‘Mixed Use’ doesn’t work in Winnipeg

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that 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. Jane, indeed, was ahead of her time, arguing against the heavy-handed homogenous development that was so common in the middle of the 20th century. Over the years people have come to realize that, like Jane suggested, a diversity of uses within a neighbourhood is what makes an area interesting, safe and attractive. The benefits of mixed use development aren’t even debated any more. It is the conventional wisdom among all who critique city planning from their basements, offices and cell phones.

The notion of mixed use development as a paradigm for city planning is so pervasive that it has even seeped into certain corners of Winnipeg 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 store front 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 that “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 along Corydon, Osborne, and even Pembina Highway to be of the mixed use variety.

All buildings are mixed use with retail or office on the lower floors and residential, office or home-based businesses on the upper floors” states the plan.

This applies not just to the low rise buildings in the heart of the Corydon and Osborne business areas, but also for the mid rise districts outlined in the plan, and even for high rise residential properties. The high-rise guidelines include the following: “The ground floor should be ‘high street’ retail or commercial facing Pembina Highway with retail or office on the 2 and 3 floors and office or residential on the upper floors.

Mid-rise Mixed Use

Sample Illustration of a Mid-rise Mixed Use from the Corydon-Osborne Plan

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

Not only does the plan call for mixed use buildings, but it is quite specific about how they should be designed in order to achieve the idealistic vision of the planners:

– The facade should be composed to exhibit a clearly defined base

– The base should be a minimum 60% transparent window coverage on street or facades

– After the third story, buildings should step back from the facade horizontally equal to the height of one story; additional step backs should be provided at higher levels

– etc..

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 mile upon mile of gorgeous old 6 and 7 story brick buildings, with apartments on the upper levels and shops, restaurants and even car repair garages at street level. Even Chicago’s Wicker Park is a great place to visit and shop, with mixed use buildings lining several streets. However Winnipeg is not Barcelona, and Corydon is not Wicker Park. The fact of the matter is mixed use buildings rarely work in Winnipeg.

Provencher Blvd was supposed to be the next trendy neighbourhood back in 2008 when Place Joseph Royal was built. The mid-rise condo building was built with the same vision as the Corydon-Osborne plan, with street level storefronts, space for patios, and building step backs to enhance the street presence. However, things didn’t work out as planned. The retail spaces sat vacant for months or even years, and when they eventually were leased out, they didn’t fill up with cafés and boutiques but offices for doctors and consultants. The street presence that was envisioned never materialized.

No doubt the lackluster success of Place Joseph Royal contributed to the mothballing of Edifice Fontaine, half a block down the street. Edifice Fontaine, just like Place Joseph Royal, was supposed to be a mixed use development featuring street level retail, but instead it turned into an 8’ plywood fence blighting Provencher Avenue.

Further south on Goulet Street there sits another condo building with first floor retail space, every unit of which is vacant. This failure of mixed use development is not unique to St. Boniface. You can find it even in Winnipeg’s vaunted exchange district.

In 2009 a heritage building known as the Ryan Block in the heart of the West Exchange was demolished as a result of years of neglect. Urban advocates were upset about the prospect of this heritage building being replaced by a parking garage, so as a compromise the owners, Bedford Investments, agreed to reuse brick from the original building in the parkade façade and incorporate retail spaces on the first floor at sidewalk level.

The brick façade turned out quite nicely, in parkade terms anyhow, but the retail spaces did not. Not a one has been filled in the 4 years since they were opened. Now, directly across from old market square in one of Winnipeg’s most walkable areas, we have the vacant lifelessness of empty storefronts.

The granddaddy of mixed use failure in Winnipeg is Place Promenade. Here you’ll find a row of retail spaces with floor-to-ceiling garage door style windows that roll up, opening the stores and restaurants inside to the interlocking brick alley behind Portage Place. The visionaries behind this project imagined it as a little Italian backstreet, anchored by the residents living in the hundreds of apartment units above and the shoppers from the Portage Place mall across the lane.

You know how it turned out. Stores sit vacant beneath faded awnings, the garage door style windows are forever locked down, and only a few intrepid businesses remain.

mixed use failure

Place Promenade is perhaps not the best example of mixed use failure because it was designed to fail. It was, as Jane Jacobs might have said, a promenade that goes from no place to nowhere and has no promenaders. Yet the failed thinking behind Place Promenade is not so different than what we’re seeing in the Corydon-Osborne Area Plan. It was a vision of a specific type of development imposed upon an area to which it is not suited.

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 contribute to the critical mass of people that is 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 that 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 counter productive. 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 community development 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 that 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.

28 thoughts on “‘Mixed Use’ doesn’t work in Winnipeg

  1. Good post and good observations. But I don’t think the blanket declaration that “mixed use doesn’t work in Winnipeg” necessarily follows.

    We do see some mixed-use buildings on Corydon, Sherbrook Street, and Sargent Avenue. And mixed-use neighbourhoods west of the Exchange, and where corner stores still operate in the North End. As you say, it happens organically, and responds to density and pedestrian traffic. It will remain difficult as long as the city continues to discourage densification.

    Based on the new suburbs opened up this decade, new mixed-use development in the inner city might become viable sometime around the turn of the 22nd century.

    • Thanks Michael. I was being a bit sensationalistic with the title. The Centrepoint project downtown is a large scale mixed use development that I’m sure will be a huge benefit to the area.

  2. Mixed use that doesn’t happen organically won’t work in Winnipeg because you can’t “make” Winnipeggers do anything. It either happens or it doesn’t. This is the nature of my love hate relationship with the city.

  3. If I wanted to live in a dense urban neighborhood I would move to Toronto. I don’t which is why I live in the suburbs in Winnipeg.

      • I’m glad you said that because I’m pretty sure this blog post is the best thing that I’ve ever written. Oh wait .. you were referring to Anon’s comment weren’t you..

    • “If I wanted to live in a dense urban neighborhood I would move to Toronto. I don’t which is why I live in the suburbs in Winnipeg.” – Anon

      Or, one could move to the Village and advocate policies that’ll actually make Winnipeg an environmentally and fiscally sustainable city. But if you like crumbling infrastructure, shitty sidewalks and brown water by all means keep advocating against an urban Winnipeg.

      • For the record, I’m not a Village resident (even though I like the area). I live in one of Winnipeg’s early postwar inner suburbs (which is leaps and bounds above new suburban nightmares like Waverley West). The choice isn’t between old Toronto and Winnipeg, the choice is between a more geographically compact and upward growing Winnipeg versus another Calgary.

  4. Much of the big job growth in recent decades has been in the suburbs.

    Mixed use needs industry. It isn’t just people living in the area and tasty restaurants and glossy shops.

    Why is Osborne Village successful? In part because jobs are in abundance north and south of it. It has grown organically to the point that it doesn’t need to receive help for condo developers or grocery stores. Those businesses and developers *want* to be there.

    It is always a bit disconcerting hearing from industry warning city hall to not drive them away. For example. are we to hem in our airport so much that all the jobs there migrate even farther outside city limits?

  5. I think part of the “success” mixed use in the Osborne and Corydon areas (as well as Wolseley/Sherbrooke to some extent) is the fact that many of the people who live in the area walk. Non-car transportation is common for people living in those areas. Grocery, work, home and entertainment are all within a short distance and always have been. The average Winnipeger is dependent on having a vehicle and vehicle dependency contributes to homogeneous districts – shopping districts, residential districts, office districts, etc. If Winnipegers can get over their auto-centric lifestyles we will see more successful mixed use areas in our city.

  6. Great post! Seems that ‘metrosexual’ urbanists sing from the same songbook of what’s in vogue, but often fail to recognize that what works in some other cities does not translate to Winnipeg. Every city does, after all, have its own unique environment, economics, and popular social habits. Contrary to some people’s opinion, the demand is not infinite in Winnipeg for boutique clothing shops and hipster coffee parlours.

