Monday, 27 August 2012

Firehall land swap absurdity

You may remember: last week local Winnipeg real estate empire Shindico posted a firehall for sale on it's web site even though, as far as most people knew, it hadn't even been officially declared surplus and wasn't theirs to sell. We later heard some things about a three-for-one land swap, and that the fire hall being declared surplus may need to be formalized by a council vote. The confusion and lack of transparency did not look good, but was not out of character for Winnipeg City Hall either.

Well ....

Turns out, the land swap was not even negotiated by City Hall or Property Planning and development, but by a deputy fire chief.

This fire chief, still believing that what he did was correct, did an interview with CBC to defend his deal...

I don't even know where to begin with this, it's so ridiculous, so I might as well start at the beginning:

"It's like trading in a used car for a new car."
No ... it's more like trading three infill properties for a single piece of land next to a railway track, actually.

"I always thought the more ground work I could do, keeps me out of the bureaucracy, going through all the fine details to get back to where I needed to be anyhow."
You know, there is a reason we have a bureaucracy, including people who specialize in things like ... oh I don't know ... REAL ESTATE. These bureaucrats are paid to do stuff, like calculate financial impacts, ensure auditability, analyze market conditions ... details like that.

Douglas admits he didn't always follow procedure. The City's head of planning admits he had no knowledge of the deal.
Didn't always? This isn't ...  He can't just .... Gaaa, fuck it, on to the next quote.

"Douglas says he and Shindico have a verbal agreement ..."
Oh that's nice. A verbal agreement. What gentlemen.
a) As per Bart Kives on twitter: "It sure is tough to FIPPA (file a freedom of information request) a verbal agreement."
b) I wouldn't swap a car based on a verbal agreement, but three properties? Oh, the nice salesman told me it was worth a million bucks ...  Good grief.
c) Real estate transactions must by law be in writing in Canada. I learned this in my law class. If Shindico felt they had the authority to sell one of the swapped properties in question, you can bet they have something signed by somebody. By who, God only knows at this point.

"A deal's a deal"
Really? Tell that to Crystal Developers, who had a signed and perfectly legitimate contract to build an apartment tower in downtown Winnipeg four years ago, before being told to go take a hike because we had a better use for the land: building a multi-million dollar shrine to Louis Riel. Oh geeze, you say you're having trouble raising money for that? I'm shocked. (Yes, I hold grudges.)

So now, Mr. Douglas, even though you probably had no authority to make the deal, and you followed no processes and by-passed checks and balances, you believe we should be stuck with this potentially ill-advised transaction. Great.

"With a developer, money doesn't mean a lot to a developer. Property does."
It's remarkable how you have such an intimate understanding about developers, what with you working in a fire hall your whole life. Hey, you know who money means a lot to? TAXPAYERS. Just saying ...

Douglas says he'd do the same deal again.
Well then he clearly doesn't understand his job and should resign immediately.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Cube

I've never been a big fan of The Cube, the performance stage at Winnipeg's Old Market Square. This is probably because it reminds me of the cage that my parents kept me locked in as a kid. Ha. Kidding. That never happened.

No, it's partly because it looks out of place in a park surrounded by heritage buildings. If I were given an enormous amount of time and a budget, I would probably design something with more of a steam-punk look, with cables and gears that turned as the stage opened up to the audience. I can envision it, but haven't been able to draw it.

source: Winnipeg Free Press
That's part of it, but mostly it's because it just seems like an inefficient space. A cube may be great for storing M&Ms in, but it's a questionable shape for this use. It's a big imposing structure, relative to the space it's in, but the amount of usable area seems small. As an audience member, it does not invite an engaging or intimate experience because the stage is deep and the curtains close off much of it.

I understand that from a performer's perspective it's not the best either. I really do appreciate aesthetics, but I would never buy something where functionality is seriously compromised for style; but that's what seems to have happened here.

Now, to make matters worse, the chain-mail curtain is falling apart due to "wear and tear" after only two years. I hope this thing came with a good warranty plan. This is shameful. A 5468796 Architecture spokeswoman "described the loose rivets as a regular maintenance issue." I find that hard to believe. If rivets are popping out so as to make the stage potentially lethal to performers after two years, and if it's "a regular maintenance issue", then I guess the maintenance schedule must call for the rivets to be replaced sooner than two years so as to ensure safe continued operation. So, was the city or Exchange District BIZ told in advance that they would have to replace thousands of rivets every year?

Anyhow ...

Remaining shows need to be moved to different venues as a result of this. Most, according to the Free Press article linked to above, will be relocated to the plaza at 201 Portage.

 I have another idea: move them to the new Park behind the Centennial Library. It's a larger space, and it's a quieter and less distracting place to watch a performance than a busy corner just off Portage and Main.

