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Grant’s Tomb

with Grant Hamilton

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  • How to make Brandon better, in one by-law

    Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I just finished reading, with interest, the draft version of Brandon's proposed new Urban and Landscape Design Standards Manual.

    Although it's not yet final, it's pretty close to being done. There have been two open houses for public feedback, and just a few revisions are anticipated before it is made official.

    My colleague Jill Austin did a great overview of it in the paper on Wednesday, and if you're a policy wonk like me, you can read the draft PDF on the city's website yourself.

    To my eyes, it's clear that a huge amount of needed work has gone into refreshing this document. It's been slimmed from a behemoth of 130 pages down to a VERY readable 14 pages, which should encourage a lot of people — developers, planners and just plain interested citizens — to actually read the thing.

    That's great.

    Another great move is that the standards included in the manual have largely been moved from "suggestions" that developers have been free to ignore (to the city's detriment) into the category of "mandatory requirements".

    That is also great. Rules that you're free to ignore aren't rules at all.

    But, of course, these newly streamlined and enforceable rules will only apply to new devlopments. And although recent plans for both the southwest corner, southern approach and nothern gateway to the city predict thousands of new residents and hundreds of new developments, those will take decades (or generations) to fully come to fruition.

    And even then, only new builds will be affected by the new standards. Existing buildings — no matter how ugly or non-conforming — get to stay ugly and non-conforming.

    I have an idea to change that. And all it would take is a single move by city council.

    Of course, it's a move that would take a ton of what they call cojones.

    I would add a single line to the plan, or to the by-law that incorporates it. This line would read:

    "All existing properties must also conform to these standards within 10 years or be subject to a surtax that is equal to their annual property tax bill."

    Yes, give existing buildings a decade to upgrade their look and design, and then double their property taxes until they comply.

    Tough? You bet. Fair? I think so.

    Existing developments are notorious for being pedestrian unfriendly and bare-bones when it comes to look and feel. They're not great even from the perspective of motorists, either, and they often don't fit into any of the city's hopes for safe, healthy and attractive environments.

    The new rules aren't onerous, and many existing developments will just need to be prodded to plant a few trees, to pave a few sidewalks, and to freshen up their exteriors a little bit more.

    The new rules don't apply to single-family homes, nor to industrial plants. And, under the new rules, commercial developments that find themselves in impossible-to-comply situations are still able to apply for variations to allow for that.

    If I had my druthers, the surtaxes would go towards other civic beautification — more walkways, bike paths and pocket parks, for example. But the city could also hold them in reserve like the hotel tax, for special projects. Or they could go as prizes to the best-designed developments in town as a carrot to match the stick.

    But, of course, the real hope is that no surtaxes be collected at all, and that every development in town take a look at these 14 pages of very readbale guidelines, and realize that it wouldn't take very much to upgrade themselves at all.

    And we will all benefit from a better designed city.

    0 comments

  • Brandon’s battered bridges

    Friday, Mar. 14, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    Here's the current Brandon bridge tally, by my count:

    • Pedestrian bridge: Closed since 2011
    • Eighth Street bridge: Closed since mid-January, except to pedestrians
    • First Street bridge: Needs immediate reinforcement (and by immediate, I mean they promise by 2015)
    • Daly Overpass: Needs expansion to four lanes, but that's not coming before 2016
    • Thompson Bridge: So new the pavement is still sinking (lol!)

    Not looking too good, is it? Let's take a closer look:

    First Street Bridge

    It was a surprise announcement yesterday that the province will make the First Street bridge its priority after an engineering assessment found that it was in dire shape.

    "When the engineers tell us a project should be a priority, we listen," Premier Greg Selinger said, in annoucing the project. Pre-construction and design work is slated for this year, with construction to begin next year.

    The mayor sounds like she was surprised, and Drew Caldwell (his constituency includes the bridge) said he didn't know how serious the bridge's condition was until Thursday.

    Well, I'm no bridge engineer, but I'm an East End resident, and I walk or ride over and under that bridge regularly. Its condition is no surprise to me.

    There were public concerns about the bridge being raised four years ago. Although the link now goes to a 404-error on the city's website, then-Coun. Errol Black brought it to city council in 2010.

    At that time, city engineer Ted Snure wrote that a provincial inspection of the First Street bridge had found no problems, but he pledged to stress to the province that there was a need for continued maintenance — even cosmetic maintenance. The First Street bridge had been partially repaved in summer 2010 (it was again in 2012), but concerns remained about the condition of the metal guard rails and the concrete sidewalks.

