Q&A: How public will True North Square plaza be, planning expert asks

A city planning expert is worried that the privately owned True North Square plaza that will be open to the public will be too controlled and that the buildings will cast a shadow on an area of downtown that has potential.

'It looks like it's on private property, and it's a very controlled space'

'Iconic' public plaza planned for True North Square in downtown Winnipeg

6 years ago
The words "transformative," "world-class" and "iconic" were used repeatedly Monday as officials unveiled plans for a two-acre public plaza at True North Square in downtown Winnipeg. 2:05

A Winnipeg urban planning expert is questioning how public the True North Square plaza in downtown Winnipeg will be.

Plans for the plaza, which is backed by $17.6 million from the province and City of Winnipeg but is owned by the private company True North Sports and Entertainment, were unveiled Monday.

The $400-million mixed-use development will include a five-star hotel, office, retail and residential spaces as well public art, terraces, cafe seating, skywalks, specialty lighting, streetscaping, street furniture, a water feature and a parkway along Carlton Street. The plaza will include a skating rink, public stage, public seating and green space. 

The project is in the early stage of construction and Phase 1, which is kitty-corner to the MTS Centre, is expected to be done by mid-2018.

Richard Milgrom, an associate professor in the city planning department at the University of Manitoba, raised a few concerns about the square and the use of public funds to build it when he spoke with CBC host Marcy Markusa on Information Radio on Tuesday. 

Marcy Markusa: What was your initial reaction when you heard about the details of True North Square?

Richard Milgrom: There's a lot of details that are missing. My biggest concerns are probably about how public is the public square and who benefits from the tax increment financing funding that the province and the city are going to provide.

It looks to me — and I haven't seen enough detail — like what we are now beginning to call a privately owned public space. It's becoming a more common way of creating plazas, but it looks like it's on private property and it's a very controlled space. The criticisms that are levelled against privately owned public spaces is that people's rights are quite controlled in those spaces in a way that they aren't in other public spaces.

Richard Milgrom wonders how public the privately owned plaza at True North Square will be. (CBC News)
This is a multi-faceted project so there are three towers to be built overall. What's your take on that?

Phasing in itself isn't a bad thing. Winnipeg Square was supposed to be a project that included an underground shopping centre, two towers and another hotel block. Only one of those towers got built and the result has been a very incomplete-looking project. 

The way the square is designed now, if only one side of it is built, what defines the square for the rest of the time? The skywalk system as they're proposing and the sort of improbable structures that are in the renderings can only be there when all of those buildings are also there. 

It's a project that requires all three phases right now, I think, to look like it's complete. 

How do you think this project will affect the area?

Almost all of the renderings and images we've seen focus on the square, and I'm very concerned about what happens to Graham. Graham has potential to be a really good street, and I think we need to be making our streets better rather than turning our backs on them. The relatively tall building proposed on the south side of Graham is actually going to cast a shadow on Graham and reduce the potential on what's happening with the buildings in the area.  

Plans for True North Square suggest all phases of construction will have to be complete for the public plaza to take shape, Richard Milgrom says. (True North Square)
What do you say to those who say overall this idea will wake up a sleepy area of the downtown?

We need to say 'Hey, this is great, but how can we make it better?' One of my biggest concerns is that we're going to use public money, so this circular argument that we need to do this partly to get more tax revenue, but we're going to use that tax revenue to do this. If the square was designed in a way that it was more visibly public — say if it was on the northeast corner of that block — it would be open to cityplace, it would be open to the Tavern United building, and the TIF [tax incremental financing] money that's going into that site would benefit multiple land owners. Instead, now it's benefiting one land owner. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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