    Now you just need to top this off with a post on why opening Portage & Main to pedestrians won’t solve all of downtown’s problems and lead to construction on surface parking lots, and you’ll find yourself blocked by many of the local so-called urbanists on Twitter!

  7. Bedford is an interesting one. I’ve always wondered what they’re charging for space in it. They make their money off the parkade aspect and with the interior just an open space it’s not exactly ideal for many uses. Not totally sure what’s opening up in it with the current renovations. Not sure if when they built it they made it suitable for much other than offices because I don’t know that they really care if it’s leased or not. May have been more economical to just go cheap when building it than spend more to make it usable but then need to rely on it being used to get the investment back. In the exchange this is more the exception than the rule. The building directly across the street from it (with Peasant Cookery) is a mixed-use building. So is Penthouse. And Fairchild. And the condo across the street from Fairchild. I’m not sure what’s on the ground floor at 181 Bannatyne and Ashdown. Thought there was something in a portion of Ashdown but I haven’t really checked lately. Waterfront’s doing pretty well. One building in the area that hasn’t leased it’s space for whatever reason, surrounded by a bunch that have, doesn’t really show that the concept doesn’t work.

    It really depends on demand for commercial space in the area at the time. Around Corydon it could make a lot of sense. Around Provencher I don’t really know the value of having more commercial space. Part of the issue is that you can’t have much aside from offices without high foot traffic and you aren’t going to get much foot traffic until pretty far down a development route. For example, if you are the first building to open up and nothing else is around, you can’t support many businesses so at that point who is going to open there? People don’t just move a business into a location because it’s there, they do it because at the time it makes more sense than opening it in every other location available in the city. Things sat vacant on Waterfront for a while when they just started development because there was no one in the area yet. Over time those locations get more desirable and that’ll continue to happen as they keep building up the area.

    Part of the issue in Winnipeg is that we don’t like to follow through on anything. Ideas come up, we’ll start down a path, and maybe 1/4 of the way through we’ll get skittish and change direction. Which often means whatever we were starting out doing never has any chance of working. Then we look at it and say this concept doesn’t work or won’t work in Winnipeg. Well, it won’t work anywhere if you don’t actually commit to it. And in Winnipeg we like to not really commit to any cohesive development plan so in that way maybe it can’t work here due to our own ineptitude in being able to follow through with an idea. Let’s say you wanted to try waterskiing so you went out and got a lifejacket and some skis, and a tow-rope, but never went far enough to find a boat to use. So you get out to the lake, put on the jacket and skis, jump in the water and hold onto a rope that isn’t attached to anything and you’re all like “what the heck, I’m not going anywhere, this water-skiing thing isn’t working.” Do you conclude that water-skiing just won’t work at that lake? “Naa, you can’t waterski on this lake, tried it once, spent an hour just floating there, it can’t be done.” Or was there something really important to the execution of it that was lacking?

    In this case, you actually need a certain density of these types of buildings for them to really work. Putting one off somewhere just leaves you with commercial space with no demand, and residential space no one wants because there are no amenities nearby. The way it’s supposed to work is if you build a lot in an area, or have an area that already has one of the key components (amenities to draw residents or enough foot traffic to draw commercial tenants) then you don’t need as many new constructions for the same approach to work. They basically work for the same reason that Osborne and Corydon are popular areas. There’s a lot of stuff in close proximity. If you took the same successful businesses and stretched them out over a much larger area, many wouldn’t be successful anymore. So I guess the question would be, is there really a fundamental issue with mixed-use developments that would make them not work in Winnipeg?

