Twenty years ago, Brandon had the makings of a plan. Although it had been talked about for decades, the city was finally ready to get serious about riverbank development.
More than 120 people signed up for the planning group and its mailing list. Journalists, historians and economists were consulted.
The result, unveiled with some fanfare in February 1995, was the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan.
It was a stunningly comprehensive look at the entire river system, from Curran Park to the RM of Cornwallis, sparing no twist, turn or meander in planning for decades of future recreational development.
At the time, riverbank development was, at best, haphazard. There were some parks, but heavy brush blocked much access to the river itself. Industrial development still lingered near the water, a leftover from early city history when the river was for transport, when logs were floated downstream to city mills and when Canadian Pacific ran a railway spur line down to the Assiniboine.
In the early 1990s, the city was fresh off a spurt of building bike and walking paths and seemed ready to turn its hand to more ambitious development.
The Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan — often referred to as ARC — was to guide riverside development for the next 20 to 25 years.
So what happened?
Well, the first hurdle was the flood. No, not this summer’s flood. And not the flood of 2011, either.
The spring of 1995 was cold through to the beginning of April. Most of Canada was already snow-free — but not Westman, and not for portions of Manitoba and Saskatchewan that lay upstream. In fact, there was much more snow on the ground than normal.
When it melted that spring, it melted quickly, and the river surged.
In late April of that year, the river rose to a level of 1,178.8 feet about sea level. That’s just eight inches shy of the highest-ever recorded level of the Assiniboine in Brandon, during the flood of 1976 (although records show that floods in 1923, 1904 and 1882 were reportedly higher).
Curran Park was closed, flooded. Grand Valley Road was closed, flooded. Sandbags kept the rising waters off 18th Street at Grand Valley and John Avenue.
Eleanor Kidd Park — then the home to the Brandon Humane Society — was closed, flooded. The Rec Centre golf course was closed, flooded.
There were no super sandbags at that time, just canvas sacks stacked by hand. High school students were given time off class to help with the backbreaking labour.
Graders and loaders topped off city dikes, originally built in the 1940s and reinforced in 1976, with dirt and clay.
All of this was just two months after the city had decided it was going to embrace the river, to copy Winnipeg and build a home-grown version of The Forks here at home.
So did city planners decide that, given the narrow miss of a flood, that the ARC plan was all washed up?
Not at all.
With the 1997 Canada Games right around the corner (much of the river development was pegged to Canada Games money), the city roared ahead with its river planning.
Brush was cleared, paths were laid, sports facilities such as softball diamonds, tennis courts and waterski ramps were built or upgraded. The flood may have even helped convince the Humane Society to move out of its riverside location to the city’s outskirts.
All told, the ARC plan calculated a total budget of $23.4 million in 1995. The Canada Games was to provide the first big kick; after that the city was to contribute a portion of its VLT revenues. Planners thought the province might be enticed to hand out cash in celebration of Manitoba’s 125th anniversary. An anticipated provincial election might get them to loosen the purse strings, too.
Accounting for inflation alone, the 1995 budget estimate is the equivalent of $33.4 million in today’s dollars — say, about one police station and two fire halls.
Budgets are one thing, but reality can be somewhat more expensive. And when some of the bills came in, the costs were higher than expected.
Councillors initially balked at a $1-million price tag for what was to be the first of four pedestrian bridges. The budget for all four was supposed to have been $2 million.
But given how central it was in linking the Sportsplex to the river, the second-cheapest option was rushed to completion before the Games. Lost under the budget knife was the ability for cyclists to ride across; officials decided that the somewhat slimmer design just wasn’t wide enough.
Also constructed were the beginnings of a transformation of Eleanor Kidd Park.
It turned into a delightful outdoor garden, popular for wedding photography and picnic lunches in sun-dappled meadows. But the plan called for a money-making tea room, and a domed conservatory with greenhouse, featuring tropical plants all winter long, indoor waterfalls and even a koi pond.
Across the river, Ducks Unlimited joined with Brandon Tourism to build a scaled-down version of the planned Conservation Centre.
Left out of the building were things like an aquarium portion, envisioned as a showcase of the local river habitat.
