Dear Winnipeg

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Parking, Pizza and Apartments at the Mall

Parking, Pizza and Apartments at the Mall

Photo by Alan Hardman on Unsplash

Dear Winnipeg,

Several years ago, I read a piece comparing urban development patterns to pizza. The fact that I still remember it to this day should say something. [Although I do love pizza, so maybe it’s that…]

The pizza analogy comes from Joe Minicozzi, a principal at Urban3, who himself adapted it from urbanist architect Léon Krier‘s analogy, which uses quiche instead.

[Who knew city building could be so delicious?]

The gist of it is that the main ingredients of a pizza, like cheese, mushrooms, pepperoni and sauce, can be compared to the different land uses that are possible in a city or neighbourhood, like homes, shops, offices and parks.

The way we’ve been building cities in North America for the past 80 years, instead of making pizza, we’ve just left each ingredient in its own separate pile through the use of zoning by-laws: the cheese-homes go in this zone over here, the pepperoni-offices way over there, and so forth.

The prevailing North American development pattern: not a pizza!

And that approach does have some value. I mean, who doesn’t love sitting down to eat a huge pile of cheese? Plus, some ingredients that can be harmful, like pineapple-asbestos factories, can be zoned far away from the rest of your ingredients.

But when we combine all those ingredients to make a pizza, by having many different uses mixed together: cheese-homes mixing with pepperoni-offices and mushroom-parks and sauce-shops… you get something even more delicious than its individual parts! And, most importantly, it’s very financially productive.

Done right, adding a little density just makes it even better. [Double pepperoni, double cheese? Yes, please!]

Basically, a financially-productive, compact, mixed-use neighbourhood is like a pizza.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re seeing more and more development proposals that are embracing the concept of mixed-use density.

Like this one at the Polo Park mall. Or this one in Waverley West. Or this one at the Northgate mall.

After all, urbanists have been asking for more density and more mixed-use for ages. And now developers are happy to oblige. Sounds like a winning recipe, right? Well, not quite. And let me expand on the pizza analogy to show why.

You see, when making a pizza, it’s not enough to have the right ingredients. You can’t just throw a bunch of flour, a can of tomato sauce and a hunk of cheese in a bowl and call it a pizza.

You have to follow the recipe. First, you mix the flour, sugar, salt, water and yeast to make dough, then you knead it, let it rise, roll it out. You have to slice the mushrooms and grate the cheese. Then you have to assemble all of them in a specific order (dough first, sauce second, and so on). Then it goes in the oven. Miss a step, or do them in the wrong order, and your pizza is not a pizza.

The process itself matters as much as having the right ingredients.

It’s the same with building vibrant, financially productive and resilient cities and neighbourhoods: it’s not enough to just have a dense mix of uses.

For a place to be financially sustainable, it also needs a mix of sizes and a mix of building ages, and for walking (or rolling) to be the primary mode of transportation for most people, and probably a whole host of other things that we couldn’t all list if we tried.

Which is why the process itself must be adaptable, incremental and fine-grained.

But instead, the Polo Park proposal, for example, would build housing for about 10,000 people where there once was none, essentially creating a whole new neighbourhood, built all at once over the span of a few years time.

Just like suburban developments are.

Then they are complete. Finished. Built out. The opposite of adaptable. So that if any ingredients are missing, it’s too late for this place. It’s done.

And because it’s built all at once, it has its highest value the day construction is complete, and then it all gets old at the same time. By the time the newly-planted trees grow to be the size they are in the artist renderings, every single building in that development is going to be due for a major rehab. All at the same time. I’ve said it before, one or two run-down buildings in an otherwise thriving neighbourhood are economic opportunities waiting to happen, but when all the buildings in a neighbourhood are run-down, you’ve just got a run-down neighbourhood. There are no economic incentives to redevelop anything, so development activity goes elsewhere, and the place falls into further decline. Development should be incremental so that new buildings are always putting redevelopment pressure on the old ones, which get redeveloped, by which time the buildings that were new are now old. And the virtuous cycle continues.

If a neighbourhood is a pizza buffet, you have to be continually making more pizza as it gets eaten. If you make it all at once and leave it sit, many people will end up with cold pizza (or food poisoning). Even if it gets eaten, eventually, when there’s no good pizza left, people will leave the neighbourhood for one with better, hotter pizza. It’s a recipe for decline.

On top of all that is the sheer scale of the project. This is a $1-Billion+ proposal covering 84 acres with dozens of 12-storey buildings.

