Friends of Upper Fort Garry: Time to Give Up?

It’s been over 12 years since a rag-tag group of millionaires banded together to stop a high-rise apartment complex from being built on a surface parking lot in downtown Winnipeg. The promise was that the parking lot, adjacent to the former site of historic Upper Fort Garry, would become an interpretive centre — part of what was to become the Upper Fort Garry Heritage Park.

Over a dozen years later, it is still a parking lot. And the millionaires, organized under the non-profit “Friends of Upper Fort Garry”, are operating it without permission.

In 2015, the Friends were granted temporary permission to operate the parking lot until the anticipated ground-breaking for the interpretive centre two years later.

Two years later they were no closer to building the centre and applied for an extension. That application was rejected by the Director of Planning, Property and Development Department in June of 2017 because there was no construction in the foreseeable future, a parking lot was inconsistent with the intended use of the property, and the Complete Communities plan encourages a reduction in surface parking lots. However, an appeal, lead by former Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, was granted in September 2017 to allow the Friends to continue to operate the lot on an “interim” basis for two additional years — provided that physical improvements were made to the lot.

At the time, Chair of Friends of Upper Fort Garry Jerry Gray said that they hoped to raise $17 million from public and private sources and have the centre completed by 2021 (cbc). Even an unpaid blogger could have told you that wasn’t going to happen.

In 2017 and 2018 combined, the Friends received a meagre total of $136,058 in tax-refundable donations, according to their submitted financial statements. Add in donations from government (your tax dollars at work) and revenues from the parking itself and other sources, and subtract expenses over that 2 year span, and they pocketed $416,306. At that pace it would take over 40 years to raise sufficient funds to build the interpretive centre.

Consider, though, that the projected cost of building the centre increased by $2 million between 2015 and 2017, and that ‘Phase 1’ of the project — the adjacent park — more than doubled in cost from start to finish, and it is reasonable to assume that with each year that goes by the Friends are actually getting farther from their goal.

So here we are: March, 2020. The promised improvements to the parking lot were not made, the conditional use permit to operate the parking lot expired half a year ago, and the lot is now being operated in violation of zoning by-laws.

It also seems that the Friends, and not just their donors, are losing interest. The last news item posted on their website is from 2018, and they have failed to submit new Variance and Conditional Use applications despite being reminded last November that they were not in compliance (after a nosy unpaid blogger made inquiries.)

Perhaps it is time to face facts: the interpretive centre is not getting built. We suspected so 4 years ago. We were pretty sure 2 years ago. Now it is so blindingly obvious that the Friends cannot credibly argue that if only they could operate the parking lot for another 2 years they would be able raise enough money to do anything other than pound a couple of piles in the ground.

Where do we go from here?

We need a realistic conversation about the future of this site, which is now part of a designated provincial park. Are we, as a community, okay with it remaining nothing but a surface parking lot with revenues going towards maintaining and enhancing the park space next door? Can the space be repatriated by the city and made available for development — perhaps a residential tower like was originally planned? Can it be developed into something more appropriate — perhaps a market area?

Whatever the answer, we need to recognize that the dream of an interpretive centre is dead. We need to re-evaluate control of the property and funding of the park, and well as the role, if any, that Friends of Upper Fort Garry have to play in the future of the site.

When the City of Winnipeg declared the land at the corner of Main Street and Fort Street surplus in 2006, it opened up a world of possibilities. The wall and precision-crafted garden that the Friends built with $13 million of private and public donations is nice enough, though somewhat underwhelming. Had they chosen to work with the apartment developers instead of forcing them out, perhaps we could have had more bang for the buck — a more vibrant area and more revenue to fund it. But we are where we are. The best thing we can do now is maximize the potential of the remaining undeveloped area — the parking lot at 25 Fort Street. Let’s not spend the next 12 years chasing a vision that will never materialize.

 

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“This former City property was sold to Friends of Upper Fort Garry for the purchase price of $1.00 on the promise of a public park and interpretive centre. An unimproved non-accessory parking lot is not consistent with that vision and not compatible with the context.” (Appeal – DCU 17-128893/B 25 Fort Street)

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