In addition to that, it would be a great way to introduce people to this new public space.

I could see there being a potential issue with the noise of the concert disrupting the peaceful environment within the library, depending on the day and time. After 6:00 on a Friday or Saturday would not be a problem.

I think it makes almost perfect sense. I'm sure that somewhere in the $7.4 million that was spent there were hook-ups installed for a band to plug in, and there's lots of room for folks to spread out. Why not? It's a good opportunity.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Around this town: Clara Hughes, Blue orbs, and other things

It's hard to believe. A stunning event that you know is true because you're seeing it happen, but yet doubts linger in the back of your mind simply because it's so improbable.

I'm not talking about the Bombers beating the Tiger Cats this week, but the owners of the Boyd Building taking down their illegal electronic sign. I don't mind electronic signs in general, and I don't even mind this one, except that the very presence of the sign meant that the owners intended to reneg on their intention to build a taller mixed use complex next door and in the adjacent vacant lot that used to be a park, which leads me to believe that the proposal was nothing more than a ruse in the first place to gain control of the park for use as an illegal parking lot.

However, the fact that they actually took down the sign gives me a bit of hope -- not much, but a slim little ray of hope -- that the owners may sometime be convinced to do something about that ugly and illegal parking lot on Portage Avenue if the City were to push a bit harder. And by "something" I don't mean cheap plastic planters.


During the recent Summer Olympics (c) a thread was started on the Winnipeg Zoom forum about doing something to honor the great Winnipeg-native Olympian Clara Hughes, now that it appears that her Olympic (c) career has come to an end (although I hesitate to write those words). "More than just a little park off Main Street."

Another great local Olympian (c) Cindy Klassen has a street and a fancy recreation complex named after her. Our civic and provincial politicians sprained their ankles racing to name shit after Jonathan Toews after just 3 seasons in the NHL, yet Hughes, one the greatest Olympians of all time, has a tiny park with a tiny little sign in her honour. 

I'm sure she doesn't mind, and she doesn't make Winnipeg home anymore, but it just seems a little out of proportion. 

UPDATE: I'm not sure how I missed this, but Regan Wolfrom posted about this a week ago. (I blame it on slo-pitch playoffs.) The Metro has picked it up as well.


A drama unfolded in the local bloggoshpere recently. North end activist Michael Redhead Champagne, a.k.a.North End MC, posted that his sister was missing. This alarmed me and several others who spread the word on twitter, because, you know, the people who follow me on twitter are just SO likely to hang out at the places where an abducted Aboriginal girl would be. 

Then came this post: Dear Woman Beater
You are a snake. A poisonous snake. A coward. Spineless. A mindless predator. Ruthless. Systematic. Power hungry. You must feel like a big man when you hit women.
That's just a small sample of the post itself. You have to read it, but especially the comments. There is some pretty crazy shit there. Accusations of crack use, rape, child beating, etc.. things I would not feel comfortable about having on my blog. And then a dialog starts between commenters who claim to be the lost sister and her mother. It's a unique slice of social media there.

Anyhow, I'm happy to report that the sister is safe.


Osborne Village will never be the same once Papa Georges is gone. Of the the great Winnipeg institutions started by Greek restaurantuers, Papa Georges was one of the go-to places for late night vittles after the bars closed. Moreso than the loss of Vi-Ann or even Movie Village, this will change the character of the area for me. PG's along with the Courtyard building across the street, mark the entrance to the core of the Village. The dense, quirky and pulsating mass of businesses that make the Village so unique.

You could see some signs. The building was looking worn in recent years. I'm not entirely surprised by this, but I do hope that whatever moves into that location will not be generic and mundane ... a franchise of a big US corporation looking for a high-visibility spot in a new market.


If you go to Google Streetview in about 2 months and look up Bishop Grandin and St. Mary's, there's a good chance you'll see a dork on rollerblades holding up a cell phone.

That blue orb has probably scanned all of the chip information off my credit cards.


That's Around This Town for today. 'Till next time ... 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Are we paying our mayors enough?

The pending special mayor episode of Winnipeg Internet Pundits got me thinking about mayors. My particular train of thought revolved around mayoral performance. Why do mayors always seem to under perform? Is it just my perception, or do cities generally have a hard time attracting capable leaders?

I think most Winnipeggers can relate to this. Before our last civic election there was near-unanimous consensus that mayor Sam Katz was doing a poor job: making poor planning decisions, spending too much time in Phoenix and not enough running the city, screwing up rapid transit, screwing up active transportation, doing things that were uncomfortably close to conflict of interest, burying us in an infrastructure deficit, poisoning the relationship with the Province, etc...  Yet, he won the election easily because there was nobody else worth voting for. Why???

