Historical Chinatown building faces bleak future

An historical 128-year-old building in Winnipeg's Chinatown district is facing a bleak future.
A Winnipeg city committee will consider a request on Monday from the Chinatown Development Corporation to demolish a 128-year-old building that currently houses the Shanghai restaurant. ((Google Street View))

An historical 128-year-old building in Winnipeg's Chinatown district is facing a bleak future.

On Monday a city committee will consider a request from the Chinatown Development Corporation (CDC) to keep the Shanghai restaurant off the heritage list.

The building, at the corner of King Street and Alexander Avenue on the edge of downtown, is presently home to the Shanghai restaurant and once had a brief tenure as City Hall in the 1880s. 

The restuarant's owners intend to cease operating their business and want to sell the property to the CDC, according to the report going before the city's Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development. 

History of 228 King St.

This is one of the oldest remaining buildings in downtown Winnipeg, built for a variety of retail tenants, it was constructed a year after the first real estate and construction boom of 1881.

When completed in 1883, the main tenant of the block was the City of Winnipeg, which occupied space in the building during the construction of City Hall (1883-1886), including a ground floor council chamber, the mayor’s office and offices of various city departments.

It is also notable as the home of the Shanghai restaurant for the last 60 years.

Source: City of Winnipeg

The CDC wants to turn the property into a gravel parking lot, and eventually develop a seniors’ housing complex.

The building is listed on the historical buildings inventory, but not protected as a heritage site.

The Historical Buildings Committee has evaluated the structure to be a Grade III heritage status and is recommending that it be placed on the buildings conservation list. However, the CDC claims the building is in terrible condition and not economically feasible to renovate into a housing complex.

The city's administration is recommending the property and development committee not place the building on the conservation list "as its long-term economic viability is questionable."

That has angered Cindy Tugwell, executive director at Heritage Winnipeg.

"I say we want to fight for them to re-use the building and prove to us that this building is not feasible," she said.

She is upset the city didn't give her group any notice of the matter, which is buried in the property and development committee agenda as the 31st of 32 items.

"If they feel that our comments and our input are important, then we need the respect that this deserves [and ensure] that these professionals make the proper decisions." 

If the recommendation against adding the building to the heritage list is made, it does not automatically mean it will be demolished. The door to that possibility is opened much wider, but the CDC would still need to apply for that permit — and only after it "has prepared a firm redevelopment proposal and has made a formal application for a building permit," states the report to the property and development committee.

And before any of that happens, the committee's decision would still need to be approved by the higher-ranking Executive Policy Committee.

Reluctant to demolish

Despite the recommendation against giving the building heritage status, the city's administration is reluctant to see it torn down.

The report notes that "allowing surface parking on an interim basis may discourage the timely development of the site due to the significant income that is generated at low cost to the owners. The ongoing existence of a surface parking lot would negatively affect the neighbourhood and the downtown."

Consideration should be given to other options, such as minimal upgrading of the existing building for the interim use of tenants such as a restaurant or some other commercial enterprise, the report states.

"It has been the practice of the [city] to not support the creation of new temporary or permanent non-accessory surface parking lots in downtown Winnipeg. Allowing a temporary surface parking lot would set an undesirable precedent for other sites," the report states.

Although the CDC claims it will eventually build a seniors' complex, the corporation "does not currently have a development plan nor do they have funds in place for seniors’ housing," according to the report.

The Shanghai restuarant has a prominent spot at the corner of King Street and Alexander Avenue. ((Google Maps))