A rendering of the proposed Polo Park multi-residential development by Cadillac Fairview and Shindico. (Photo: Shindico)

Jane Jacobs would call that “cataclysmic money“. Strong Towns calls it the “trickle or the fire hose“. You either get no investment at all, or else massive, terra-forming scale projects. Nothing in between.

Why is that bad? Because a city’s financial sustainability depends on having most people travelling on foot. And walkability depends on increasing the number, and the diversity, of destinations that are close together. The smaller they are, the more of them there can be, the more walkable the place. Small is walkable.

“Diversity is a small-scale phenomenon.”

— Jane Jacobs, “Can Big Plans Solve the Problems of Renewal?”, October 1981

On the other hand, ever been to the Vegas strip? The mega-hotels there are so huge that you can walk for what seems to be an eternity, and never actually get any closer to the next hotel over. That’s why most people there just cab it. Huge is not walkable.

But what about the developer’s claim that it will be a walker’s paradise? That you’ll be able to live a “high-quality life without a car” here?

I’m not saying it won’t, just that the details will matter. A lot.

And some of the details that have already been announced don’t bode well for walkability.

One of those is parking.

At first glance, you’d think that replacing a bunch of surface parking with actual places for people to live would be a good thing. And it is. Except that it’s not so much replacing, as much as it is displacing that parking.

While the project will remove surface parking, it will be replaced with parking structures so that the mall will end up with about the same number of parking spots it has now. On top of that, it will add 1.5 parking stalls for each new residential unit, meaning a total of 6,000 new parking stalls. That’s about 46 acres worth.

If the plans are for people to live a high-quality life without a car, why is all that parking necessary? And since structured parking is not cheap to build, all those costs will get passed on to the cost of the housing, whether the people who live there need that parking or not, which isn’t great for affordability. And if the parking structures have sloped floors, like many do, then they can never be re-adapted into anything else but parking, should the need arise in the future. They’re there until someone tears them down.

One of the goals of doing mixed-use infill development is to reduce the strain on our existing infrastructure. If we’re doing it right, we shouldn’t need to add to the infrastructure we already can’t afford. That’s not the case here apparently. Local planning experts, like the head of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies, have commented that there will be concerns around travel impacts, and that “proper infrastructure needs to be in place to support the development“.

The convergence of 12 lanes isn’t large enough to accommodate all the “high-quality life without a car” that is planned for this corner.

But we knew that already. You can’t add 46 acres of car storage without negatively impacting the surrounding transportation network. Because you only need that much car storage if most people are driving. So much for walkability.

“Land use and transportation are the same thing described in different languages.”

Jarrett Walker, Transit Planning & Policy Consultant and Author

So I guess more infrastructure it is! Which means from a financial standpoint for the City, we won’t actually have helped anything.

This kind of instant “just add water” urbanism makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing, without actually making us change anything about our current approach to development. We check some boxes on our list of ingredients, but without doing the hard work of fixing the recipe.

And if you doubt that this isn’t a productive way forward for City finances, it’s important to remember that projects such as the 500-unit mixed-use building proposed for Bison Drive & Centre Street in Waverley West were always part of the original plan for the suburb. And despite that, the cost-benefit analysis still shows that plan is not financially sustainable.

Because the process is as important as the ingredients.

Look, I’m not saying any of these are bad projects, necessarily. The details will determine whether these are bad or merely acceptable. But if this is what all development in Winnipeg is going to look like going forward, then we are still doomed.

But I don’t blame the developers. In the 4 years I’ve been writing these letters, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many. And in general, a lot of them want to do the right thing. They want to make a buck, of course. But they also want to do so by making the city a better, more productive place. They really are hoping for a win-win situation.

Which is why we’re seeing these proposals with the “right ingredients”. Unfortunately, the recipe they are forced to use, our city’s zoning by-law, is terrible… it will never make good pizza.

It makes small, incremental projects illegal, or at least, financially unfeasible, so that all that are left are massive mega-projects. It requires developers to provide loads of parking, whether they think they need it or not, driving up the cost of housing. And it prioritizes vehicle travel above walking, leading to ever-increasing and unsustainable road spending.

All of which keeps us in a development pattern that is basically a Ponzi scheme.

Luckily, the City is preparing for a full review of the Zoning By-law soon, so keep your eyes peeled. If coupled with Councillor Lukes’ recent motion for the City to adopt a plain-language communication policy, we have the potential to change the recipe for development in Winnipeg to one that’s usable by a ninth grader with an hour to spare.

And one that can actually make good pizza. [Mmmm… financial sustainability.]


Elmwood Guy