Back
Substance defeats critics
Sep 16, 2011
During the process of writing this week’s Heritage Highlight about Oak Hammock Marsh (pages 4 to 7), which includes the controversy surrounding the construction of its centre and office complex, I began to think about how many times over Winnipeg’s and this province’s history some would oppose or hastily criticize projects that would eventually become  world-class attractions.
The Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre became the object of some finger wagging, although it is just one of many facilities now deemed major attractions in the province to receive booes rather than cheers when first conceived. Others that come to mind in recent years are the MTS Centre and the Provencher pedestrian bridge. The still-under-construction Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which as the first national museum outside of Ottawa-Hull should have easily been assured it a spot in the cavalcade of great world-class attractions, has also had its own taint of controversy.
In 1972, what had been called the St. Andrews bog was turned into the Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Where only a scant 60 hectares of a former extensive wetland had survived due to drainage for farmland, the province and Ducks Unlimited (DU) Canada joined forces to restore a significant portion of wildlife habitat to allow future generations behold the marvels of nature. It was a case of “build it and they will come.” And migratory birds, such geese and ducks, arrived in the tens of thousands.
The controversy arose after DU Canada announced its intention in 1989 to build an interpretive centre. Not too controversial an undertaking under the circumstances, but it was soon being panned when the private group later announced it would add its national headquarters to the centre. The presence of more space being used in the marsh — 18 hectares rather than the 3.5 hectares originally proposed and accepted by the Clean Environment Commission — for offices caused a kerfuffle among wildlife conservation groups such as the Manitoba Naturalists Society, which was supported by strong allies that included the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the American Ornithologists Union. 
To bring an end to the construction begun in 1990, the protesters formed an umbrella organization called the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh. Soon after the formation of the opposition to the project, court action was initiated to have DU Canada take its shovels and go home. 
I tend to think the controversy arose as a result of a misunderstanding and poor communication. 
Hilary Versavell, chairman of the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh, argued that “special land” was being “lost,” as the meadows destroyed would be replaced by hills and grasses.
It was argued that the “construction and operation of the proposed development” would make the marsh “vulnerable to significant damage.”
DU and the provincial government tried unsuccessfully to argue that the amount of land used would have a minimal environmental impact. Landscaping for the centre’s roof called for native prairie plants and the planting of aspen, oak and shrubs. The centre was also intentionally built on the fringe of the marsh in an area where an existing road and parking lots were located.
It’s amazing to now see that the very process used at Oak Hammock — although not acknowledged — is very much evident at the new California Academy of Science’s museum, aquarium and planetary complex in San Francisco; that is, a living roof covered in native plants.
The court cases initiated by the Friends of Oak Hammock Marsh ended in the failure to stop the project, and visitors now marvel at how ingeniously the interpretive centre blends in with the environment.
The Provencher pedestrian bridge, which was later rechristened the Esplanade Riel, was criticized for its “One-million biffy,” and a design that some saw as a blot on the city’s landscape. The expensive “toilet” became essential to the plan to locate a high-end restaurant in the centre of the bridge. Bringing water and sewer connections to a location where none had previously existed and in a situation that required the two-way flow to be protected from the elements was not cheap.
As it turned out, none the city’s high-end restaurateurs wanted to establish an eatery on what was only a walking bridge, so Winnipeg's Salisbury House chain decided they would bring their more pedestrian food to pedestrians.
Today, whenever TV programs are broadcast to the nation or the world the opening scenes are invariably views of the Esplanade Riel, since its such a unique and breathtakingly beautiful architectural landmark in our city. 
Consider the absence of an MTS Centre in Winnipeg. Would the city have received another NHL franchise? The short answer is an empathetic , “No!”
Yet, the MTS Centre, which laid out the path to follow for the re-establishment of the NHL in Winnipeg, was not a sure thing in 2001. The Eaton Building Coalition, a small, but extremely vocal group of university professors, historians, architects, planner and downtown and suburb residents wanted to keep the Eaton building as it had been since it first opening in 1905. Nearly hundred years later, the former department store was vacant, too costly to revamp and only added to the blight of  abandoned structures then dotting the downtown. As former Mayor Glen Murray described the many abandoned buildings in the downtown, pigeons were the only available tenants for the commencement of inner-city renewal.
Despite its all-too-obvious shortcomings, the coalition was intent upon stopping the Chipman family and True North from demolishing much of the structure to make way for a new arena.
“We must strike a balance between protecting our most precious assets as well as move forward on promising opportunities,” said then Culture, Heritage and Tourism Minister Ron Lemieux. “The Eaton’s building has sat idle for two years with little serious interest from investors.”
In the end, the coalition failed in its attempt to end the construction, and, as the old adage goes, the rest is history. Imagine if they had succeeded. A team named the Jets would not have returned to the city.
In terms of the human rights museum, the controversy over what exhibits it holds will undoubtedly continue, but once it opens to the delight of a city, province and nation, the critics will step aside and it will soon be regarded as another world-class facility blessing Winnipeg’s landscape. That is the lesson that past controversial projects has so clearly taught us.