    There could be a lot of flaws in this plan (specific locations, timing of development, weird unnecessary rules and restrictions, etc) that could make it ineffective. I just wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that there’s anything about the concept of mixed use developments that makes them a bad idea. The execution in some cases has been terrible but that’s an entirely different issue. Organic growth of an area sounds good in concept. That’s what has happened over time to create excellent neighbourhoods in other cities. The problem is that most of those neighbourhoods were established long before the days of driving out to box stores or malls out in the middle of nowhere to do your shopping. Having a mixed use development in terms of building a variety of different types of buildings in an area really came mostly out of necessity. These days it’s more efficient to segment. We build residential developments. Then in another part of the city we throw up an industrial or business park. Then we drop in a big chunk of retail somewhere else. Each of which are disconnected but very efficient at their specific function. Organically this is what happens when you have a lot of cheap land and the city is already setup in a way that assumes everyone will just drive to where they need to get to. So, details in the plan for Corydon and Osborne could be flawed. And probably are, Winnipeg has a terrible track-record on thinking big-picture. But I also think the days of organic growth generating any type of mixed-use area (either within the same building or different type of buildings around the same area) may be a thing of the past. Without a push in a specific direction, developments will happen how and where it’s cheapest to setup and these days building a bit of commercial space generally isn’t desirable anymore for developers when they can just throw up a strictly residential building so without pretty strong incentives or requirements, I expect the organic growth wouldn’t lead towards any diversity in buildings to create the desirable mixed-use environment that you’ve described. Diversity in buildings isn’t efficient. Unfortunately I don’t think the case could be made financially for someone to create any new small commercial spaces if they could use the same land to just make residential. And if the business case isn’t there, then it isn’t going to happen. That’s the real concern. The type of small commercial buildings in make Osborne and Corydon great areas aren’t going to get built anymore if someone can just put up apartments or condos on the same land. And ideally just a pretty cheaply made structure filled with condos that they can sell, make their money quick, and move on without ever having to even deal with the hassle and additional expense of adding a commercial component.

    Anyway, just my thoughts on the matter. Not saying the development plan is awesome, but if you want a mixed use area of any type these days, you may need to put a little force behind making that happen. Organic development has been replaced by efficient development in most cases and there’s more efficiency with dedicated buildings in dedicated areas from a short-sighted development standpoint. And no one paying to put up new buildings cares about the long-term impact of their development.

    • Very good and well-thought out comment. Thank you for posting it. Certainly a plan is needed to guide development in a way that will encourage the type of growth we would like to see, but there are still cases were a pure residential building makes sense, perhaps on the secondary streets, away from the commercial hubs, or near the RT station, and such a development would help create the density that you agree is needed for these types of developments.

  8. I’ve been told, by a source very close to the project, that there is a smoked meat restaurant going in to the Ryan Block, slated to open in August.

  9. The planning documents currently in place with the City of Winnipeg that impact decision-making in theCorydon and Osborne areas are Osborne Village Neighborhood Plan (Old and outdated), the Our Winnipeg Plan (conflicts with the Osborne Village Area Plan) and the Traffic Oriented Handbook (TOD handbook).

    When you ask the area planner what order of importance one should follow you are informed that the most governing document is the Osborne Village Area Plan, then the Our Winnipeg and finally the TOD Handbook. If you follow that line of thinking that means that the oldest planning document is most important and the one we are spending the most money to substantiate (Transit Oriented Development) is the least important (TOD Handbook)…As such, an out-dated, conflicting document takes precedence in the planning framework for Osborne Village. Makes sense right?

    The most concerning part associated with these planning documents is that they “pocket plan” the city according to the area demographic’s inputs and influences when urban infill development in vibrant areas like Osborne Village benefit the entire city. As a result, development guidelines limit height, massing, and scale of buildings while also placing constraints on construction specifications and building design. All of these limitations are concocted by planners without first looking at who the consumer is and what the consumer needs are. Essentially, you are designing a product for a community versus the consumer. That would be the same thing in business as designing a product without identifying the consumer behavior trends and market constraints. Furthermore, a competition analysis very quickly tells you that more affordable, less onerous and much easier development options exist on suburban sites. The result is a continued expansion of the city outward and a slow pace of development in the urban infill areas.

