Monday, March 12, 2012

The ideaological jigsaw puzzle

In 2008 a slice of city land was up for sale. A company by the name of Crystal Developers was set to purchase the land an erect a badly-needed approximately 20 storey apartment tower. Opposition was swift, though coming from those you might not expect, it wasn't the nimby's, it was the Friends of Upper Fort Garry. They launched a campaign to "save" a fort that wasn't being threatened by anything. A deadline was set by Mayor Sam Katz, and the Friends had a short amount of time to raise $10 million. With help from then-Premier Doer and a crusade worthy of journalism awards by Gordon Sinclair Jr, many high-profile families in Manitoba, and you, the taxpayer/"private sector" donor, the Fort was, well, saved.

So when last week it was revealed that the Friends had a new budget of $19 million and they didn't have the money, they are going to appeal to turn their historic we-must-save-thee land into a parking lot. The Mayor was unhappy. 

And so was I. And so are many, many Winnipeggers. Actually I was so unhappy I pondered last week of recording a mini-podcast to vent and capture my rage. Luckily I put off, because some news coming out today makes this jigsaw puzzle even better. 

At this point, the project might as well not go through. If the deal was that the Friends could raise the money they said they needed to build their interpretive centre, and three years later, not only is it not built, but they need another $7 million, doesn't that make the deal they got broken? After all, the only reason the tight deadline was put on this soap opera was because the prospect of the first apartment tower to be built downtown in over 20 years was too enticing to pass up. This was an important addition to downtown Winnipeg. So if the Friends were going to foil that plan, they'd better be serious.

I'll remind people that it was the alternative media and bloggers who were the primary dissenting voice in this City with respect to Upper Fort Garry. Myself, Cherenkov, Policy Frog (read this if you want a refresher), Rob "is he a retired blogger now?" Galston and TGCTS pounded on this issue till our keyboards screamed for mercy, but in comparison to the cheer leading campaign put out by the Free Press, it was small potatoes.

How about that Free Press campaign? Well, as of last week, it is still going on. A no-byline Free Press editorial with the title "Heritage necessary" tells you all you need to know of what side the Free Press is taking. 

Isn't that deplorable? We've been waiting 3 years for our interpretive centre. And the Free Press supports a parking lot? How many paid parking hours will it take for the Friends to make their precious $7 million? After a couple years of that, their budget will increase by another $5 million and either we will have an indefinite Provincial Parking Lot or, the taxpayer will ride to the rescue, bail the Friends out, and build the thing.

Except that that option isn't likely, is it? Winnipeggers are now catching on to this dupe of a scam. The scam has repeated itself in recent years and seems to follow a general guideline: a) new project is announced b) Winnipeggers are on the fence to support it c) taxpayer money is announced to help pay for it d) project runs into delays e) project budget balloons and f) taxpayers asked to fork out more money to save the project. 

The biggest most prominent project going on that follows this pathway is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which the Black Rod blog has been warning about cost overruns for years but nobody, especially the Free Press, likes to listen. The Museum now needs another $50 million from the private sector. Then we have the other Asper project, the Stadium, with more overruns and construction delays. Disraeli has also seen costs boom. Lest I forget the fancy park at Millenium Library, or the Airport. Or the MTS Centre.  

So where is this money coming from? How can the friends possibly raise $7 million? That's $7 million from the private sector for one project, $50 mil from the private sector for another. That's $57 million, just for two projects, that these people are now coming to us to say, sorry, we're bad at budgeting and construction costs went up, so can we please have another $57 million so little Johnny can learn about Human Rights and Louis Riel?

It would be funny if it wasn't actually happening. Today (and this is the first of two reasons why it was good to wait over the weekend before writing) Osborne House had to ask the City of Winnipeg to provide help with their annual operating budget. That is to say, a non-profit organization that provides a fundamental service in Winnipeg to women, needs to ask for money because of....

" apparent nosedive in private-sector support."

Now, I'm sure most of us can do the math here. Osborne House is only looking at needing help with around half a million dollars, per year, to operate. That is to say, a service that one could argue is a required one in the public interest. But with everyone in Winnipeg getting hit up every few months to pony up another 20 bucks for the Museum or now, for the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, the private purse has run dry. And the public purse has run dry, too. Like, really, really dry. A billion kinds of dry. 