    Those concerns have definitely not been addressed. In the wake of the 2012 Winnipeg bridge tragedy (where a woman's SUV popped through decaying guardrails before plunging to the ice below) I wondered if there would be a province-wide push to assess and upgrade guardrails, but there's been nothing that I've heard of.

    That's too bad — the metal guardrails on the First Street bridge are frightening in their state of rot. There are places I can put my fist right through. Crumbling cement at their base doesn't exactly spark confidence in my security as a pedestrian, either. And that's not to mention that the "sidewalk" is merely a strip of gravelly cement that runs inches away from high-speed traffic.

    About that traffic — the speed limit is 50 km/h, but you won't find anyone going that slow.

    In 2012, when the province was microsurfacing the top of the bridge to provide a smoother driving surface again, residents again raised concerns.

    At that time, Ruth Eden, a director of structures, design and construction with Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, stressed that there were no safety concerns, but she admitted the bridge is in need of work.

    At that time, she said the bridge was already in the province's five-year plan, so getting it now in 2015 is only — at maximum — a couple of years early.

    Eden said in 2012 that the plan then was to re-do the deck completely, to replace the railings entirely, and to get underneath at the girders as well.

    "(We’ll be) looking at the girders … what we need to do to them and any of the concrete under the bridge too, so we go in and re-do the bridge to get another 40 years out of it," she told the Sun more than 18 months ago.

    Sounds like exactly what they're proposing to do in 2015.

    So — what's changed in the last year and a half to turn it from "it's in our five-year plan" to make it sound like an emergency? That's a question the province needs to answer.

    By the way, when they re-do the bridge, they should pay particular attention to improvements for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a ton of residential on the south side of the bridge, and it connects well with both southwest-side sidewalk to downtown and to the city's trail network on the northeast side, where Errol Black Park is. But on the north side of the bridge, where the trail network continues, and where there is substantial recreational space, there is no connection at all.

    On the north side of the bridge, cyclists and pedestrians are suddenly dumped onto the shoulder of what's essentially a highway, with zero facilities to make use of, and no way to get where they are going. It's not just annoying, it's dangerous.

    Daly Overpass

    (above: that is my all-time favourite Daly Overpass photo)

    Once the province has gotten First Street all fixed up (hope it doesn't flood!) they'll be able to focus on the Daly Overpass.

    That overpass, which I'm fond of describing in web updates for the Sun as a "notorious bottleneck," has needed four lanes instead of three probably since it was first built, some 50 years ago.

    But I think we can lay blame for the traffic troubles squarely at the feet of city planners and councillors who allowed massive retail development in a pristine green space that is also a flood plain (cough, Corral Centre, cough) without any forethought about the infrastructure needed to service it.

    The developer deserves some opprobrium as well; let's not forget about the fact that there are two commerical shopping centres side by side (Corral Centre and The Paddock) which are not interconnected. A separate turning lane had to be constructed, post-hoc, to accommodate them, and the traffic is horrendous.

    I won't spend too much time on the fact that pedestrians at the popular Riverbank Discovery Centre have to cross the intersection three (THREE!!) times if they want to cross from the walking trails to the Starbucks, and that there are barely haphazard facilities for non-motorists in the parking lot itself.

    So, it's pretty clear to everyone that the Daly Overpass needs a fourth lane.

    But it, too, needs more than driving space. Although there is moderately more pedestrian protection on the Daly Overpass than there is on the First Street bridge, it's certainly not suitable for cyclists, and it's not exactly accessible for pedestrians, either (the Pacific Avenue crossing is annoying, for one).

    I have a pie-in-the-sky dream that a Daly Overpass expansion could be coupled with a pedestrian walkway that is bolted to the old warehouse at 18th Street and Pacific Avenue.

    Although that old building (used to house a duck processing plant) is currently used for furniture storage, it has great potential. I was lucky enough to have a tour a few years ago, and it's in pretty good shape inside. To my eye, the building could be converted into a Forks-style mini-market, with main-floor access from Pacific Avenue and second-floor access from a walkway that's about the height of the overpass.

    Meanwhile, the province pledges that it's on the five-year plan, which only means that they're promising to start it before 2020. We shall see.

    Thompson Bridge

    The almost-brand-new two-span bridge across the Assiniboine River on 18th Street is, for pedestrians and cyclists, pretty great. There are even great walk/bike facilities on the west side of the bridge, despite there being no access to it.

