The fate of the Public Safety Building may be determined this morning when the Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage and Downtown Development meets at City Hall. Of the more than two dozen items on the committee’s agenda today, the most contentious is what to do with the PSB.
In March, City Councillor Matt Allard questioned findings of the Property and Development, Heritage and Downtown Development Committee. Allard is a committee member along with Councillors Gerbasi, Wyatt and Orlikow (Chair).
A report for the committee prepared by Deloitte Consulting Group through consultation with stakeholders along with directional guidance from the city, recommends the PSB and Civic Centre Parkade be demolished in favour of developing a large public space and selling off the remaining land. Allard motioned to delay any decision until more was known about the heritage value of the PSB.
The report indicates, “reuse of the PSB would limit strategic alternative civic reuse of the former Canada Post Tower” located at 266 Graham Avenue. The report’s attachment, as described within it, is a third and final “iterative” report version that does not contain former Canada Post Tower information but instead presents investigations of other city used properties impacting on the site’s potential use.
The report recommends three development scenarios for the PSB site that would best “maximize the value of the city property.” All three proposals include PSB demolition.
The first option is the development of a civic campus concept with a small public space, the construction of a new building as well as a small, 95-stall parking structure with office space at grade, along with sale of surplus land.
A second plan consists of a large parking structure with a small public space and the construction of a 520-stall parking structure with at grade office space and the sale of surplus land.
The third choice considered best by the committee is the development of a large public space and the sale of surplus land.
Other options are analyzed and considerations, limitations and circumstances are presented in the 117 page report.
The committee sought additional information regarding the PSB’s heritage value, which will be discussed today at City Hall, although some information about the building’s heritage is included in the report.
In a section entitled, “Evaluation for Heritage Listing for Information Only”, the report summarizes five areas of historical and architectural importance when it comes to the Public Safety Building. They include:
1) Unprecedented introduction of an architectural movement “modernism” in Winnipeg by prominent and innovative-practice architects.
2) Exemplification of post World War II development history.
3) PSB’s historical role as headquarters for municipal emergency response divisions in a building described by local press as “second to none on the continent, being well located, well designed, and functionally planned.”
4 ) Excellence in its “Brutalist” style of modernist architecture.
5) Possession of distinct architectural and design characteristics upon its facade.
The report also states the PSB is not listed on the Historical Resources List and has not been nominated for listing. It states “the Historical Buildings and Resources Committee has proposed that ‘Character Defining Elements’ would be worthy of protection (if the building had been nominated to be listed as an Historical Resource). These elements include the building exterior, main floor lobby, and some office ceilings above the fifth floor.”
Regarding the PSB’s heritage concerns, the report concludes: “In general, demolition is not a sustainable approach to deal with heritage buildings.”
Susan Algie of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation argues the PSB is a sustainable building that no one has said is structurally unsound. She believes the PSB needs to be evaluated for its historical and architectural importance.
Algie says she doesn’t understand why nomination to the list (to await a formal review) hasn’t already occurred; she has asked the city this question and to date has received no response.
Some of Winnipeg’s modernist buildings have received historic list protections, including City Hall and the St. Vital Library. Algie says bylaws require owners agree to the nomination. The PSB is owned by the city.
The report states, “OurWinnipeg objectives and the associated A Sustainable Winnipeg objectives are important to consider in the development of the alternatives and should inform the decision criteria.”
The report also cites Downtown Urban Design Standards, which include the principle of recognizing, celebrating and building upon the best features of the surrounding context.
The PSB was built as part of a cutting edge, harmoniously designed group of structures making up Winnipeg’s showpiece civic and entertainment complex of the 1960’s urban renewal initiative. These buildings make up a prominent part of Winnipeg’s superior and vital collection of modernist buildings described by history professor Serena Keshavjee as a “crucible of Canadian Modernist architecture.”
Since the PSB is at the very boundary and immediately adjacent to the Exchange District, the report highlights the surrounding historic architectural preservation and community development as a key part of Winnipeg’s identity and enhanced livability. Any “future development should build on these existing strengths,” as well as “preserve and protect the area’s heritage elements…” This important concern seems ironic considering their application to options that include PSB demolition.
Councillors have wrestled with the fate of the PSB while assessing the report’s three recommended options, all of which include demolition of the PSB, as well as other alternatives. The report uses assessment criteria formulas to develop a final score and summary description for each option.
The assessment criteria are Needs, Value, Downtown Revitalization and Costs, along with sub-criteria. Heritage concerns are cited in an unrecommended option that includes the revitalization of the PSB. They are listed under two of the four criteria: “Value” and “Downtown Revitalization”.
The criterion of “Value” is affected by heritage concerns since PSB demolition would be seen as a loss of an irreplaceable heritage resource, and revitalization “meets the needs of the heritage community.” Full recladding was mentioned as financially impractical “and thus only minor heritage elements can be conserved.”
The criterion of “Downtown Revitalization” is affected by heritage concerns since a revitalized PSB would begin again to fulfill its once dynamic role within a “civic campus” by centralizing civic personnel. Its redesigned facade treatment would also enhance the area.
“There is a great opportunity for positive change in the area, while redefining an icon with associated stigma,” says the report. It describes the north portion of the building as taking up part of potentially salable land while at the same time disallowing greater flexibility for development.
In general, heritage concerns seem to fit in a small way when compared and weighted among the other factors listed in the overall consideration to “maximize the value of the City property.”
OurWinnipeg (through the direct articulation of Winnipegers) has voiced a concern for sustainability – the pursuit of environmental quality, economic responsibility, cultural enrichment and social equity all at once. In A Sustainable Winnipeg, a directive for OurWinnipeg, the City of Winnipeg is “committed to working with other levels of government on sustainable infrastructure funding strategies and to applying creativity and innovation in addressing infrastructure needs.”
A Sustainable Winnipeg directive that recommends taking action toward a vibrant Winnipeg includes the need to “conserve, protect and celebrate Winnipeg’s heritage.”
In specific, OurWinnipeg calls on municipal leaders to foster a culture of sustainability within the public service, from the water cooler all the way to service delivery, policy development and political decisions.
At present there is no “vision” or planning theme or overarching design idea for the site with its present buildings demolished. Demolition without a plan subverts best practice as public space often remains unrealized without a clear plan and salable land might remain unsold until a vision is developed. Barren, unwelcoming spaces can result.
The report cites there is no proven need for public space in the area, and indicates that at present the area is surrounded by a number of underutilized public spaces.
Many say there is no need to rush. In addition to determining heritage value of the Public Safety Building, there are other things to seek out. This includes municipal leaders seriously considering the potentialities articulated in Winnipeg’s very own OurWinnipeg policy and its directives within A Sustainable Winnipeg, and the tenets of the Downtown Urban Design Policies.
Above all, through OurWinnipeg, citizens have asked for municipal decision-makers to show leadership in bringing Winnipeg into its most creative future.
For an in-depth look at the PSB, read Debating the future of the PSB