Reflecting on downtown progress in year 2014

Action launched on a plan to end homelessness; a mixed use approach takes shape for revitalizing land use near our Museum; a world class university campus emerges downtown at lightening speed. A vision of a more caring, tolerant city overhangs it all.

Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

When it comes to downtown progress, the first half of 2014 has been almost perfect.

We’ve seen forward movement on many initiatives in the past six months, and the common thread that ties most of these new initiatives together is housing. For the first time, it feels like social and physical revitalization are both on the radar, and that strategic focus – a focus by an organization or group on its core roles – and the importance of connecting the different downtown districts is better understood.

Here are some snapshots of what’s been happening:

The 10-year plan to end homelessness
A plan to end homelessness has arrived. With the leadership of the United Way of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council, a new plan will co-ordinate resources and first of all place those less fortunate into homes, surrounded by supports. The plan shows promise of improving the health and safety of all our citizens and helping our city become a more caring and tolerant place.

Parcel 4
The proposed redevelopment of Parcel 4 and Rail Side Land at The Forks National Historic Site has been announced. A well-thought-out, community-based plan with wide support has finally emerged under the careful direction of The Forks North Portage Partnership. Housing forms a key part, with over 700 units planned as part of a well-designed, mixed-use development integrated into the project.

While to date Waterfront Drive has been the calling card of the new downtown, Parcel 4 (adjacent to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights) has the potential to match or exceed it.

Tax increment financing
The second generation of the Residential Tax Increment Financing program has arrived. The first program of over $40 million in city and provincially funded incentives has leveraged five times that much in private sector investment to stimulate downtown housing. It has resulted in almost 2,000 units under construction or proposed, under the direction and leadership of the city’s arms-length development agency, CentreVenture.

A short six years ago there was much opposition to such a large-scale program on the grounds that the private sector alone should revive the downtown market. With the voices of groups like city BIZ associations and the leadership of key provincial and city politicians who understand the long-term financial implication of not directing development inward, the new program took shape.

This second generation program, with an estimated $24 million in additional tax support, is more finely tuned and focused. Its emphasis on targeting surface parking lots, a strategic focus in certain districts on key core functions and emphasis on mixed use are all elements that make this version much more powerful.

This could lead to a speedier realization of the ultimate goal – vibrancy through density and mixed-use developments.

No doubt there will still be some challenges, the biggest one revolving around the question of whether property owners will bite or simply inflate their property’s value and try offloading it, making development more difficult. An earlier recommendation by the BIZ, when real estate prices were much lower, was for the city to simply start buying surface parking lots, controlling the market and creating strategic partnerships with the private sector, then applying the tax incentives. If you want to play the game, then think like a developer would!

Further additions to the University of Winnipeg
The United Health and RecPlex on Spence Street has finally been unveiled, adding to the University of Winnipeg’s vison of creating a world class campus. First rate sports facilities, great housing and a walkable campus with storefronts, restaurants and more are all key ingredients in attracting students to universities. Clearly Dr. Loyd Axworthy has visited some of the best campuses in North America.

His vision has taken shape at lightning speed and is perhaps a model whose approach should be replicated in other districts in downtown Winnipeg. The complex will be a boon to everyone from local youth to older soccer heroes wanting to relive lost glory.

downtown-farmers-marketA second farmers’ market
Office workers wanted it, so we delivered it. A second market, on Broadway, has taken off this year with the support of the Workers Compensation Board. The goal is to give office workers reasons to enjoy their downtown, help residents buy organic produce not sold anywhere else and create a positive buzz in the area.

At times in trying to create a conversation around revitalization you feel like a lone voice – especially when policy has not yet caught up. But we at the BIZ are not alone – ordinary people, politicians, administrators and many other leaders in the city share our passion and beliefs.

What is important is that these conversations spark creativity in others – whether by challenging them to think harder, or by creating a synergy with partners that helps get us to our goal.

Conversations are good and they must continue, because momentum is finally on our side. A great half year we’ve had; let’s keep going.

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ

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