Ideas needed

If anything, the recent musings of Mayor Sam Katz to erect condos in Assiniboine Park may at least start a debate on the future of what is called the “crown jewel” of Winnipeg.

Unfortunately, the crown jewel has lost some of its lustre in recent years. The zoo contains outmoded enclosures and cages, the conservatory has a leaky roof, bike and foot paths need a lot of work to make them passable, the duck pond is getting old and tourists are left in the dark about what the park does offer because there is no visitor centre.

The condo factor being touted by Katz would see an infusion of $1 million each year through lease fees and property taxes. The condos would be built on two old and little used zoo parking lots that front Corydon Avenue. The projection is that as many as 280 units could be built on the eight-acre chunk of land.

The fees generated by the condo developments could then be placed in a savings account for the park or used to obtain a multi-million dollar loan to make the kind of improvements the park really needs. 

A report from 2002 by landscape and zoo architect Azeo “Ace” Torre indicated private and public investments of $126 million would be needed over 10 years to bring the park into the modern era.

“It’s our estimation that the park is only realizing half of its attendance potential and interactive and engaging exhibits could drastically change that,” said Torre whose firm has designed over 30 parks and zoos in the U.S. and Europe.

But, in the intervening three years since the report’s release, little discussion had been circulating about improving the park or the zoo, something the mayor pointed out when he made his proposal.

In the absence of other ideas kicking around, Katz at least is making a suggestion. And, perhaps that is what is really needed to stimulate discussion. The condos may not be a go given the present opposition on council — 11 of 16 votes are required for council to change a portion of the park into a private development.

And, in the minds of traditionalists, who see a profusion of green space as the only purpose for the park — a residential development in the midst of green just isn’t an option for them. 

Katz may have already gotten what he wanted when he initiated the condo proposal — people talking about the park and what is needed for its revitalization.

The city has little cash available to help the park. It is cash-strapped and desperately needs money for a crumbling infrastructure. The cash it provides is not enough to keep it from further deterioration, never mind building much needed new enclosures at the zoo in which the animals can be afforded a measure of respect and a meagre impression of their  natural environment for the duration of their captivity. 

It’s a tribute to the ingenuity of the zoo staff that the animals aren’t now faring worse, given the tools with which they are required to work. The same holds true for other staff who struggle to make sure the residents and tourists are well-served when they visit the park.

Instituting a fee was to have been the answer for saving the zoo, but it has obviously not been enough. Although attendance at the zoo has improved in recent years, it has yet to approach the numbers of the pre-fee days.

Even corporate and community donations to build special displays such as the Kinsmen Discovery Centre haven’t been enough to distract visitors from the too obvious signs of an antiquated facility.

When the park opened in 1904 on 283 acres of land, it could have then been classified as a state-of-the-art facility — one which generated pride among Winnipeggers and marvelled visitors. Much of the look of the present facility had its origin in the park’s early days — the central concept of landscaping, roadways, paths and most locations of buildings had been designed by 1914, though many other amenities have been added since that time.

Despite its difficulties, it is still a great park and it does have some new facilities and features, such as the Asper-funded Lyric Theatre or relatively-new Leo Moll Sculpture Garden or the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Citizens Hall of fame, as well as a newly-renovated Pavilion, but the wear-and-tear that surrounds these improvements are too evident for all to see. 

The park is simply beginning to look tired and it deserves a better fate.

As Katz told the Free Press, “If there’s anybody out there who has some good ideas please bring them forward. As long as I’ve been here — nothing.”

The absence of ideas has been the park’s undoing in recent years.