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The Forks as a “people place”
Jul 10, 2014

With the exception of a extremely brief period, The Forks has been a “people place” for 6,000 years. This fact was acknowledged by the Standing Policy Committee on Downtown Development, Heritage and Riverbank Management. On July 7, the committee recommended that a portion of 11.6 acres in two parcels — the Rail Side, 5.7 acres owned by The Forks Renewal Corporation, and Parcel 4, a 5.9 acre city-owned gravel parking lot — be converted into residential high-rise buildings. This in keeping with the original plan in the 1980s for The Forks redevelopment, which contained a residential component. Although a few additional steps need to be undertaken before final approval is given, the idea of creating places for people to live at The Forks is a natural outcome of its lengthy history as a “people place.”
The preliminary plan from The Forks Renewal Corporation approved by the committee is for a mixed-use development. The Rail Side site would be developed into two mixed-use parcels, including approximately 20,000 square feet of retail, destination and office space, as well as 100 housing units (parking included), a 400-stall public parkade, public spaces, public art and green roofs. Parcel 4 would have three mixed-use development parcels, each having 20,000 square feet of retail, destination and office space, as well as 100 housing units (parking included), a 300-stall public parkade, public space, public art and green roofs.
In total, 500 housing units are proposed, while the preliminary plan also noted that the five mixed-use commercial development parcels will not comprise more than 40 per cent of the  ground area — public spaces will be the theme of the remainder of the two parcels of land. The 60 per cent public space and commercial mixed-use is a good compromise to ensure the “people place” element is maintained. It is also expected that the 40 per cent devoted to private mixed-use will finance the development of the public spaces.
“The report submitted by the committee estimated that the commercial mixed-use development proposed on 40 per cent of the land could result in over $200 million in private investment, “and increase the assessed value of the lands by more than 20 times their 2013 value. Land revenue and TIF (Tax Increment Financing — the city has to approve this step) revenue from this development would be sufficient to finance the public amenities/infrastructure components of the plan.
The Forks Renewal Corporation has proposed that this commercial mixed-use component be done in phases and be available to both private or non-profit development consortiums through competitive, fair, and transparent proposal calls. It is expected that the commercial and residential portions of the plan will take up to seven years to be completed.
“The creation exceptional public spaces will be the central objective in the Rail Side and Parcel 4 revitalization plan,” according to the report submitted by the committee. “Public parks, plazas and promenades will guide the organization of the two sites and forge better connections from The Forks to its surrounding downtown neighbourhoods. The design of these spaces will be people focussed, following the four key ingredients of successful spaces identified by the New York-based research non-profit, Project for Public Spaces.
The preliminary plan calls for a central plaza on Parcel 4, which “will forge a stronger pedestrian link to Portage and Main and will create a place to gather sheltered from the busy intersection of Waterfront Drive and Pioneer Avenue.”
The central public park on the same parcel “will open up to the arms of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and will create a new vantage point to enjoy the awe-inspiring building and its surroundings.”
The arms of the museum are actually its entrance.
“A wide pedestrian promenade will extend the full length of Waterfront Drive,” according to the report. “This tree-lined environment will create a new visually enticing walk from The Forks to Winnipeg’s Exchange District. Along the way, shops and public spaces will provide opportunities to linger and enjoy the experience.
“The Rail Side and Parcel 4 lands will aim to create a rich and visually interesting environment, through a balance and interplay of unique public spaces and architecturally engaging commercial mixed-use buildings.”
The committee also recommended that city council  declare Parcel 4 surplus and then approve a grant to The Forks Renewal Corporation in an amount equal to the purchase price of the city-owned property (estimated to be $6 million)  to support the construction of required public amenities and infrastructure.
Winnipeggers probably still recall that city council’s Executive Policy Committee (EPC) had recommended in 2012 that Parcel 4 be sold to Canalta Real Estate Services Ltd., which had proposed to convert the land into a indoor water park and hotel, which resulted in a public outcry of protest. Because of the public backlash, the proposal to purchase was withdrawn.
In the end, the realization arose that there were more fitting uses for the land at The Forks than as a water park, and there already was a hotel at The Forks. What was lacking was a residential component coupled with public spaces which is exactly what the people told The Forks Renewal Corporation during a series of public consultations. The corporation released a report on its findings in 2013, which the standing committee supported at its July 7 meeting, and recommended their report on the preliminary plan be adopted by city council.
Six thousand years ago, aboriginal people came to The Forks at the juncture of the Red and Assiniboine river to take advantage of its plentiful game, fish, nuts, fruits, etc. Their lengthy presence has been confirmed from the tens of thousands of artifacts — animal bones, fish bones, stone tools and hearths) uncovered at the National Historic Site. Piles of bones also showed that bison hunters flourished at The Forks.
In the fur trade era, the North West Company built Fort Gibraltar at The Forks, and when the company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the HBC maintained it as Upper Fort Garry, until it was washed away during a massive flood in 1826. The fort was rebuilt a short distance away on higher ground (all that remains today is the north gate along Main Street).
When immigrants flooded into the city, their first stop in most cases were the two immigration sheds at The Forks. Immigrants became squatters and built a “shanty town” at The Forks, but by the early 1880s railway interests had enviously begun eyeing the site and over the years converted into what was called the CN East Yards, a less than people-friendly landscape of urban plight. It was in the 1990s that The Forks was finally resurrected as a “people place,” and the most recent residential unit proposal is the next phase of this theme.