted the beams be covered with a special fire-suppressing bitumescent paint that cost a bundle and banished the rich natural wood colour beneath a milky sheen.

Probably the last birdcage elevator in the core area is located in the Bate Building, constructed in the early 1900’s. At one point in the recent past an upgrade order was issued, the costs for which would have eliminated the lift. Heritage Winnipeg, through its president Bernie Wolfe, enlisted Dixon and others to meet with the Deputy Minister of Labour and his top officials responsible for elevator regulation to defer this requirement. After contacting officials in Chicago and Toronto they confirmed that there was no need to convert these systems as long as they met their original safety standards. The drum-elevator/birdcage system was saved.

The regulatory rigidity that complicates the economics of recycling heritage buildings, particularly in a depressed market like Winnipeg’s, prompts a mild but cogent response from Dixon. “We need to encourage a more reasonable approach,” he suggests. “Agencies need to have the authority to make exceptions without compromising safety,” he adds, noting that the attitude at city hall is changing. “Many want to help and the expertise has greatly improved.”

Rent Control Stops Apartment Construction

It is now fashionable at Winnipeg City Hall to talk of downtown residential development. This change in attitude is revolutionary, 180 degrees removed from the urban planning prejudices that were standard as recently as a decade ago. In 1979, the head of the city-planning department emphatically told Dixon that the core area east of Main Street was “unsuitable” for residential living. Since then, there has been only limited development — one condominium project in that same area of the Exchange District. Their values have fallen.

Dixon believes the area needs apartments rather than condominiums. “Young people can’t afford the down payments, so they stay away.” He admits there is a “catch 22” with apartments. Rent control, gone from much of Canada, is still enforced in Manitoba. It scares away investment, so buildings stay empty.

If there is an issue that tears at Winnipeg’s heart, it is excessive taxation. The city ranks at or near the top in national property-tax comparisons, and historically those taxes have fallen proportionately more heavily on the commercial core. As business and activity have shifted outwards, the hefty tax bills have driven many owners into abandoning their properties — and discouraged anyone else’s picking them up. The result is a large inventory of heritage buildings held precariously by city hall. In January, arson destroyed one of these orphans, the 115-year-old Leland Hotel.

Dixon has no definitive answers. He is sympathetic to the idea of changing the property tax so that land is taxed at a flat rate, not the buildings and improvements on it. He sees a much wider use of user fees to reduce the costs that are piled randomly into property taxes.

Amalgamation Reduced Efficiency

If there is a clue to the problem, it is to be found in Dixon’s recollection of urban government before 13 small cities in the region were amalgamated in 1972. (Just what the Harris government has done with the Toronto megacity.) St. Vital, the area he has lived in most of his life, was well run before it was absorbed into Unicity. “There was a tight little management group that focused on the bottom line,” he recalls. “You could get answers quickly because the councillors were on top of it all. With Unicity, we lost track of the politicians, and there is too long a distance to the decision-makers. Unicity lacks the incentives to perform well; so efficiency fell.”

Dixon refers to the crisis of old?style American cities such as Cleveland. “At some point, the system collapses and goes back to the basics. There they now job out a lot of services to bring their costs down.” He is hopeful about talk at city hall concerning the Indianapolis model that has public employees competing against private vendors, and he is optimistic about the new mayor. “Municipal employees are an asset but they need incentives to perform.”

It is later in the morning and the snow is still falling softly. A workman ducks into a shrouded doorway. The 23 foot-wide, four-storey building is the former Criterion Hotel built in 1914 on McDermot Avenue. It probably has the most beautiful stone, terra cotta and ceramic facade of all the derelict Exchange District buildings. It is a shell, the inside gutted by a fire during a failed reconstruction in 1987. New steel girders shimmer in the darkened hulk. Tom Dixon has levered a financial Heritage Assistance Grant from the city to save the structure. By fall, perhaps sooner, life will have returned. There will be offices here one block off Portage and Main.

Tom Dixon is a self-described dinosaur. Just recently, he replaced his rotary dial phone. He does not bother himself with computers or e-mail. He is also an optimist. Twenty years from now he envisions Winnipeg with a vibrant and exciting downtown, capitalizing on the personality of its people, and heritage ambiance. Presumably, the public policy ills that have stunted a great city will be fixed. Visitors will find a unique architectural treasure, a city second only to Barcelona as a representative site of historic warehouses.

Much of it there thanks to Winnipeg’s modest renaissance man.