It was also moved closer to the river, into what turned out to be a more erosion-prone location.
Crossing the pedestrian bridge from the Riverbank Discovery Centre (when that bridge is open), takes pedestrians and cyclists to a trail system.
But it was envisioned that they’d find themselves at the crown jewel of Brandon’s river system: The Assiniboine Landing Waterfront.
From Sixth Street North to 14th Street North, near where the Ashley Neufeld Memorial Softball Complex is being built, the Assiniboine Landing would be a nexus of commerce, family entertainment and culture. Modelled on Winnipeg’s development at The Forks, it was to feature restaurants, markets, galleries and specialty shops, plus a First Nations Heritage Centre and an open-air amphitheatre.
It was planned to be the centrepiece of Brandon’s Canada Day celebrations, but also be popular all year round.
It would house a transit mall and be linked to other riverbank developments through the trail network and a special vehicle parkway.
Taking off from the Assiniboine Landing would be a water taxi in the summer, a skating trail in winter, leading Brandonites to an Arboretum and Gardens, west of 18th Street, past where the Waterfall of Lights is now.
The Arboretum would feature a plaza and assembly area — perfect for weddings or outdoor concerts —plus a multi-storey overlook tower to take in the river’s panoramas.
Neither the Assiniboine Landing nor the Arboretum, obviously, were ever built.
Nor were the other three pedestrian bridges (one was eyed for the east end, connecting across the railway bridge at 17th Street East, another for the Third Street dam, connecting Dinsdale Park to nearly downtown, and the third was planned to replace the ferry at Queen Elizabeth Park).
Also uncompleted was a water park, with family hot tub and tube waterslides, that was suggested for Curran Park. Instead, the money-losing park was sold to private owners.
A once-mooted plan to build a streetcar system along the riverbank — perhaps connected with a tourist train that would go from Brandon to the International Peace Garden — never even made it to the planning stages.
Instead, the latest riverbank plans call for flood mitigation, not for recreation. Many soccer players want to move the Optimist Park pitches away from the river, leaving those fields to the perennial flooding.
But is the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan entirely dead? Well, perhaps not.
A PDF copy — scanned in sideways from a photocopy of an original —was included with the city’s recent call for proposals regarding their Greenspace Master Plan.
Public consultations for that plan began earlier this month.
|THE PLACE||THE PLAN (1995)||THE PRODUCT (2014)|
|Curran Park||Water park and other upgrades||✗ Uncompleted, sold to private owners|
|Queen Elizabeth Park||General upgrades, including washroom||✔ Completed|
|Canada Games Sports Park||Sports fields, including parking and access||✔ Mostly completed, eg. Andrews Field|
|Dinsdale Park||Family recreation||✔ Mostly completed|
|Optimist Park||Soccer fields with spectator stands, fieldhouse||— Partially completed, flood-damaged|
|Participaction Park||Arboretu mand Gardens||✗ Uncompleted, now Pooch Park and original Waterfall of Lights and skating oval location; flood-damaged|
|Eleanor Kidd Park||Conservatory, Tea House and Terrace||— Partially completed, flood-damaged|
|Conservation Centre||Ducks Unlimited offices, aquarium, gift shop||✔ Scaled down, completed|
|Parker Boulevard||Assniboine Landing Waterfront||✗ Uncompleted|
|Undetermined||Regional Visitor Reception Centre||
✔ Scaled down, combined with Conservaton Centre
|Queen Elizabeth/Curran Park||Pedestrian bridge||✗ Uncompleted|
|Conservation Centre||Pedestrian bridge to Assiniboine Landing||✔ Completed|
|Third Street dam||Pedestrian bridge||✗ Uncompleted|
|17th Street East||Pedestrian bridge at CPR crossing||✗ Uncompleted|
|Throughout||Paths and pedestrian parkways||✔ Partially completed|
|Throughout||Docks and riverside access||✗ Uncompleted|
|Throughout||Water taxi||✗ Uncompleted|
|Throughout||Snowmobile routes||✔ Partially completed|
|Throughout||Skating trails and rinks||✔ Relocated, completed|
|Throughout||River Parkway for vehicles||✗ Regressed|