Wpg Free Press: Who benefits from public investment in True North Square?
The following is an op-ed written by Richard Milgrom, associate professor in the department of city planning in the Faculty of Architecture. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Feb. 23, 2016.
Images of the proposed the True North Square development between the MTS Centre and the RBC Convention Centre have generated public excitement about the future of downtown Winnipeg. This is positive. However, they are just promotional drawings that are short on detail. It is difficult to determine the potential contribution a development might make based only on this information.
We are promised more details Wednesday.
The images are selective and framed. They provide only snapshots of a potential future, and they do not show all of the angles. While the projected outcome may appear attractive, elements that are not shown raise critical questions. First, what becomes of the streets when the proposal turns its back on Graham Avenue and Hargrave Street? How is this realized in phases, and what happens if all of the phases are not completed? What does it mean to have a public square on private property? And who benefits from public investment in this project?
It is possible the proposed public space at the centre of the plan undermines the potential of the adjacent streets. None of the images suggests positive futures for Graham or Hargrave. In fact, it can be inferred from the illustrations both streets will be rather dark urban canyons, with neighbouring buildings cast in shadows for much of the day (although afternoon sunlight would reach the MTS Centre most days).
Good cities have streets that serve both through traffic and social interactions, qualities that are emerging now on the western end of Graham. This includes the open space in front of the Manitoba Hydro building, now hosting a regular farmers market. Surely, the city’s priorities should be on creating great streets for all of its citizens, before it approves and supports developments that provide alternative space that potentially undermines their vitality.
Reports that have accompanied the images over the last few months have talked about development of as many as three buildings. This is a large project and will have to be completed in phases. Winnipeg has its fair share of incomplete phased projects (just Google “Trizec Building Winnipeg Architecture” to see images of the full plan for development at Portage and Main).
As shown in the illustrations, the central space requires two of those buildings to be complete. The great curved skywalks would also require two buildings (and not the same combination) to be complete. Is it possible to imagine development that would feel and appear complete no matter how many phases are realized? Could a good, publicly accessible space be realized by completing just one new building?
Third, questions need to be raised about what is meant by a public space when the proposed main space is almost certainly located on private property. Similar projects have been cited by the project’s promoters (for example, LA Live in Los Angeles), but they all fall into a category now frequently referred to as “privately owned public spaces” (POPS) and are billed as entertainment destinations rather than public spaces.
POPS raises questions about permissible rules of conduct that are often similar to those found in shopping malls, rather than public spaces. Shopping malls, as private spaces, are accessible to the public as long as the owners of the space deem their behaviours acceptable — loitering, for example, can be grounds for exclusion from the space. We need look no further than Portage Place for recent, controversial examples of this being used inappropriately.
Many people have spoken in favour of public funding assisting with the development of this project and its publicly accessible spaces. But public funding should be used to benefit a wide range of interests. The development of open spaces and skywalks in True North Square clearly benefits one developer while potentially disadvantaging others on neighbouring properties leaving them in the shadows (literally) and by syphoning pedestrian traffic away from the streets.