    It, too, had to be rushed to completion after the ill-planned Corral Centre was built. And, despite delays and overbudget issues, it's lucky it was done before the 2011 flood.

    And yet, years later, we're still dealing with sinking pavement in the bridge approaches. They were shored up in 2012, but you'll note that there are still big bumps before and after the bridge — big enough on one side to require warning signage.

    So yes, it's nearly brand-new — but I'm starting to worry parts of it are a wee bit lemony.

    Eighth Street bridge

    Two months. It's been closed for two months, since mid-January, when a truck took out a lateral support beam.

    At the end of January, the city said that repair work could start "next week" — but there's been zero visible progress since then.

    Now, we're not quite at Brown-Block levels of delay, but it's starting to be more than a brief inconvenience. Bus routes have been rerouted, and residents of the flast have been forced to trudge over the bridge — during the coldest winter in decades — instead of being able to drive.

    Fixing up the bridge is, of course, temporary at best. It has needed a rebuild for years. In fact, at one time, it was slated to have been completely replaced "by 2013."

    There was a flurry of planning, with several options presented to the city, but it's fallen off the radar recently. There have been suggestions that it would be best just to turn it into a pedestrian bridge. I guess the last two months have been a trial of that idea.

    Personally, I think that's better than some of the proposals that would have seen it turned into more of a thoroughfare through downtown, with a realignment of the bridge to line up with Ninth Street or with Fifth Street. Either of those options, in my opinion, would just lead to more vehicles going through downtown — not stopping — in efforts to bypass First Street or 18th Street. More congestion, with no benefit to downtown businesses at all.

    Once again, though, whatever happens with it, the pedestrian and cyclist situation over that bridge is currently abysmal, and that portion of it needs a rethink as well as an upgrade.

    Pedestrian bridge

    Oh yes, the forgotten way to cross the river.

    Once one of the most popular recreational options in the city, the pedestrian bridge on the Red Willow Trail has technically been closed ever since the flood of 2011. There's no one stopping you from making your way down the trail, of course, but it's still mucky and overgrown, with hastily-built dikes meaning you have to scramble up or down a steep clay-and-gravel slope to access the south end. It's easier to get to the north end of the bridge, but there is still a sign that warns that path is closed.

    Three summers it's been closed, which shows you the priority that this once-jewel-in-our-crown currently has in Brandon. I'd be curious to know what kind out outrage there would be if any non-pedestrian bridge had been closed this long.

    Or if a pedestrian bridge had been closed in any other community for this long.

    With progress finally being made over the winter in clearing brush from the affected riverside parks, I'm hoping that the paths will be tackled this summer.

    Of course, if you look back at the Assiniboine River Corridor Master Plan from the '90s, we were supposed to have three more pedestrian bridges by now, so holding my breath, I ain't.

    --------

    Whew. That was a lot about the bridges. I can't believe that there is something wrong with ALL FIVE of the bridges in Brandon!

    It might be a tad nit-picky, some of it (sinking approaches are hardly the end of the world), but it highlights the concrete (sorry) effects of the infrastructure deficit that Brandon finds itself saddled with.

    For various political reasons, it's always easy to find money for new roads, and new bridges. It tends to be tougher to come up with the cash for preventative maintenance.

    (As an aside, if I let my lawn get overgrown, the city'll mow it for me, and then make me pay them back. Why don't they try that with the province? Just do the Daly Overpass work ourselves and send Broadway the bill.)

    At any rate, it sounds like we will have an expensive few years ahead of us, rebuilding all our bridges.

    My wallet looks forward to it.

    0 comments

  • Free train trips for writers

    Monday, Mar. 10, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Ever since my sister moved to Saskatoon, I've been promising that I would come out and visit her.

    Now that she's bought a house — with all of the attendant trauma about renovations — her requests have become pleas.

    I've been thinking for a while, though, that I'd like to take the train out there.

    I love the train. When I, for a while, lived in northern BC, I often took the train from the Brandon North station to Edmonton, where I could switch to the Greyhound and take the bus the rest of the way. It was a long trip — and the bus/train combo was slower than driving — but it was a heck of a lot more pleasant to put my feet up and coast along courtesy Via than it was to pilot myself.

    When my girlfriend and I took a trip to Montreal and New York a few years ago, we flew to Montreal, and then too Amtrak down to NYC. It was great, despite some snow delays. We also took Amtrak home from NYC — it took us halfway across the country, dropping us off at Rugby, N.D., where my dad picked us up.

