Transit hub could transform downtown
AT the beginning of this year — back when we could shake hands and see each other’s faces – the city of Winnipeg announced it was no longer planning to build dedicated bus rapid-transit corridors. This came shortly before the opening of the Southwest Transitway, the city’s first completed line. The announcement felt like the end of Winnipeg’s rapid-transit dream.
Two weeks ago, however, the city released a new vision for the future of rapid transit, as part of the Winnipeg Transit Master Plan. The new concept shows a dramatic departure from the original plan of dedicated bus-only roadways, a system that would provide fast service between end points, but — as the Southwest Transitway demonstrates — one with important shortcomings.
The costly and slow-to-implement system runs largely through open fields, with several stations built far from where large numbers of people live, and without access to many of the destinations potential users would want to go.
The new plan focuses on integrating rapid transit onto existing major roadways, using priority signal lanes. Outside of downtown, the plan is to build dedicated transit lines on roads such as Main Street and Portage Avenue that run down the centre of the road, with stations located in the median, similar to Winnipeg’s old streetcar network.
Once complete, the system can incorporate modern low-rider and connected buses that emulate the capacity and ride quality light rail. This type of system will likely better integrate transit into neighbourhoods, provide greater access to destinations and make it more usable for everyday trips. A key advantage is that it will use existing road space, with diamond lanes, queuejump lanes at intersections and priority traffic signals, meaning it will be far less costly and time-consuming to implement.
Another important change is that priority will be given to developing the system in downtown first, bringing together the three main lines that will cross the city. Possibly the most alluring part of the plan is that beautiful Union Station, sitting prominently at the top of Broadway, will become the central hub of the rapid-transit network.
In 1911, the Manitoba Free Press celebrated Union Station as “The Most Modern Railway Terminal in the World.” Designed by Warren and Wetmore, the architects of New York’s Grand Central Terminal, it was once the bustling centre of the city, welcoming people from across the world. To see it brought back to life with crowds of transit riders (when we are allowed to have crowds again) hurrying across the polished marble floors under the majestic dome, surrounded by bustling kiosks, shops and restaurants, is an exhilarating image to dream about.
For inspiration, Winnipeg might look to Denver, Colorado. In 2014, after years of planning, the city’s underused historic Union Station, surrounded by empty buildings and surface parking lots, became part of a transformational urban redevelopment. Like in Winnipeg, a rapid-transit hub was established in the old station, but they didn’t stop there.
A complete multi-modal transportation centre was created, bringing together light rail, intercity rail, taxis, ride sharing, downtown shuttles, regional and local bus routes. A cycling hub with bike storage, showers and locker rooms, connected to the area’s protected cycling network, was established and a major pedestrian promenade with markets, plazas and public space was developed to connect the station to the surrounding neighbourhoods.
The project involved partnerships between private developers and public agencies including city, county, state, and federal entities. A complete master plan was developed that looked well beyond Union Station itself and established a vision for a 36-hectare section of Denver’s downtown, supported by tax increment financing and other government programs.
The result of thinking big was that the project became the centrepiece of the most active development site in the United States. The connectivity provided by Union Station as a transit hub has created a centre of gravity that has attracted construction of more than 3,000 residential units, 750 hotel rooms, two million square feet of office space and a quarter million square feet of retail. The Union Station redevelopment has spawned a completely new urban neighbourhood, attracted US$3.5-billion in private investment and has transformed downtown Denver.
The key to Denver’s success is that it looked at it holistically, bringing together transportation planners, urban planners, governments and private developers to create an overarching vision and detailed masterplan, complete with funding strategies and zoning regulations, not only to maximize Union Station’s potential as a multimodal transportation hub, but to leverage its opportunity to create renewal across downtown.
The announcement that Winnipeg’s Union Station will become a rapid-transit hub could be the first piece in the puzzle toward creating a similar catalyst for development and growth. If we want to take full advantage of the opportunity, our public and private leadership must also come together to create a bigger, more impactful vision.
If we think big, and then prioritize those aspirations in our public spending, this little announcement lost in the headlines of a global pandemic could change how we move around our city and fundamentally redefine our downtown forever.
*Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.*