Friday, March 11, 2011

The Sports and Entertainment District

There has been good coverage of CentreVenture's continued push on the sports and entertainment district surrounding the MTS Centre in the newspapers and blogs.

Too few projects in the downtown are devoid of any public financial help. This, of course, is the bane of not just Winnipeg but a lot of cities. A larger debate about how to get the private sector to be the the driving force and take complete financial responsibility would be a worthwhile one. However, it would appear to be that after years of neglect of our downtown and private sector alike, a public agency has to pick its targets and draw increased private investment.

The idea of a sports and entertainment district is a sound one. It is easy to see that CentreVenture has eyed what has happened in Toronto and other cities carefully. Around the Air Canada Centre, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment built Maple Leaf Square. Ultimately, it was a huge project that cost upwards of $500 million and had everything from hotels, to condos, a sports bar and daycare.

The Real Sports bar as in short order since it opened last year and ESPN has named it best sports bar in North America. Best place for women to pick up men in Toronto and wear heels and not step on peanut shells. In short, sporty but classy.

The MTS Centre has already attracted a big sports bar in 4Play Sports. At 19,000 square feet, it is not exactly small. By comparison, the Toronto sports bar is 27,000 square feet. The big question that has to be asked is whether the True North people, owners of the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose, want to own and operate their own sports bar. On the face of it, it could be a winning idea. It is possible for a city to have more than on sports bar. In addition to the Real Sports bar in Toronto, there is Wayne Gretky's and Wendall Clark's sports bars.

So back to the public plaza idea. Aside from the Maple Leaf Square mentioned above, there is the L.A. Live in Los Angeles and the Victory Park plaza in Dallas as examples. Both projects cost a few billion dollars.

CentreVenture figures the cost of their project will be around $40 million and mentions a boutique hotel, offices and plaza as part of the mix. What is missing is housing. This was a major component of Maple Leaf Square and it should be part of what happens in the immediate area around the MTS Centre. If between $40 and $50 million in condos and apartments go up with the project, the total would be about $100 million in investment for the area, mostly private. That is about 1/5 of the total of Toronto's square which makes sense given the population of Winnipeg.

What the city doesn't need is windswept plaza with few people using it. A population that lives nearby will be more likely to find a use for the space especially if it is safe and has things that make it vital and useful. Note to CentreVenture: Maple Leaf Square has a daycare. Want to build a community, gathering space and general fun place to be? Make sure people live nearby, make it safe, make it useful, make it exciting.

This isn't brain surgery. Winnipeg does get things right a number of times. The Forks has been mostly done right. It is a gathering spot, it is safe, it is useful and it is exciting. Instinctively though, Winnipeggers know that people should not live there lest it make the area less inclusive of all residents. This is not the case for the area around the MTS Centre. People living there would be most welcome. In fact, it will be necessary for the area to survive and support a host of businesses that don't hang up the "closed" sign art 5 pm.

The Avenue residential units down Portage Avenue shows with effort and some public seed money that housing can be built where it has historically not existed. However, we need a condo alley such as Toronto's to give the district greater vitality. Rental apartments are needed as well but actual home ownership along Portage Avenue could and should help transform the street from simply being a commercial and office strip.

Winnipeg needs businesses who build downtown to think in terms of a residential component to any project. Imagine if Manitoba Hydro had done what Telus is doing for Vancouver this week. They are not only building their 22 story office building. They are building 44 story condo as part of a $750 million investment in Vancouver.

There are a number of prepared pads awaiting office towers that have never come. Perhaps developers needs to create Winnipeg's own condo alley such as we have seen in Toronto. It certainly might help create the downtown population base that could make use of variety of public spaces already available in the area. By the way, those pads that could use a condo are both ends of Portage Place and the Trizec building atop Winnipeg Square.

In the end, let's keep the ideas coming but remember it would help to have a population living in one of these developments.

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One Man Committee said...

There have been a lot of rumblings about what we might see in the SHED, but very few details have emerged so far. It will be interesting to find out what's in store for this area and how it will all be paid for.

John Dobbin said...

OMC: I can't wait to see the plan myself.