It isn't like nobody could see this coming. We all knew these projects would never come in on budget or on time, and that they would keep coming back to us, the citizen, via either the public purse or the private sector purse. Which is actually just a funny way of coming after your money from two different directions. Marty Gold, host of The Great Canadian Talk Show, brought this up last year at council. He argued that waving a payment from Ottawa in lieu of taxes was a really bad idea. That there were tons of organizations in Winnipeg who desperately needed the cash and were suffering from donor fatigue. 

Justin Swandel, the Deputy Mayor, said after Marty's delegation that anyone opposing the motion must have a "behavioural disorder." A obscene remark that earned him a dishonourable mention in Kevin Engstrom's Jerk of the Year 2011 column. 

So now we have this empty gravel lot at Broadway and Main, a phenomenally appropriate symbol of what these projects really offer our city. Nothing. 

By now, Crystal would have most certainly completed their 20-odd-storey apartment tower, adding hundreds of residents to downtown, and no doubt fixing and aesthetically improving the existing park in the process. A much more dignified and respectful homage to the Fort, no? Instead Crystal was kicked down the block to 300 Assiniboine. 

Which brings us back to the subject of the parking lot. Here's an interesting caveat. The Mayor is on the record as of last week saying that the City has been "working hard" to rid downtown of surface parking lots. For the sake of argument, we'll leave out whether or not that's true. At the same time, Premier Selinger, last election, made a campaign announcement. He promised to help rid downtown of a few pesky surface parking lots, and add more housing units.

If the Premier is serious about this, and the Mayor is serious about this, then it is irrational to let Downtown Winnipeg gain an additional parking lot, even if the Friends claim it is temporary. Neither the City, nor the Province, can allow this parking lot request to move forward at this point. Both have pledged to combat surface parking. The Friends, as far as any sane, logical person can see, have failed in their mandate to actually follow through after reaching their initial $12 million goal in 2008. 

The second piece of fortunate news that resulted in me waiting until today to write and publish, is that Qualico and the City are looking to build on some 800 acres of land that will support up to 8800 people. This is in addition to Waverly West, which will hold some 10 000 homes if I'm not mistaken. 

I have blogged for years now about this, which I feel is the greatest issue facing Winnipeg, the lack of a downtown core and lack of population density in it. Undeniably a contributing factor is these large swaths of land being sized up for new developments. Meanwhile, downtown, we reserve our prime land for phony 'interpretive centres' and 'greenspace' at the Forks. If that isn't a signal to the development community, I'm not sure what is. Sure, the tower at 300 Assiniboine is a step in the right direction, Selinger's parking-lot-election-promise (if it is kept) is a step in the right direction, but Upper Fort Garry is two embarrassing steps back.

It is representative, in a broader context, of how we view our downtown. Underpinning the striking gravel heritage lot at Broadway and Main, and the development of sites like Waverly West or this Charleswood site is an unspoken philosophical narrative that dominates Winnipeg's development. All our growth is directed outward, downtown is neglected, however it is important to say you care about downtown and are working to it's benefit to save political face. It is not a desirable place in many people's minds. And how could it, when any real development is sidelined for provincial parking lots. As desperate as many in Winnipeg are to be "world class," no city of "world class" is a sprawling suburb with 8 or 10 lane highways leading to their Ikea. No city spots a piece of land to honour a historic fort and calls it "progress." Then again, no city is so desperate to want to belong to an international community as our leading administrations do. 

Noble and such as it is to have such high aspirations for where this City can end up are hampered by the little desire there is for downtown. Suburbs and corporate franchise outlets do not make a city, it's establishments, buildings and downtowns do. How grand it would be to have a functional, dense urban oasis in this humble prairie town. 

Upper Fort Garry will now stand as a slap in the face to the Katz administration. It is a slap in the face to all those who gave money, thinking that an interpretive centre would be built and the Fort thus, "saved." It is a slap in the face to organizations such as Osborne House who desperately need the money, but are out-competed by the various "Friends" groups with organized marketing campaigns. 

Perhaps the Friends could be drawn back to the negotiation table. They did raise twelve million. Is there a compromise here? Could the land be put back up, the twelve million be put towards a sized-down homage to the Fort, along with the construction of a tower that need not infringe on the "sacred" site? 

Seems like a perfectly reasonable compromise to me. But then again, logical compromises have little space at the board room in this town. In the meantime, get ready to crack your wallets as every non-profit and Friends group come after your private sector support.