Downtown oasis by Romanian architect wins 1st place in competition to redesign derelict docks

A competition to re-imagine the future of the derelict Alexander Docks site garnered submissions from people around the world.

NASA launch pad, theme parks, gardens among 200 ideas sparked by Alexander Docks competition

Aaron Pollock, left, and Laurène Bachand launched the competition to get ideas and show the city how much people want the Alexander Docks area to be developed and made accessible once again. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

How would you like a sea-monster bridge linking Winnipeg's Waterfront with St. Boniface? Or a gladiatorial amphitheatre with pirate ships conducting sea warfare on the Red River?

Those are just two of the 200 ideas pitched as part of a contest to re-imagine the future of the derelict Alexander Docks site.

"We have everything from children who are looking at creating underwater theme parks and cool experiences like that to really well-thought-out parks, monuments, pop-up shops, smaller restaurants," said Aaron Pollock, who came up with the idea for the On The Docks competition along with Laurène Bachand.

The riverbank and Alexander Docks site at the end of Alexander Avenue. (CBC/Google Earth)

All entries were displayed Friday evening at a public exhibition at the Mere Hotel and the Cibo restaurant patio — adjacent to the docks site. At the same time, the top three prize winners were announced.

First place went to architect Cornoiu Sabin of Romania. His creation, Alexander's Garden, is a rectangular shape that partly overhangs the river and includes an active transportation path with a dock for boats, a swimming area that can used for skating in winter, and a sloped path that can be used for sledding in winter.

Alexander's Garden by architect Cornoiu Sabin of Romania earned first prize. (Cornoiu Sabin)

It is enclosed by trees on three sides "to create an oasis in downtown," said Bachand.

In the middle is a "Celestial Globe" monument that Bachand compares to Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park.

Second place is 15 Lights from China's Yuhan Wang. The terraced landscape is a tribute to Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old whose body was found at the Alexander Docks site in 2014. Each level contains different plants for different views as season change. At night, the lights offer visibility but also serve as a reminder of Tina.

15 Lights, designed by Yuhan Wang from China, earned second prize. (Yuhan Wang)

Third place is called Garden Point, from Winnipeg's John van Leeuwen Architecture and Design. Elevated concrete platforms are linked by bridges so they are accessible during high river levels, while a paved walking path to the water, with fishing areas, is available when levels are low

Garden Point, from Winnipeg's John van Leeuwen Architecture and Design, earned third prize. (John van Leeuwen Architecture and Design)

Wooden spheres, one of which is a glassed-in greenhouse, sit atop two of the platforms. The greenhouse offers a plant-filled sanctuary in the winter and a place where people can absorb sunlight while taking in river view.

With the help of sponsors, Bachand and Pollock were able to offer a $1,000 cash prize for first place, a $350 Exchange District gift package for second place and a $170 Exchange District food voucher for third place.

'Citizen-based initiative'

The competition is not affiliated with the City of Winnipeg but driven entirely by Pollock and Bachand, who will send the 200 submissions to the city in the hope it will jump start the process of redevelopment at the site.

"This is a citizen-based initiative," said Bachand. "We were trying to reach as many people as possible."

The idea sprang out of lunch breaks that the pair spent outside in nearby Stephen Juba Park, looking over at the neglected docks.

"We decided the site had a lot of potential and rather than complaining about it we decided to go ahead and organize something to get ideas of how it could be re-imagined," said Pollock. "It gives everyone a chance to have their say and take ownership."

Some 200 submissions were entered for competition to re-imagine the derelict Alexander Docks. 0:57

The exhibition will be set up at the Centennial Concert Hall from May26-June 9 and at The Forks from June 9-23.

A People's Choice award will eventually be given out with the winner getting a $170 Exchange District food voucher.

Most entries were from Manitoba but they also came from India, Romania, China, and the United States, and were designed by everyone from kids to professional architects.

"A lot of people are really interested in engaging the river again, so whether it be a dock or some sort of amphitheatre or floating stage. So there's a really wide range of how people are interpreting the site, which is interesting to see," Pollock said.

Some are outlandish, some are whimsical, some contain a mix of several features while others are more subtle and artistic. It's exactly what Bachand and Pollock were hoping for.

When the duo from Number TEN Architectural Group created the competition they suggested people be bold and creative.

"We wanted to open this up, in terms of 'think big and use your imagination,'" Pollock said.

What they got were ideas are as varied as any imagination will allow:

  • Space launching pad.
  • Coney Island-like amusement park.
  • Zoo.
  • Greenhouse.
  • Underwater science centre.
  • Jollibee restaurant.
  • Playground.
  • Retail and residential development.
  • Skate park.
  • Market.
  • Pool.
  • Sculptures and bridges.
  • Galleries.
  • Community gardens.
  • Fishing areas. 
  • Big-box development (that somehow proposes the return of bankrupt Blockbuster Video).

