‘Abilities Village’ plan filled with possibility
PROVENCHER Boulevard has a long history as the commercial heart of St. Boniface and Winnipeg’s francophone community. With wide sidewalks, a few historic buildings and local shops, it has the bones to be an active pedestrian street and centre of community life.
Unfortunately, as a busy truck route and commuting thoroughfare, Provencher is challenged to be a welcoming place for a shopping stroll or break on a sidewalk patio. Several surface parking lots and vacant properties further diminish the pedestrian experience, and a low population density in the surrounding neighbourhood offers an insufficient base to support a vibrant commercial street.
The neighbourhood plan for St. Boniface and Provencher Boulevard looks to address some of these issues by supporting development of higher-density and more diverse housing options, encouraging good urban design that is pedestrian focused, enhancing existing parks and celebrating the neighbourhood’s cultural assets.
The City of Winnipeg currently owns two of these cultural assets on the street: the former St. Boniface city hall and the adjacent, long-abandoned fire hall. In November 2019, a request for proposals was issued to find a new owner for the buildings and adjacent parking lots, with the goal of leveraging them to breathe new life into Provencher Boulevard and the surrounding community.
After a year-long search, Manitoba Possible (formerly the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities), an organization that provides services and supports to persons with disabilities, has come forward with a visionary idea that ticks almost every box in the neighbourhood plan.
The proposal is inspired by a development in Singapore called “Enabling Village,” a firstof- its-kind neighbourhood campus dedicated to integrating people with disabilities into society by providing social, creative and economic fulfilment in a place that is also a hub and destination for all residents in the area. The development offers education, employment, training, retail and social amenities, while bringing people with disabilities and the broader community together to share experiences and build relationships.
Manitoba Possible’s proposal, called “The Abilities Village,” envisions a campus of new multi-use buildings constructed on the existing parking lots that surround the iconic city hall and fire station. These buildings will flow together as a single choreographed space, inside and out, drawing people from the sidewalk through an active collection of dynamic experiences and public amenities.
Some of the proposed features include restaurants, pubs and bistros, a grocery, a retail art gallery, a gymnasium, training centres, a daycare, offices and a technology hub for entrepreneurism. The village will elevate the heritage buildings to a new place of prominence by inviting people to interact with them in a more intimate way, as part of a vibrant neighbourhood destination that brings new life to the street.
The unique twist on this dynamic community hub is that it will also be a global showcase of barrier-free design — breaking down all types of barriers to establish a sense of belonging for people with disabilities. It will reimagine everyday spaces to be meaningful, accessible and completely inclusive.
The campus is specifically not an institution; it will be a model for seamlessly accessible public spaces that connects the broader community to people with disabilities in a type of reverse inclusion, helping to break down the barriers of social isolation, independence and economic opportunity while inspiring new social networks and personal experiences for everyone.
The commercial and public services components of the village will provide job training and work experience to people with disabilities that will open new employment opportunities beyond the campus. The campus will also include a housing component that will be a demonstration of technology driven accessible design, providing quality independent living opportunities while increasing the population density and residential diversity of Provencher Boulevard to help support local shops and services.
The campus will be a blend of dynamic, sidewalk-focused modern architecture, interior design, signage, lighting, art and landscape, woven together in a single composition with the iconic historic buildings and sculpture garden. Designed by 5468796 Architecture and Scatliff + Miller + Murray, the development will be phased to ensure it grows seamlessly into the neighbourhood over time.
The derelict fire hall will be redeveloped into public space and, once the sale is complete, Manitoba Possible is hoping to work with the local community to find economically viable uses that ensure the city hall building, which will be independent of the development, remains a proud cultural contributor to the Franco-Manitoban community.
The proposal for the St. Boniface city hall site presented by Manitoba Possible is an aspirational and forward-thinking idea that could bring the heart back to Provencher Boulevard. As a magnet for public gathering, it will provide an opportunity to reimagine the future of the street as a place that is a celebration of the community and a vibrant focal point of neighbourhood life.
The beauty of the old St. Boniface city hall has inspired people for generations; it will always stand as a proud symbol of a proud community. In its new life as part of The Abilities Village, it will take on the added symbolism of a place that unites communities and builds relationships. It will continue to inspire as a declaration of inclusivity, opportunity, and equality.
*Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.*