Envisioning the Exchange District as a Neigbourhood

Little Brown Jug founder Kevin Selch kicks off our week of Future Vision essays by laying out the Exchange District's innate potential.

In the first of a series of 5 Future Vision essays commissioned by the Exchange District BIZ, Kevin Selch discusses the Exchange District’s strengths, and what he believes it will take for the area to reach its full potential in the decades ahead. You can read more about the Exchange District Planning Process here.

Even a sprawled-out prairie city is held together by its gravitational centre. The stronger the core, the stronger the city. Through the vagaries of its history, the Exchange District remains the psychic centre in the imagination of Winnipeggers. 

For decades urban cores have been gentrified across western cities and the potential of Winnipeg’s Exchange District waited with curiously empty streets. The future of the Exchange is full streets, active streets. How we arrive at that destination could produce an original, independent, and sustainable neighbourhood at the centre of the city.

The creation of a real neighbourhood in the heart of Winnipeg is already underway. Whereas other city centres gentrified towards uniformity where only banks, drug marts, and fast food, could afford the high rents; Winnipeg entrepreneurs have been gradually transforming the Exchange into something different. Each next step benefits from and contributes to building the city we want to live in. Stakeholders push towards a tipping point: a critical mass of residents that call the Exchange home. And people choose to call the Exchange home because of the advantages it offers to quality of life.

Anyone who hasn’t spent time in the district was already missing out. Fantastic restaurants, two breweries, a distillery, topnotch coffeeshops, new fitness facility, clothing stores, art galleries and more all contained within an area that is the walking distance of a big box store parking lot. Old Market Square hosts festivals all summer long and is a place to skate in winter. Scurry across to the East Exchange to take in a ballgame, see a concert, watch a play, or stroll along the revitalized waterfront.

All of these advantages and it hasn’t reached critical mass – yet. Densification is ongoing, taking the area from under 500 residents in 2008 to almost 3,000 today. A neighbourhood means a constituency with real standing with elected officials. This constituency will exercise power when decisions are being made within its circumscription. Winnipeg is an urban planner’s dream where small important changes make an oversized impact on the wellbeing of its residents. Nowhere is this truer than the Exchange where experimentation and the determined will of its stakeholders will lead the way.

Lead the way to what? Winnipeg’s Exchange District as a celebration of a historic city, a river city, and a winter city.

The historic potential as a National Historic Site of Canada is self-evident. Nary a visitor to our fine city doesn’t gawk at the extant edifices. The project for the next thirty years will be to unapologetically juxtapose this inheritance with modern development of equal value. New development must leave a lasting legacy to future generations, and the next epoch will confidently embrace geography and climate.

A winter city is one where life continues unabated by snow and cold. Imagine a neighbourhood where sidewalks are swept pristine. Where a person in a wheelchair can get around unassisted and barrier free. The cheer of a Christmastime movie set is possible in winter months and not only in July. Businesses, the Exchange District BIZ, and City Hall collaborate to make the area a surreal wintertime gathering place. Active transportation and exercise are possible where bike lanes coexist with cross-country ski paths and connect to groomed skiing and skating trails along the riverbank. Dog amenities and dog-friendly rental policies in the district will quickly augment safety by turning apartment dwellers into a neighbourhood watch as they patrol the same routes several times a day. 

Imagine a neighbourhood where sidewalks are swept pristine. Where a person in a wheelchair can get around unassisted and barrier free.

Activity on the riverways this winter revealed a deep yearning to reconnect with our natural endowment and with each other. The Alexander docks, a now vacant plot of land where Alexander Street meets the Red River, is a major opportunity to anchor the East and West Exchange District. However developed, it must strongly connect the Exchange to the river. Take a canoe or boat up to the Alexander docks in the summertime. Go for a swim in the pool along the shore. Liberalized liquor laws in the area – similar to The Forks – reinforce a joie de vivre in the neighbourhood. Winter or summer, the Alexander docks will curate outdoor activity in the Exchange. 

The success of the Exchange matters because it is a symbol of the city. If the city wishes to reassert itself as an important centre in Canada, it will be through the strong gravitational force of its neutron star, the Exchange District.

There are lessons from the pandemic that apply to any thirty-year vision of the Exchange. For instance, we have learned that the public can adjust quickly to big changes. All improvements don’t require gradual implementation or to wait for a self-determined voting constituency. The city’s obsession with parking has been superseded by events as the relationship between Winnipeggers and its downtown was altered in a flash. 

We can accelerate a vision for the Exchange. There is no need to wait, but we need to do the simple, easy, things now. Anything is possible. What are we waiting for?

Kevin Selch is the founder of Little Brown Jug Brewing Company established in 2016 in the Exchange District of Winnipeg, Manitoba.