"We are just really happy the community answered. A lot of design competitions are typically only for professionals and artists so we didn't know what to expect," said Bachand. "It's been a bit of an overwhelming response, so that's great."

Bachand and Pollock even had one entry supplied by a blind woman who called and described her idea to the architects, who drew it out for her.

Pollock said the most poignant one that had no drawings at all, but just five words: Give land back to Anishinabe.

While some ideas might seem unconventional, there are precedents, Pollock said, noting Seattle's Great Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel at Pier 57, and Copenhagen's harbour pool.

As part of the competition, a submission board showing the area to be developed was available for download on the website. People were invited to sketch their ideas onto the template. Many did but some — primarily architects — created their own submission form.

"Architects do things their own way. They don't follow the rules," laughed Bachand.

People were invited to sketch their ideas onto this template. (On The Docks)

The drawings run the gamut from professional renderings to something that looks like a restaurant children's menu scribbled with crayons. Artistic ability, however, wasn't one of the requirements.

"The quality of the drawings didn't matter. This was about the quality and creativity of the ideas," said Bachand, noting the ​submissions were reviewed by a five-person jury.

Participants were encouraged to consider how their idea works with the seasons, the varying river levels, and to incorporate a memorial aspect to reflect on the significance of the site to Tina Fontaine.

​The dock has been fenced off since it was deemed unstable in 2015. The city intends to demolish it and revitalize the area but isn't sure what to do.

It held public consultations in June 2017 and a report was submitted the following month. A link to that report is included on the On The Docks site.

Report on public consultations for future use of the Alexander Docks site

​That was actually the second time the city plied the public for ideas. Back in 2006, it put out a call for "expressions of interest" in developing the area, but nothing was ever done.

Site challenges

Part of that is because there are a lot of issues and limitation with the site that have to be considered, said Pollock.

There is an aqueduct that runs under Alexander Street to the river as well as hydro lines in the area. As well, the riverbank is in a flood plain and is subject to ice damage.

Those considerations must be taken into account for any future uses, Pollock said, but he and Bachand didn't want that to hold anyone back in the competition.

This is how the docks have looked since 2015. (Nathan Kramer/Manitoba Historical Society)

By casting a wide net and inviting any and all ideas, they figured there would be a chance some things could work. Mostly, though, it would give the city a chance to see the passion people have for something to be done.

History of the docks

More than 150 years ago, some two dozen riverboats, with their smoke stacks sending dark plumes into the sky, worked the Red River, serving the growing settlement that would soon be incorporated as the city of Winnipeg.

Five vessels are seen at the Alexander Docks in a photo from June 1932. (Winnipeg Tribune)

According to the Winnipeg Labour Council, which submitted a proposal for the redevelopment of the docks site in 2008, those riverboats docked at the end of Alexander Street in an area that was then a crossroad of commerce and culture.

Its location was close to the heart of trade in the Exchange District. What is now Waterfront Drive was, at the time, the Winnipeg Transfer Railway, connecting the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway lines. 

Winnipeg painter Robert Bruce did this piece in 1958, showing the Alexander Docks when the rail line still went by, and the Hotel Fort Garry in the background. (Collection of the Bruce family)

Just southwest of the docks was Victoria Park, a central meeting place for the working class and their families, "where they could relax from the daily grind, have a picnic and play games."

Years later, Victoria Park became an important gathering place in the Winnipeg General Strike.

Thousands of strikers met in May and June of 1919 to listen to strike leaders and organize rallies as part of the unrest that paralyzed the city for more than a month. That strike became a defining moment in Canada's history, giving rise to the modern union movement, collective bargaining and a living wage.

Roger E. Bray, a spokesman for returned soldiers, speaks to a crowd of strikers at Victoria Park on June 13, 1919. (Archives of Manitoba/Foote Collection No. 1676, N2742)

At the time, the dock site and property right along the riverbank were owned by businessman William J. Guest.

During the 1890s, he had been fishing on Lake Winnipeg and selling his catch in Winnipeg. The business grew into the Northern Fish Company and later the Guest Fish Company, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.

The federal government bought the property from Guest in the late 1920s and constructed a wharf measuring 12 metres wide and 80 metres along the embankment to service government-owned and commercial vessels.

The surrounding area, intended to be the central hub for river traffic, was dredged to accommodate the big vessels and administrated by the Winnipeg and St. Boniface Harbour Commission.

