Saturday, April 21, 2007

You got a problem with slurpees Mr. Kunstler?

Winnipeg's Proposed $265 Million Museum of Human Rights

Room For Improvement
Disparaging Views Of Winnipeg As a Vast parking Lot Hold A Grain Of Truth, But Planners And Architects Have Hope
By Ian Tixzzard
Winnipeg Free Press
Saturday April 21, 2007
Page F3
Last month on his website, James Howard Kunstler called Winnipeg "an entire city built to the specifications of a 7-Eleven shop, with about as much artistry." He wrote that while panning the design of the proposed Human Rights Museum as his "eyesore of the month."
The prominent New York-based new urbanist and anti-sprawl author and blogger visited Winnipeg last year to talk about his latest book, The Long Emergency, which is about the impending peril of declining oil reserves. But earlier books by Kunstler focused on suburban sprawl and the way he says "cities across North America have spent decades destroying themselves" by expanding outward year after year.
"Unfortunately, we've made a lot of bad choices, and a lot of it has to do with catering to the automobile almost exclusively," says Kunstler in a phone interview. "Most cities are pretty bad. Winnipeg's just done a particularly good job of it."

Elaborating on his initial assessment, Kunstler says, "I mean it presents the character of a giant parking lot dotted by cheap, throw-away buildings."
Certainly our suburb could be characterized like that, says Brian Lorch, who studies box-store development as a senior research associate at the University of Winnipeg's Institute for Urban Studies.

"But in our downtown area, we don't have any buildings I'd compare to a 7-Eleven."

As well as the old buildings that quickly come to mind, Lorch mentions newer ones such as the Mountain Equipment Coop building, the new condos on Waterfront Drive, and the MTS Centre.

"I'm sure he's never been to St. Boniface," says Dan Vandal, St. Boniface Councillor and Chair of the Plan Winnipeg Steering Committee established in 1999." And we have a national historic site downtown (The Forks), which he obviously didn't see either."

Vandal gives a quick list of buildings to be proud of: St Boniface City Hall, the Confideration Life Building, the Union Bank Tower and the Milennium Centre.

"But I'm not saying Winnipeg doesn't have room for improvement," says Vandal, agreeing that decades' worth of car-dominated transport policy leaves us with too much surface parking downtown.

Vandal takes the long view, continuing to push the idea of rapid transit as a way of making vacant space downtown more valuable as building sites than as parking lots. "It's taken generations to get here and it'll take generations to improve," he says.

"It's typical Kunstler," says Ian Wight, Head of the City Planning Department at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture.

Wight says he first enountered Kunstler on the CNU (Congress of the New Urbanism) listserve, where Kunstler left abrasive comments for other members.

"He posted such harsh flames, but I got to know that's his style. I quite like this guy," says Wight. "He brings attention to good purposes. And there's at least a grain of truth of what he's saying."

When Wight looks at Winnipeg, he sees a place where the interests and goals of developers have undue influence on local growth. "Winnipeg is a city with lots of planning," he says, "but not necessarily public planning, there are very good private plans."

Winnipeggers vote with their feet and with their wallets and their chosen way of getting around," says Sandy Shindleman, President of Shindico, which has developed retail and commercial space here for nearly 30 years. "Unless you understand the history of development here and the asperations of the people, you can't really kow what you're talking about."

Athough it could be argued that Shindon is partially responsible for many of the city's parking lots and throw away buildings, Shindleman says he makes his living meeting market demand.

"Giving citizens and consumers what they want, it's proven to be a good idea," he says.

According to David Witty, Dean of Architecture at University of Manitoba, the process of making pleasant and liveable palces out of all our space starts with the downtown.

"The comparison to a 7-Eleven is too extreme," he says. "But we need a vision for Winnipeg. There's not a city that's competitive without a vibrant, attractive downtown."

In the end, he hopes for a denser Winnipeg, planned with both the public and developers in mind. He says the result might be a city built solely on the needs of its communities, "but that won't happen while we're expanding outward."

James Howard Kunstler


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