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.”
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
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.
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.