The first vessel to moor along the finished wharf was the the SS Swan of the Hadley Bjornson Fish Company, docking on May 27, 1929, the historical society says. By 1932, the site we now refer to as the Alexander Docks was commonly known by that name, for the nearby street.

Over the next several decades, the use of the wharf declined as rail and road networks expanded. Selkirk and Gimli soon replaced Winnipeg as the bases for large vessels.

An aerial photo shows the docks when they were used for the paddlewheel boats. (Google Satellite)

The site was sold in 1995 to the City of Winnipeg, which refocused the dock on recreational activities and once again made it a place for riverboats, leasing it to the paddlewheel boats that would offer cruises up and down the river.

The city made some repairs about 15 years ago but the aging dock has been ravaged by time and river ice, eventually forcing the paddlewheelers — which no longer operate — to move.

In 2014, the site became known for a more sombre reason, when the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in the Red River near the Alexander Docks. The dock became a focal point for the teen's memorial.

Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17, 2014. (Tina Fontaine/Facebook)

Since 2015, the dock area has been fenced off and deemed dangerously unstable.

Meanwhile, the area along Waterfront Drive is booming with condos and shops. Near the docks site, the old harbour master's building is now Cibo Restaurant, while the Mere Hotel stands nearby and a mixed-use development centred around the James Avenue Pumping Station is under construction across the street.

"The docks have been untouched," states the On The Docks website, "but are key to the development of the area, and have the potential to reconnect the community to the river."

Some designs adjust for water levels, changing how much is visible and where visitors can go. For instance, some have raised platforms for when the river is high while others have stepped levels.

Organizers of design competition say something must be done with derelict site and are "overwhelmed" with ideas

Bachand and Pollock even had one entry supplied by a blind woman who called and described her idea to the architects, who drew it out for her.

Pollock said the most poignant entry had no drawings at all, but just five words: "Give land back to Anishinabe."

While some ideas might seem unconventional, there are precedents in other places, Pollock said, noting Seattle's Great Wheel — a giant ferris wheel at Pier 57 — and Copenhagen's harbour pool.

As part of the competition, a submission board showing the area to be developed was available for download on the website.

People were invited to sketch their ideas onto the template. Many did but some — primarily architects — created their own submission form.

"Architects do things their own way. They don't follow the rules," laughed Bachand.

The drawings run the gamut from professional renderings to something that looks like a restaurant children's menu scribbled with crayons. Artistic ability, however, wasn't one of the requirements.

"The quality of the drawings didn't matter. This was about the quality and creativity of the ideas," said Bachand, noting the ​submissions were reviewed by a five-person jury.

Participants were encouraged to consider how their idea works with the seasons, the varying river levels, and to incorporate a memorial aspect to reflect on the significance of the site in relation to Tina Fontaine.

A makeshift memorial to the 15-year-old girl has been maintained at the Alexander Docks site since her body was found there in 2014. The teen's death helped spur calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

​The dock has been fenced off since it was deemed unstable in 2015. The city intends to demolish it and revitalize the area but isn't sure what to do.

It held public consultations in June 2017 and a report was submitted the following month. A link to that report is included on the On The Docks site.

Report on public consultations for future use of the Alexander Docks site

​That was actually the second time the city plied the public for ideas. Back in 2006, it put out a call for "expressions of interest" in developing the area, but nothing was ever done.

Site challenges

Part of that is because there are a lot of issues and limitations with the site that have to be considered, said Pollock.

There is an aqueduct that runs under Alexander Street to the river as well as hydro lines in the area. In addition, the riverbank is in a flood plain and is subject to ice damage.

Those considerations must be taken into account for any future uses, Pollock said, but he and Bachand didn't want that to hold anyone back in the competition.

By casting a wide net and inviting any and all ideas, they figured there would be a chance some things could work. Mostly, though, they thought the competition would give the city a chance to see the passion people have for seeing something done with the site.

The competition is not affiliated with the City of Winnipeg at all. It was driven entirely by Pollock and Bachand, who will send the full lot of entries to the city in the hope it will jump-start the process of redevelopment.

"This is a citizen-based initiative," said Bachand. "We were trying to reach as many people as possible."

The idea sprang out of lunch breaks that the pair spent outside in nearby Stephen Juba Park, looking over at the neglected site.

"We decided the site had a lot of potential and rather than complaining about it we decided to go ahead and organize something to get ideas of how it could be re-imagined," said Pollock. "It gives everyone a chance to have their say and take ownership."

Following the Friday awards night, the exhibition will later be set up at the Centennial Concert Hall and then at The Forks for more public viewing.

A People's Choice award will eventually be given out, with the winner getting a $170 Exchange District food voucher.

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt began his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009.

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