Don’t fear the chain store

Commercial viability is more desirable than empty lots

A small commercial building is under construction at a vacant corner of Sherbrook Street and Westminster Avenue. The main tenant of the building will be a Subway restaurant. Like Stella’s Bakery next door, this small development has been regarded as an attempt to breathe new life into Sherbrook south of Broadway, which some have speculated could become another Corydon Avenue.

This claim is tossed around rather liberally in Winnipeg, but it is not without some merit.

Like Corydon, this strip of Sherbrook was built up early in the last century along a streetcar line; first with houses, later with stores (sometimes added to the front of houses) and small apartment blocks. Today, both are straddled by relatively dense neighbourhoods. For Sherbrook, there is Wolseley to the west and Wolseley’s poorer, older cousin West Broadway to the east.

Together, they house many students, young professionals and aging members of the Volvo-set looking for the street-cred that Crescentwood doesn’t provide.

The key difference between the two streets, why one thrived while the other did not, is traffic engineering.

If Corydon were to have been converted to a one-way street, complete with rush-hour parking restrictions and a widened roadway, it would be Sherbrook.

With more done to make Sherbrook an enjoyable place to walk along, and less of an obnoxious funnel to speed south-end commuters through, there would be more pedestrians and businesses, not to mention an increase in the quality of life for the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Still, destructive traffic engineering does not seem to be the biggest concern amongst local residents. One commenter on my blog recently pointed out that Subway will be the first chain store on the corner of Westminster and Sherbrook, a fact that is “getting everyone down.” While I don’t want to depress moods further, isn’t the Salvation Army thrift store across the street a continent-wide chain? Possibly, but maybe not the type Naomi Klein warned you about.

What gets me down is seeing what many of Winnipeg’s once viable commercial streets have become after years of abandonment. Ellice and Sargent struggle, Provencher snoozes on its potential, and North Main and Selkirk Avenue have practically ceased to exist.

After decline, the greatest threat to Winnipeg’s traditional commercial streets is suburbanization.

A Subway opening up on Sherbrook is good news. While Mom’s Deli or Pop’s Hardware often add colour to a neighbourhood where chain stores simply add sameness, most neighbourhood strips in Winnipeg’s centre don’t have the luxury of choosing between the two. Any meaningful commercial establishment that wants to open up is something of a small victory against urban malignancy.

Small commercial development is not a zero-sum game. Chain stores and independents feed off each other. They add concentration and choice to customers, which is better for everyone. The busiest Fyxx coffee outlet happens to be the one right by a Starbucks at Broadway and Donald.

This success is possible only if new stores are built up to the sidewalk, with windows and entrances oriented towards them. After decline, the greatest threat to Winnipeg’s traditional commercial streets is suburbanization.

Setting a building back for parking or shrubbery, or without an entrance from the sidewalk, detracts from the neighbourhood’s aesthetics and commercial viability. One need only head up Sherbrook to Portage to see the parking lot wasteland that was allowed to sprout up there. The new building at Westminster does not appear to follow any elements of this destructively car-oriented mindset.

Subway’s logo lit up at night might pollute the view for those riding their cool bikes up Westminster (the way a “for lease” or “ACME Demolition Co.” sign somehow would not), but don’t let it get you down: It’s only a traditional commercial main street surviving in the age of international chains.

Robert Galston is a University of Winnipeg student who writes about urban issues. Check out his blog at http://riseandsprawl.blogspot.com.

Published in Volume 64, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 5, 2009)

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