*Narrowing sidewalk a step backward *
ALMOST since the invention of the automobile, downtown Winnipeg has been shaped by cars. In 1931, right turns on red lights were introduced, diagonal parking was removed and one-way streets began to appear. In 1955, streetcars were discontinued and the elm trees that lined the once-residential streets were cut down to widen the roads.
Housing was slowly bought up and turned into parking lots. Today, with more than 32,000 stalls, a staggering 40 per cent of downtown’s land area is dedicated to parking.
This slow evolution of prioritizing cars over places for people transformed the character of downtown — its pedestrian barricades, wide roads and windswept parking lots left few places for people to linger and enjoy. We designed for cars and we got cars, lots of them. Our once bustling sidewalks today see the fewest pedestrians and are lined by the lowest number of retail storefronts of any major Canadian city.
There is no longer a downtown shopping street, and even the Exchange District, with all its charm, has fewer storefronts and restaurants than similar areas in other cities.
Over the past decade, however, this has slowly begun to change. Beginning with the construction of Waterfront Drive, we have started to use the design of our streets to bring people back. Sidewalks have been widened and improved, bike lanes have been installed and, after almost 90 years, diagonal parking has returned.
There has been a great investment in public space, with new lighting, public art, trees, benching and other street furniture. Innovative government tax incentive programs that have in the past driven residential growth have helped make downtown a more attractive place for people are working. More people live downtown today than ever have, and the population of the Exchange District has gone to 2,500 from 250 in 15 years. Shops and restaurants have begun to follow.
Recently, however, we took a small but important step backward, when a segment of the sidewalk on Main Street at Bannatyne Avenue was reduced by more than half to add a drop-off lane to a street that is already eight lanes wide. The resulting sidewalk, about two metres wide, is narrower than the city’s own standards for accessibility, even before factoring in snow accumulation and space for vehicle-door swings.
The design was explained as a compromise to provide tenants of the adjacent building a new drop-off area, sometimes for children, after loading on Bannatyne Avenue was moved across the street to accommodate a new bike lane. If we look holistically at the overwhelming amount of adjacent area given to cars, it suggests there may have been opportunity to find the compromise within existing vehicle space.
The building has two associated surface parking lots. One takes up a significant portion of Old Market Square, an important public place, and the other creates a permanent open space along Main Street and a driveway across its sidewalk. Main Street itself is eight lanes wide and has curb-lane parking and loading all the way down its length, including on the blocks directly on either side of the new drop-off area.
It is unclear why that configuration was not pursued on this block. Bannatyne Avenue has parking and loading zones on the opposite side of the street, less convenient, but a possible compromise might have been for parents dropping off their children to get out of their cars and escort them the short distance to the building entrance.
We have been making progress creating spaces that invite more pedestrians, but narrowing sidewalks works to repel them.
It demonstrates the difficult challenge planners and engineers face, balancing the needs of cyclists, drivers and pedestrians, particularly in response to the demands of local, street-level business.
Downtown Winnipeg is in a unique transition phase. There are so few street-level shops because downtown has been designed to prioritize drivers, making it an unattractive place to walk. This has resulted in too few pedestrians on the sidewalks to support businesses, which in turn requires increased space for cars to attract more drivers to help support the shops.
It creates a challenging cycle: drive-up business may represent a smaller proportion of downtown storefront commerce, but removing even a few parking stalls can be enough to affect the viability of a shop or restaurant.
This has put downtown shop owners in a difficult position, as they generally believe part of what they are selling is a unique urban experience that includes bike lanes and great pedestrian environments, but, in the short term, they need parking to survive. This becomes even more important with residential growth slowing because of the end of tax incentives and bike-lane implementation that has been slow to create a complete functioning network that will increase the number of cyclists to replace business lost by the removed parking spaces.
It is generally recognized that to have prosperous storefronts and sidewalk-focused commerce in downtowns, the only viable long-term solution is to attract more pedestrians and grow the population so businesses are supported locally.
This explains why the city has worked so hard to incentivize residential growth, redesign public space and add bike lanes — all initiatives that have proven in other cities to be very good for urban business in the long term.
The current challenge is a difficult one. We have made strides toward the continuing goal of a downtown that attracts people to live, work and shop, but as we move forward, it is important to not take our eye off that goal and do what we can to avoid trading pedestrian space for car space, which reduces accessibility, degrades the pedestrian experience and is likely a step backward in downtown’s long-term evolution.
*Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.*