We're not alone here, or at least I get the impression we're not. I hear stories from time to time of wacky or incompetent mayors in other cities. Even Toronto, with a population base 8 times ours, can't find a dignified mayor. Rob Ford is a controversial guy who battles with the media and often says ill-advised things like "Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks. Not for people on bikes. And my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it's their own fault at the end of the day." That's just the start of his controversies, which include reading while driving.

Before Ford, in the late 90's and early 00's, there was a guy named Mel Lastman. Lastman was a furniture salesman by trade, and he didn't change a bit as mayor. He was definitely the Kern Hill/David Keam of mayors. Business acumen is a plus for sure, but crazy TV ads impersonating a US President probably don't help. For whatever good things he did, he is probably best remembered as the mayor who installed giant coloured moose all over the city.

Now, there are certainly exceptions. One might point to Calgary's Naheed Nenshi as an example. However, I believe there is a definite trend. 

The question is: how do we reverse the trend? A while ago I suggested that we should encourage politicians to accept free Jets tickets as a perk to attract better candidates. I was only joking, but that may be on the right track. Are we paying mayors enough? Sam Katz earns $126k per year (plus perks). Rob Ford earns $168k as mayor of The Big Smoke. That seems like a lot of money to an average Fred, but in terms of experienced professionals capable of running a large organization, it's not. Winnipeg's Deputy CAO earns $313k. Even Sam's own chief of staff earns almost as much as he does. In the private sector, management jobs routinely run well into 6 figures. 

You could argue that all public leaders are underpaid, relatively speaking, but the office of Prime Minister for example has the prestige of the job to attract candidates. A mayor's job consists of making decisions about road repairs and trash collection, not globe trotting and hobnobbing with dignitaries. As a result, it tends to attract either long shots with nothing to lose, or wealthy business people who have something to gain. 

Every once in a while a capable long shot like Nenshi might get on the ballot and win, but more often then not our mayor ends up being a business man for whom the job is a hobby or a means to an end. A larger salary could be a small price to pay to improve those odds.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Great Outdoors: Gunn Lake

I've almost forgotten how to create a blog post, it's been so long. Just to get Blogger loosened up and moving again, I'll share my weekend hiking experience.

I've hiked before, but never overnight. Never having to carry all my provisions on my back. Last weekend me and two friends decided to give it a try, and picked the Baldy Lake / Gunn Lake trail in Riding Mountain National Park as our testing ground.

Riding Mountain is a great place to try out back-country camping, for a few of reasons:

1. The trails are very clear and well marked. It is impossible to lose the trail. Perhaps after a few decades of federal funding cuts the trails may get to be more ragged, but as it is, if you lose your way in Riding Mountain then you shouldn't be allowed outside of your house without a tether or GPS chip embedded in your skull.

2. There is lots of wildlife. (For some people this may be a con rather than a pro ..)

3. Firewood. The campsites and well stocked with dry chopped firewood. This is a HUGE bonus.

The trail we picked was very easy to hike. Mostly flat and grassy with only a few muddy spots or steep areas where you have to watch your footing. The 16.5 km hike each way is supposed to take 4-5 hours depending on who you talk to, but we did it in slightly less. Still, it's a long walk with 25 lbs on your back.

It rained for about 4 hours Saturday afternoon/evening, making for a nice green (and wet) campsite:

The rain sucked, but when the clouds broke you could walk down to the lake to catch a nice sunset

The final 1.9 km Gunn Lake portion of the trail is the most interesting, with some hills and a nice view of a swampy valley ...

... but it was the longer Baldy Lake / Central part where we saw most of the wild life, including two bears, a moose, a deer, rabbits, this weaselly thing ...

... and these salamandery things ...

Isn't he just precious? I googled Manitoba salamanders, and figure this guy is an eastern tiger salamander, or some sub-species thereof.

You can get an idea from the weasel picture of what the trails are like. See what I mean? Even the most incompetent hiker can't lose their way here, unless maybe they do bat spins and forget what direction they're headed in.

Unfortunately it was too cloudy to witness the Perseids meteor shower, if we could even stay up that late after driving for 3.5 hours and hiking 16.5 k, but the sunset and the wildlife gave us enough highlights to make us not regret the pain we were in afterwards.

If you do this trail, I highly recommend stopping in at the Olha General Store for an ice cream bar on the way home.

Olha Manitoba. Population: three old people sitting in a general store. It is a very well-kept little hamlet, actually.

Would I do this trail again? Probably not. I would look for something maybe a little shorter but more scenic and technically challenging, but it was a nice trip. That pre-chopped firewood at the campsite sure makes back-country camping a lot less painful.

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