Businesses prefer suburbia to city core

City needs to take charge of developments, say critics

City planning professor Richard Milgrom believes the city’s commercial vision “tends to be very short-sighted” and focused on suburban development, at the expense of the city core. Clayton Winter

When it comes to commercial development, it seems Winnipeg is constantly expanding outward – and some say the city is to blame for allowing developers to call all the shots and pull resources to the suburbs.

Richard Milgrom, professor in the University of Manitoba’s city planning department, said city council needs to take charge in decision-making and stop ignoring more central retail locations.

“It tends to be very short-sighted,” Milgrom said of city council’s commercial development strategy.

“It’s building car dependency rather than finding development that will work other ways.”

But the city may feel obligated to please retail giants like Ikea, lest they choose another city to build in. Left with the choice, big retailers will often avoid urban locations.

“The primary limitations would be space and traffic,” said Michael Nozick, president of Fairweather Properties Inc., the company involved in the proposed Ikea development.

“They won’t shoehorn themselves into forced locations… when they have such a broad choice all across the country.”

According to Milgrom, it’s a vicious cycle. The city needs to provide more incentives for developers to choose the city centre, otherwise it will continue to waste away.

If we keep allowing more suburban developments, the centre of the city will continue to look unattractive.

Richard Milgrom, University of Manitoba

There are underdeveloped properties along Pembina Highway, Regent Boulevard and McPhillips Street that could be re-zoned to accommodate higher-intensity development, he said.

“There are plenty of models of big box stores in [the centre of] various cities,” Milgrom said, citing as examples Toronto, Montreal and Minneapolis, the last of which boasts an urban Target store.

“The problem is we’re getting ourselves into a rut here, where we’ve developed a city that encourages car culture,” Milgrom said.

This requires loads of parking space, which relegates big retail centres to the spacious suburbs, Milgrom said.

“If we keep allowing more suburban developments, the centre of the city will continue to look unattractive.”

But big box stores sometimes avoid setting up shop in historical or specialty neighbourhoods like the Exchange District, Osborne Village or Provencher Boulevard to maintain their look, said John Wintrup, principal planner in the city’s Planning and Land Use Division.

“We want to make sure [big-box stores] are compatible with the existing characteristics of these areas.”

However, he agrees the city often lets the developer choose their location.

“It’s usually up to the retailer to decide where they want to go.”

Wintrup said it’s all about stores targeting their desired market – while some retailers go for the local community customers, others hope to pull in shoppers from the outer limits of the city and beyond. The business size and location need to reflect that.

It’s always easier to build on open farmland, especially when the city is constantly extending infrastructure to accommodate development, said Christopher Leo, politics professor at the University of Winnipeg.

But extending roads like McGillivray Boulevard comes at a price, with existing infrastructure deteriorating in the long term.

Winnipeg citizens are split on the proposed Tuxedo Yards Redevelopment, future home of Ikea.

And while many are up in arms about a 1.5 million square foot development on Sterling Lyon Parkway and Kenaston Boulevard, Leo says it’s for the wrong reasons.

The spot chosen for this development isn’t terrible, he said, because it’s located in an area surrounded by development already, thus not encouraging sprawl in its own right.

He is instead concerned the city is building a centre that will provide many jobs with no way for people to get to them.

“You’re creating low-wage jobs in a location where there’s no housing for the people working there,” he said.

Leo advocates that low-income housing should be incorporated into the plans for such developments, to accommodate workers. Accessible transit is also essential, he said.

Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)

Related Reads