    A very sad state of affairs when non-buyers are creating plans for buyers without first speaking to the consumer. It’s one thing to speak to neighbors – that’s great – its another to not speak to the consumers and expect them to still buy.

  10. *Transit Orient Development – I joke it is called the Traffic Oriented Development Handbook bc they still require 1:1 parking on sites adjacent to TOD sites…

  11. As a basement twitter urbanist and editorialist I feel the need to respond.

    I agree with your premise that not every development on every street needs to be mixed use. You are quite right that mixed use applied to neighbourhoods is far more important than individual buildings. I agree with the genesis of your argument, the mixed use demands in certain areas of the Corydon plan.

    I do have issue with what appears to be your assertion that mixed use buildings have no place in winnipeg.

    You appear to be advocating for development such as parkades in urban areas like the Exchange District to be single use right to the sidewalk. I can’t disagree more, even if the commercial struggles for now.

    It may take time to lease out because the area is still growing, but if we don’t strive for better it will never come. Yes there are many mixed use failures, but that doesn’t mean we should stop at least trying to create strong urban conditions.

    There are places where the goal is a commercial streetscape, so new buildings should be required to contribute to that. If Place Joseph was built as single use residential, it would have created a huge hole in the continuity of the pedestrian streetscape. It would have essentially halted any hope of building on that character further along the street.

    There are instances in which single use is acceptable, but there are also places where mixed use is mandatory. Or rather, there are places where certain types of single use are not acceptable. Place Jo could have been a commercial only development appropriate to the street, but as residential it needed to address the street with commercial uses.

    Winnipeg needs to think more urban. It won’t happen overnight but if we don’t enforce the change now, when do we do it? Commercial struggles because of low density but the goal is to change that.

    You can’t retrofit storefronts along the sidewalk edge of a parkade when the neighborhood becomes dense enough to support it. It may take time but the right choices need to be made today to create the kind of city we want tomorrow.

    As with most things in Winnipeg it just takes patience.

  12. Osborne is a good street, but who is to say that it wouldn’t be even better if new buildings built on it were required to be mixed use? Just because it was somewhat successful without that requirement doesn’t mean it couldn’t be more successful with it.

    When that building burned down right in the heart of Osborne and was replaced with essentially a strip mall, a great opportunity was lost. Had multi use been required at the time we may have ended up with a better development.

    Corydon is fine in a Winnipeg context but it is hard to argue that it couldn’t be much more. Why not strive for greater density both residentially and commercially?

    Mixed use fails in Winnipeg because of low density, but mixed use buildings create density. Build commercial only on corydon and you lose the opportunity to increase the residential population. Build residential only and you lose the opportunity to increase the commercial activity.

    There are places where mixed use buildings make better streets.

    • Thanks for the comments. Originally I was going to write a facetious post about how we should give up on mixed use and embrace the strip mall. I changed direction and did a critique of the C-O Plan instead but some of that original thought found it’s way into this post.

      Maybe some specific strategic areas could be enforced as ‘mixed use zones’ but if additional density is to be achieved to support the area, then the restrictions need to be lifted in adjacent areas or you won’t see as much development and growth. This is what I believe. High density residential is only permitted on the major and secondary streets, but in none of those areas is it permitted to be single use residential. I think that is excessive and will hurt the long term prospects of the area.

      I understand however that we need to think long term and while the market may not be there right now it may develop down the road. That is a good point, and I agree that the little mall in Osborne is a missed opportunity. We need forward thinking, but in a balanced way.

  13. As to the ‘mixed use’ on Traverse & Goulet .. Very uninviting space and not accessible. Steps at front, steps at side. Maybe you can come in a loading door in the parking area.. but… that bugs me. And in winter, those windows are filthy, the building is too close to the street.

    Sometimes if a concept fails, it isn’t the idea, but the execution.

  14. Pingback: Corydon/Osborne: What good is a plan? | Around This Town

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