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In the Exchange District, a century-old pumping station hopes for an injection of new life

CentreVenture has a plan to inject new life into the 110-year-old James Avenue Pumping Station, one of the most troublesome structures in the downtown development agency's inventory of heritage buildings.

CentreVenture, developer hopes to preserve vintage machinery and create new office, residential & retail space

CentreVenture has a plan to inject new life into the 110-year-old James Avenue Pumping Station, one of the most troublesome structures in the downtown development agency's inventory of heritage buildings. 1:47

CentreVenture has a plan to inject new life into the 110-year-old James Avenue Pumping Station, one of the most troublesome structures in the downtown development agency's inventory of heritage buildings.

CentreVenture is working with a developer to preserve the 1906 pumping station as part of a mixed-use development that would see a pair of new buildings rise to the east and west and offices installed within the rafters within the original barn-like structure.

The plan calls for a four-storey addition to rise on one side and a six-storey addition to be placed at the other, creating enough new commercial, retail and residential space to make the project financially feasible, said Angela Mathieson, CentreVenture's president and chief executive officer.

As part of a redevelopment proposal for the James Avenue Pumping Station, James Avenue will be narrowed south of the heritage structure. (CBC News Graphics)
The massive, machinery within the station, which was manufactured in the U.K. at the dawn of the 20th Century and used to fight fires in Winnipeg for 80 years, would remain in place as part of the proposal, Mathieson said.

The plan calls for the enormous gears, which look like visions from a steampunk novel, to be visible from the rafter-level offices as well as through new windows along James Avenue, which will be narrowed to become more pedestrian-friendly.

​"You'll be able to look down to see the pumps. We won't allow people to walk around, because as you can see, it's a little dangerous to do that," Mathieson said during a tour of the building, the subject of no fewer than 14 previous redevelopment efforts over the past 17 years.

"It would be very hard to work around these pumps and that's been the main issue," she said. "Any redevelopment proposal has to maintain these (heritage) elements, and so it's not very usable."

The latest redevelopment proposal for the James Avenue Pumping Station calls for offices to rise in the rafters above the vintage machinery - and a pair of low-rise sturctures to be built outside. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
The James Avenue Pumping Station was built in 1906 to draw water from the Red River and use it to fight fires in central Winnipeg. The water source was switched to the Winnipeg Aqueduct in 1919.

The station remained in use until 1986 but has sat vacant since it was decommissioned. Following the formation of CentreVenture in 1999, developers have come forward with plans to convert the building into everything from a brewpub to a farmer's market to a skyscraper towering 24 storeys above a "machine garden" that would have preserved the gears.

​​Mathieson said the new proposal will be more in line with the existing developments on the east side of the Exchange District and will fit into the scale of what is increasingly becoming a residential neighbourhood.

She concedes the disposal of the station has been a major headache for her agency, which infamously sold the building in 2001 and bought it back three years later at a loss.

"It is a derelict building. There's no two doubts about it. Getting this developed is really about completing this neighbourhood," Mathieson said.

While Mathieson would not disclose the identity of the developer, her agency's plans are far enough along for city council's property, heritage and downtown-development committee to consider narrowing James Avenue at a meeting scheduled for July 5.

A view inside the 110-year-old James Avenue Pumping Station. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who sits on the property committee and also chairs council's historical buildings committee, said she's pleased to learn a promising proposal is coming forward.

"There was some controversy about the size of the previous proposal," she said, referring to the failed skyscraper plan. "We've had many different proposals come forward. My hope is we could preserve the heritage, one way or another."

Mathieson said if all goes well, redevelopment work could begin this year.

"It really is an engineering marvel," she said. "It has a real industrial quality."
The James Avenue Pumping Station contains massive machinery built in the U.K. at the dawn of the 20th Century. The station was used to fight fires in Winnipeg from 1906 to 1986 - and has sat empty ever since. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
CentreVenture has a plan to inject new life into the 110-year-old James Avenue Pumping Station, one of the most troublesome structures in the downtown development agency's inventory of heritage buildings. 3:16

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.