The Forks Development of The Rail Side Lands and Parcel Four

There was raw anger when a motel and water park concept was trotted out onto council floor and everyone was told there was no time to look at the proposal. It was vote on it or lose it.

While some have been craving a waterpark for years and have no use for a museum, the whole process stank and basic questions of how this decision came to be could not be answered. Moreover, it was really uncertain what sort of value the city would get for their money not to mention the land.

Other developers were livid as they’d been told that the land was unavailable for some time and therefore could not put any proposal forward.

It is hard to say if this was a tipping point for Sam Katz or not. For a long time, the Goldeyes used Parcel Four for parking and Katz sat as head of the company that administered the land. There was question of how much the land was really worth. From Katz’s perspective, it was not worth much and subsequently, he got money back from the city in property tax re-reimbursement. We now know from the audit that the value of the land was a whole lot more than many in council were told.

After the controversy, The Forks Corporation purchased the land for $6 million and began a process of public consultations.

Everyone had an opinion from putting a forest on the spot to high density housing.

The conclusion of public consultation could have been extremely controversial but to the shock of many, it wasn’t.

Ever since the 1980s there has been recognition by people in Winnipeg that The Forks is different and that it belongs to everyone. Consultations have been the hallmark of the project since the beginning. There have been some stumbles to be sure but overall slowly and surely The Forks has turned into something that Winnipeggers are proud of and a place where they bring their families and out of town guests to.

So what did public consultation on The Forks come up with for the two sites at their disposal?

What they came up with is a $200 million economic plan that will make a lot of people happy.

First, let’s deal with some of The Forks naysayers. Many say The Forks is a chronic money loser. This is true. The complicated North Portage and The Forks operations fall well short of break even.

The Forks probably could have made huge profits if they had opened up the site once it had become popular. Condo developer have always salivated over a chance to locate in the area. That alone would have filled the site and put them in the black.

The problem has been that Winnipeggers have been strongly against just going this route on housing. There seems to be an instinctive knowledge that if so much housing went up a strong proponent of Not In My Backyard would emerge thereafter.

For example, lots of condos and many residents might come to resent fireworks even though fireworks were there first. Perhaps other things would crop up to the point that area residents would want to gate their community from the rest of the city.

This is not an idle worry. Toronto’s Habourfront is an example. Many of the residents in the area complain about traffic related to people visiting Toronto Island. Moreover, many wish to close the airport on the island even though it was there first.

It is a balancing issue when thinking about The Forks. It is possible to put it into the black financially but the cost may be losing it as a central gathering space.

The Parcel Four and Rail Side plan might address some of this balancing of needs. The two sites, like Shaw Park where the Goldeyes play, are not exactly part of The Forks. Still, the visceral reaction to putting up a motel in a rush made political leaders realize that public involvement was necessary lest they be skinned alive. In other words, no willy nilly plans thought up in the middle of the night.

With this in mind and confronting the demands to stop losing money, The Forks had navigate difficult waters.

So what were the concerns that people raised and some of the things they desired on Parcel Four and Rail Side, as the other side of the road is called?

In no particular order they were parks, parking, public space, shops, housing.

Those present at the meeting where the plan of action was presented had only positive things to say. In fact, many were extremely enthusiastic. As mentioned, the overall plan includes $200 million of private money.

The present site is now used by around 700 cars for parking. The re-developed site would have two parkades for a total of 700 public parking spaces. There would also be 500 parking spaces for condos on site. There is recognition that this may not serve for oversize vehicles and tour buses. If the Human Rights Museum is a tourist attraction, there has to be the expectation that school buses, tour buses and recreation vehicles will need a place to park and fairly close by. It remains to be seen how this will be addressed.

Lest anyone think Parcel Four is all parkades, the issue of parks, public space and public art are all addressed. Parking is hidden away and public spaces abound. Moreover, the design of everything is set for environmental and energy efficiencies.

For people to discard their cars when coming, Winnipeg Transit has many stops on site. Pedestrian traffic will have more access points to and from the site and beyond. It is uncertain how more bikes will be accommodated as they are sure to increase not decrease over the years.

Greenery and public art will make Parcel Four and Rail Side attractive. The sight lines looking into and away from The Forks will be preserved. The Human Rights Museum should be seen and not completely blocked and with in mind, any taller buildings will slender.

Finally, condos will be going up and occupy these slender buildings on both sites. Grounds floors will give way to shops and restaurants.

All in all, the tens of millions spent will add a 24 hour component of people living in The Forks area. Not enough housing is going up to despoil the public nature of the park. However, enough is going up to possibly trigger some additional housing beside Union Station and Earl’s since Mahatma Gandhi Way is likely to see a heck of a lot more
foot traffic.

The Forks is this generation’s greatest achievement and this is the final piece. The lasting legacy should be that the success spills onto Main Street and Portage and Main. There are parking lots present throughout that area that could be put to use if this happens.

We have been proud of The Forks for good cause. And the reason is that every step of the way, we have had out say.

This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations