'Got to have some courage': Getting support for big public projects a challenge in Winnipeg, experts say
With Portage and Main vote coming, experts say major projects usually generate passionate debate in city
Amid debate on the reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrians — and following a new poll suggesting two-thirds of Winnipeggers think it should stay closed — city experts, from planners to an ex-mayor, say it's par for the course that big public projects generate big public response.
"It's only natural that when there are projects that are transformative in nature, they generate a lot of strong interest and strong emotion," said Michal Kubasiewicz, president of the Manitoba Professional Planners Institute.
"It's the community we all live in, and it's the environment we share."
Public discussion on city development is important and planners should prepare for it by offering up information and venues for expression, Kubasiewicz said.
Of course, the dialogue gets more heated when it involves public dollars, added Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
"Each of those projects often brings that sense of tension. Could we have spent that money on alleviating poverty? Yes. Could we have spent that money on fixing more potholes? Yes," said Distasio.
"But any city also has to have a set of priorities and a set of projects, and we have to just figure out, how do we address as many as we can in the most equitable manner?"
Winnipeg voters will get to decide on Oct. 24 whether reopening the Portage and Main intersection to pedestrians is a priority.
Proponents have cited concerns about accessibility for people in wheelchairs, the need to design downtown for pedestrians as well as cars, and concerns about the safety of the underground concourse and stairwells.
Opponents, meanwhile, cite traffic snarls, the cost of the project, and the potential for collisions between cars and pedestrians as the problems with the proposal.
A Probe Research survey of 600 Winnipeggers conducted during the final week of August suggests 67 per cent of Winnipeggers oppose the idea of reopening the city's most famous intersection, versus 33 per cent who favour the idea. That poll has a margin of error of four per cent.
Some urban planners have said there hasn't been a strong vision presented for what a reopened Portage and Main would look like.
"People don't know what they're voting to have," Richard Milgrom told CBC News earlier this week.
'Change is inevitable'
Milgrom, head of the University of Manitoba's department of city planning, said it's harder to sell the public on an idea without a strong vision for what the project is and where it sits within the plan for the city as a whole — and that's not just true of Winnipeg.
"Anywhere, change is very difficult. Change is inevitable in cities, but change is also … difficult for people to imagine."
It's normal to see debate around projects like cultural amenities, which fall outside the basics of what makes a city function, Milgrom said.
Winnipeg doesn't have the same level of development as much larger cities, Milgrom added, which could mean new projects get more traction with, and attention from, the public.
"We have much more knowledge about what's going on around the corner than people would in larger cities," Milgrom said.
"We probably have in general better access to political players than people have in other cities, so when we make a lot of noise our politicians tend to hear us. I think we're pretty unique that way."
Period of slow growth
Looking back at the city's history, the U of W's Distasio said a period of slow, suburban-focused growth and downtown decline in the 1950s left development in that area in the hands of the government, which comes with added scrutiny.
Projects that followed around that time include the provincially and municipally funded Civic Centre complex — which included city hall and the soon-to-be-demolished Public Safety Building and officially opened in 1964 — along with projects like the Centennial Concert Hall (opened in 1968), the Manitoba Museum (1970) and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (1970).
The Civic Centre project was the subject of a 1957 referendum, although the result — a 62 per cent vote to put city hall on Broadway near the Manitoba Legislature, according to the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation's website — came before the province offered to fund the complex on the current site.
Another significant government partnership, the tripartite Core Area Initiative, led to the creation of The Forks and Portage Place — and generated its own fair share of controversy.
"Unlike any other North American city, I do think that Winnipeg has had to have more attention from the three levels of government on urban intervention projects, simply because of our period of slow to stagnant growth that really gripped the city up until, perhaps, the last 10 or 15 years," Distasio said.
'You've got to have some courage'
Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray said from his perspective, Winnipeggers can handle big change.
"I think, actually, we've done more exciting things. I don't think you could ever build [the Canadian Museum for Human Rights] in Toronto.
"When we were debating building Esplanade Riel, Toronto was having a mayoralty election where they were debating to not build a bridge from the [Billy Bishop] island airport to the downtown," Murray said.
"I think actually we should be very proud of that."
In addition to the museum and Esplanade Riel — which he said was so controversial it has never been officially dedicated — Murray also oversaw the construction of the MTS Centre (now Bell MTS Place) during his time in office.
The downtown arena also caused a debate as critics called it too small and poorly located, and protested the destruction of the old Eaton's building on the site.
Harry Finnigan, who worked as Winnipeg's planning, property and development director while Murray was mayor, said he remembers having mixed feelings about that project at the time — he valued the heritage significance of the Eaton's building and worried the site may be too small for an arena.
The idea that Winnipeggers aren't used to development or are less likely to feel comfortable with change, I don't think that holds water.- Former planning director Harry Finnigan
But he said he met with proponents of the project and all agreed to do the best job they could on the project. Now, he calls it a success.
"I think it works really well," he said. "It's one of the most well-used arenas in North America."
Winnipeg's size gives it an advantage for building a general consensus on projects because people are used to talking to each other, he added.
"The idea that Winnipeggers aren't used to development or are less likely to feel comfortable with change, I don't think that holds water."
The key to making such projects happen, Murray said, is leadership and vision, and doing thorough research to make sure the projects will actually work.
"You've just got to be clear," he said. "You've got to have some courage."
With files from Ian Froese and Bartley Kives