    While that trip was a little crowded and less enjoyable, thanks to a winter train cancellation the day before and a woman in the seat in front of us who was very loudly leaving her boyfriend over the phone, it was still an adventure.

    Over in Europe, we fell in love with long-distance, high-speed rail travel.

    So, I've been following the saga of the Amtrak residency with interest.

    If you haven't heard of it, it happened with stunning speed — one writer mentioned that he loved writing on the train, and wished trains had a "residency" program so he could just sit on the train and write all day.

    Another writer picked up his thought and tweeted the question directly at Amtrak:

    Amtrak's response: Awesome, come on board.

    They comped her a trip and a room, and all she had to do was … well, whatever she felt like. She ended up writing an article about the experience and doing an interview with Amtrak's official blog.

    Not only was it a publicity coup for Amtrak, tons of other writers wanted in on it, too.

    So now Amtrak has an official Writers-in-Residence program:

    #AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.

    Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.

    Sounds like a great deal for an aspiring writer — or heck, even an established one.

    Not everyone is keen, esepcially those who keep their eyes open for possible conflicts of interest. It's especially dicey for journalists, who need to keep their impartiality.

    But in an era where anyone can become a publisher just by starting a blog — but where advertising dollars are getting smaller and smaller — things like freebies and giveaways are more tempting for word scribes.

    And why not? Movies and TV shows have been fattening their budgets with product placement for decades. I'm not aware of it filtering down into the same type of writing (could you imagine product placement in a novel?) but it seems a natural fit for some of the quasi-journalistic non-fiction writing, which are basically essays.

    Consumer Reports may have made its reputation on exhasutive testing and reviewing — which start by purchasing a product off-the-shelf — but there is a long history of reviewers being comped the product that they are reviewing. Many TV and movie reviewers get advance screenings, which they don't pay for. Technology reviewers will have devices shipped to them. Video games reviewers are notorious for accepting freebies.

    Many big-name publications posit that their reviewers must not keep whatever is sent their way, and they have to be returned when they're done, but I can say that's not always the case. Although we get a lot fewer than we used to here in little old Brandon, my boss used to give away a regular Box of Schewag" full of promotional items and review copies of CDs and books that were shipped our way. Publishers just weren't interested in an opened copy of some musical flavour-of-the-month — especially if it had been specially marked to prevent resale.

    So why not a train trip?

    Englishman Mark Smith has built a bit of a niche empire in the past decade as the Man in Seat 61. he runs a rail-focused website at seat61.com that is incomparable as a comprehensive guide to travelling by rail.

    He is relentlessly positive, somehow manages to have exhaustive information no matter what corner of the globe you're looking at, and now makes his living from the website and spinoffs like books and T-shirts.

    I have relied on his site several times — and tried to pay his advice back with a traveller's report of my own after the smallest of snafus in Egypt — but I look at his extensive network of travelling, and I can't calculate how much it would have all cost.

    Now, he's a pro, and he has excellent money-saving tips, and I have no information one way or the other about how he pays for his rail journeys — but would I mind if I learned that he had had some trips comped?

    Not in the slightest. For his purposes, I'm not sure how that would be any different than an air traveller collecting frequent flier miles and availing themselves of a free trip every now and again.

    Frankly, rail companies should be leaping over themselves to offer him free trips.

    That's essentially what Amtrak did — but they did it on Twitter, for someone who hadn't spent a decade building up a railway-focused website. That's cool In fact, great work Amtrak for taking an idea and turning it into a promotional opportunity so quickly. That residency program is probably going to pay dividends for years.

    Of course, Canada's national passenger rail service is no slouch on Twitter, either.

     Via's musician program is actually pretty cool:

    VIA Rail's Artists on board Program offers complimentary or reduced fare travel for approved professional musicians in return for performing on board the Montréal-Halifax and/or Toronto-Vancouver trains. The program is available to solo performers or duets and is open to Canadian citizens only. Assessment is based on relevance to our product and passengers. All requests must be made at least four (4) weeks prior to the requested departure date.

    However, it is a little limited. No Prairie performers? Nothing through the Rockies or B.C.?

    I see from a recent reply that Via is now looking at expanding their musician program to include writers. I've asked them about geographic expansion. Hopefully they say yes.

    Because I still haven't gotten out to see my sister ;)

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