Winnipeg planning department's troubles reflected in the building it occupies

With a planning department tucked away — hardly visible from the street and with no clear front entrance — it comes as no surprise that the good work of city planners sometimes goes unnoticed.

What happens when a building actually hinders rather than supports the work planners do?

Fort Garry Place houses Winnipeg's planning, property and development department. (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

"Where's the planning department?"

It's a question raised recently with accounts of some of City of Winnipeg building inspectors using their days for personal activities.

With a planning department tucked away — hardly visible from the street and with no clear front entrance — it comes as no surprise that the good work of city planners sometimes goes unnoticed.

For those not in the know, the City of Winnipeg planning, property and development department resides in Fort Garry Place.

Maybe you know the building. It's one of a kind — the only building in Winnipeg generously festooned with caryatids (female sculpted figures functioning as architectural supports) and decorative statuary, just a stone's throw from the river, at 65 Garry St.

The department is the place to go for people who have an idea for a district, a city block, an office tower or a garage. 

People there work together to shape what Winnipeg will be known for in this generation, within a codified system of policies, zoning bylaws and agreements. 

Designed by Martin Bergen

The developers, the trades, community groups, the general public walk the same corridors — through the same physical and administrative mazes — to negotiate the new skins, sinews and musculature of Winnipeg.

The block where the department is situated, built in stages during the late 1980s, was the largest, most ambitious work of Martin Bergen (1927-2017), the developer inducted in 1989 into the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt for his philanthropy and "significant contribution to cultural education in Manitoba." 

The block includes three residential towers (with a total of 900 apartments), retail and office spaces, banquet facilities and a revolving restaurant. The city took over the office spaces and an area initially designed as a mall.

Bergen brought to the project the cast stone replicas of German copies of Greek classical sculpture, thanks to the craftsmanship of Alfred Widmer (whose restoration skills we in the business all admire).

Some people have told us they love the sculptural appliqué and the gold capitals of the interior classical columns, the ornamented golden chandeliers and replica paintings.

"Isn't it a beautiful building?" 

"There is no building like it in Winnipeg!" 

"The building is like a little piece of Europe."

A faux fresco in Fort Garry Place offers a trompe-l’oeil view of a European garden. (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

Others have described Fort Garry Place as high-density development with inward-looking offices, low in vitality (both inside and out), a nightmare for way-finding, poorly ventilated and devoid of natural light amid the warren of planning department corridors, offices and rooms.

One official said the project was an ethical affront to the department, because the building did not get a building permit until construction was well underway. Another official mused about whether the recent debacle surrounding building inspectors' absenteeism might never have happened if the divisions within the department were more visible to each other (and therefore perhaps more accountable).

What if the issues facing the building and the department were all these, plus something more insidious?

As in every city across the country, Winnipeg's planning, property and development department is the site where today's ideas get debated and building permits are issued.

None of the decisions emanating from the department are politically neutral.

Would we allow so many buildings to be torn down now to make parking lots in the downtown, for instance? Would we be as insensitive to the Indigenous settlements, here long before settlers arrived? 

How would we find ways to build some of the great institutions our city now boasts (many of them tourist attractions and beloved by city residents)? 

Outdated imagery

Every generation faces the challenges of how to reinterpret these same buildings and structures, find new uses for them and ensure they represent evolving civic aspirations and beliefs.

So what are the implications if the department is housed in a building featuring outdated (and potentially hurtful) imagery? 

Research on office environments highlights how they can both reflect and reinforce an organization's culture, brand and values, plus profoundly affect staff productivity, employee satisfaction, engagement and recruitment.

Questions industry professionals like to ask include: Who are our employees, and who will they be in the next 5 to 10 years?  Who else uses our space (clients, visitors, community members, professionals, etc.)? How do we want our clients, prospective recruits or other visitors to perceive us when they enter our space?

What if Fort Garry Place (named and designed as part of a historical continuum of ideas) can be construed as valuing settlers over Indigenous people?

What happens when a building actually hinders rather than supports the hard work planners do when they actively engage with the public?

Let us explain …

The name of the site is Fort Garry Place due to its proximity to the site of the original Fort Garry. 

When Gen. Garnet Wolseley and troops took over historic Fort Garry on Aug. 24, 1870, and followed through with then prime minister John A. Macdonald's party policy, there was a subsequent reign of terror over the Red River Métis, creating an enormous shift from which all future building and planning proceeded … and continues to this very day.

We counted more than 175 full-height statues featuring an idealized, European landowner's culture of leisure on the outside and inside of Fort Garry Place. Compare these to images of four gaunt "Indians" and what appear to be a number of horseback riders (unclear whether "Indian" or settler) killing bison in small tableaux on the building. 

There are four "Indian" images at 65 Garry St., a building festooned with idealized imitation European artwork. (Submitted by Win Bridgman)

The concept of racial swamping comes to mind — a term coined by Owen Toews in his 2018 book, Stolen City — Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg, and one based on a calculated settlement strategy used by John A. Macdonald.

If Indigenous people, people of colour or differently abled people go to Fort Garry Place to conduct business in the planning department and see only idealized Eurocentric human forms there, where do they see themselves reflected?

(Disclosure: We, the authors of this article, are planning and architectural practitioners, and have worked with the planning, property and development department for more than 20 years. In all that time and in every interaction, we have been impressed by the professionalism and thoughtfulness of the city staff.)

We do not think the solutions to the questions we raise involve tearing down statues, renaming the mall or moving municipal offices from the premises. 

Instead, we hope the building will be transformed over time to allow increased diversity and ease of way-finding. We hope more positive images of and by Indigenous Peoples will be present, as well as diverse images to represent all Winnipeggers.

Let's live up to the spirit of Our Winnipeg – It's Our City, It's Our Plan, It's Our Time, the official development plan guiding growth and change for the city. It's a 25-year vision for the entire city and took effect almost a decade ago. 

Let's open up our planning, property and development department premises to the rest of the city, so they are fresh, accountable, forward-thinking and accessible for all Winnipeggers.

Let's show people the work we all are doing to build (literally and figuratively) an inclusive Winnipeg.


  • This story initially said the Fort Garry Place towers have 900 apartments each. In fact, the three towers have a total of 900 apartments.
    Aug 19, 2019 10:13 AM CT


Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman (a professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba) co-direct the Winnipeg design firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.