Winnipeg’s 1964 modernist City Hall council chamber is a beautiful space of limestone, inlaid teak, smooth formed concrete and leather furniture.
The highly sophisticated interior has likely cooled the charged narratives and emotions of councillors who otherwise might have progressed to full-out fisticuffs during impassioned council meetings over the decades.
Council meeting on Apr. 27 included many issues of environmental concern. The meeting also involved a rare, inwardly-directed collective look by council at the way councillors work together.
While Winnipeg has started to grow quickly after decades of relative stagnation, Winnipeg City Council faces challenges of implementing strategic planning that transcends municipal boundary concerns.
In an entreatied speech by Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, she asked for each councillor to “do your part” in facilitating moving forward among difficult, potentially paralyzing issues and to work toward an atmosphere of needed trust and collegiality.
In a long meeting that lasted into the evening hours, the fate of the Public Safety Building (PSB) was thrown to the public for feedback.
Unless a “rabbit can be pulled out of a hat,” according to Gerbasi, the city will demolish the PSB along with the Civic Centre Parkade and create a large green space which, according to the Deloitte report, has sell-off land areas for development.
A year was given for public consultation.
The meeting began with Mayor Bowman speaking of his message to Montreal in a recent visit, stating that “Winnipeg is growing, is thriving, is a business area.”
Gerbasi mentioned her recent return from the Paris Climate Change talks where she learned the most effective way for dealing with such a large issue is for everyone to make a contribution in their own small way.
Councillor Russ Wyatt also went to Ottawa “through NASCO” concerning infrastructure concerns. $178 million will be heading to Manitoba for clean waste water and transit infrastructure over the next five years.
PSB’s demolition called ‘barbaric and irresponsible’
The day began with a new PSB issue delegate Sotirios Kotoulas, whose long-time family business specializes in construction restoration and who teaches architectural design studies at the University of Manitoba.
He said deterioration of the PSB’s exterior sheath has no measurable impact on the building’s “robustness and durability”.
“We don’t throw away the body if there is a problem with the skin,” he said, and stated that demolition would take “more money and resources than the city has thought through.”
Using Life Cycle Analysis, he said the PSB will create one ton of carbon per cubic yard of the building which will leave behind a “massive carbon footprint.”
He described the Deloitte report as “an example of uninspired urbanism from another time,” a reference to the 1960’s style of urban renewal that favoured demolition and rebuilding without respect for ideas of existing cultural space and without considerations of then unknown Life Cycle Assessment methods.
Kotoulas said it was shameful that an analysis on extending the buildings use had not taken place and described this as an “irresponsible civic act.” He stated the building’s demolition is“barbaric”. In terms of art and culture, the PSB is irreplacable.
“There is no imminent demolition,” said Gerbasi. “We have to have a plan,” referring to the avoidance of barren, windswept areas that are increasing in downtown Winnipeg, even as site plans for development are produced at the time of demolition. Gone are buildings that once created picturesque streetscapes and are now replaced with sodded, barren and dangerous open areas.
Council surprised by caveat restricting PSB site redevelopment
Gerbasi said a caveat restricts use of the land upon which part of the PSB sits. Councillor John Orlikow said this limits its use to municipal and public functions only, posing complications to selling the building as well as disallowing a blank canvas for site development.
Councillor Wyatt said the caveat came as a surprise to past council, who he said never knew of any such restriction at the time decisions were made.
At the same time, a city real estate audit indicated greater value is attained with a greater proportion of leased space for municipal use and lesser civic investment in property ownership, which makes ownership of the PSB undesirable.
The Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage, and Downtown Development was unanimous in its vote to demolish the PSB, but despite this Gerbasi said it is not a “done deal” since a public consultation process is required first.
“I don’t know how to vote on this,” said Councillor Ross Eadie.
Giving a brief history on the issue, Eadie said that eight years ago a cost estimate of $65 million to refurbish the PSB for use by the Winnipeg Police Service was given to council. The renovation would have seen the Police Service moving out during renovations and moving back in upon completion.
This was considered impractical and Eadie cited recent media reports of WPS security requirements in view of the Graham Avenue Tower leasing as an example of what would have been needed for temporary space for the Police Service.
He questioned the balance of city owned property versus leased space for civic operations. He described how the PSB could be a “one stop shop” idea for the Property and Planning Department coupled perhaps with business opportunity entities leasing the space.
“I don’t agree with Option A,” concluded Eadie. “We don’t have enough money for our green spaces now.”
Mayor welcomes public input
A great and rare opportunity for Winnipeg lie in the demolition of the PSB and development at the site, said Mayor Brian Bowman while acknowledging the PSB’s historical significance as well as what he called “structural limitations”.
He said saving the PSB might be possible through the assistance of a “white knight” scenario. He welcomed Winnipegers’ visions for the PSB as well as the site’s development.
Orlikow said the building is difficult to modify and the costs too great for the redefinition of a building that he doesn’t believe the city has use for. With Winnipeg’s very creative populace, he suggested the arts community may have an idea for it.
One year was given for ideas to come forward regarding the PSB and alternative site plans.
For more on this story, check out Shirley Kowalchuk’s previous CNC articles on the PSB:
PSB demolition contrary to city’s sustainability plan
Decision time at City Hall over PSB’s fate
Debating the future of the PSB