What to do with the Bay? Experts share visions for historic downtown Winnipeg space

The closure of the Bay in downtown Winnipeg came as a shock to some, but it wasn't a surprise to others who've recently gone for a stroll through the quiet retail building. The questions now are what to do with all that space, and who gets a say? 

Landmark building to close in February as Hudson's Bay Company cites 'shifting consumer behaviour'

The Bay will close its downtown Winnipeg building, which opened in November of 1926, in the coming months. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The announcement of the coming closure of the Bay in downtown Winnipeg came as a shock to some, but it wasn't a surprise to others who've recently gone for a stroll through the giant, and quiet, retail building.

The questions now are what to do with all that space, and who gets a say? 

The Hudson's Bay Company announced earlier this month it plans to close the six-storey building, which has operated at the corner of Portage and Memorial for nearly a century, this coming February.

The company cited "shifting consumer behaviour" as one reason for walking away from the historic brick and mortar landmark that opened in November 1926.

"This kind of building clearly … is no longer viable for this magnitude of in-store retail during the age of Amazon, and certainly during the age of a pandemic," said Hazel Borys, president and chief executive officer of PlaceMakers, a city planning firm that works with cities in Canada and the U.S.

The HBC's Winnipeg store at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, photographed circa 1939. It was the company's flagship until it was supplanted by a store in Toronto. (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives/Archives of Manitoba)

Signs of a closure on the horizon built up over the past decade. One of the few downtown grocery stores, located in the building's basement, closed in 2012. The Bay shuttered its Paddlewheel restaurant on the top floor the following year, to the chagrin of turkey sandwich-lovers. Other floors of the building were also shuttered.

Redesign proposals were floated. Potential buyers emerged, then disappeared.

A real estate appraiser pegged the building's worth at $0 last year, due to the millions in costs associated with its sale and the more than $100 million in estimated renovations needed to bring it up to code.

Now, with a firm closure date, a variety of experts, including Borys, are sharing visions for what the Bay building could be — none of which appear likely to get off the ground without government support.

Hazel Borys: Mixed use and 'tactical urbanism'

Downtown city bylaws allow the Bay building broad and generous multi-use zoning designations, leaving a range of redevelopment options, Borys says.

"Basically, anything people could want to do with this building they can do as a matter of right, as far as various uses go," she said. 

"The answer is what the collective community and one, or several, visionary, fearless developers may come up with." 

Tax breaks and government involvement would be necessary to make a mixed-use vision for the Bay viable, says city planner Hazel Borys. (Submitted by Hazel Borys)

If she had unlimited resources, Borys said she'd want to see residential housing on the top floor, a combination of commercial uses on the middle levels, and a mix of medium-scale retailers on the ground, including cafés.

In the basement, Borys would like to see more of the "tactical urbanism" of pop-ups and resellers that have temporarily taken over the space from time to time, she said.

Tax breaks and government involvement would be necessary for any of this to be viable, said Borys.

"A city being willing to reduce taxes, or allow some time for taxes to not be due in order to try to spark and incentivize development, is very important," she said.

"Having those abatements in the near term pays back all citizens of the city and makes it worth it in the long term."

Wins Bridgman: Acknowledge colonial history

Wins Bridgman agrees government intervention is key, and letting in more light may also be necessary.

The principal architect at Bridgman Collaborative Architecture has been mulling what to do about the robust concrete building in recent years.

"So what do we do with it? We do not tear it down," he said. "The debate about the Hudson's Bay Company building in Winnipeg is actually a debate about how we understand our city." 

Architect Wins Bridgman says future uses for the building have to deal with the Hudson's Bay Company's colonial history, including the fact 'its money came from slavery … [and] from the poor treatment and genocide of Indigenous people.' (CBC)

The grand building wasn't designed to let light in, which is why several redevelopment proposals over the years have included opening up a section and constructing an atrium to brighten the space. That's one idea, Bridgman said.

Another is to take a multi-project approach, treating it not as a single building, but as several. Bridgman envisions a national design competition with government backing to make it a reality.

The design should incorporate themes of diversity, reconciliation and heritage so Winnipeggers can engage with local history, including the role the Hudson Bay Company had in colonizing Canada, he said.

"It's a wonderful place because it is so firmly entrenched in its name and its history and its geography in Winnipeg as the place that we can understand colonialism," he said.

That understanding, he said, comes both "in terms of, 'We all love the company, we all like the colours, the blankets,'" and "also in a terrifying way, about the way its money came from slavery … [and] from the poor treatment and genocide of Indigenous people."

Niigaan Sinclair: A space for reconciliation

The Bay's history warrants a redesign that doesn't ignore the company's past, said Niigaan Sinclair, an associate professor in the University of Manitoba's Native studies department and a Winnipeg Free Press columnist.

"This egregious history of this company is a blemish on our community," said Sinclair, who recently wrote about the Bay closure. "We have an opportunity to enact a beginning process of thinking about reconciliation in our city, and I think the space downtown is the place."

The building 'needs a space in which non-profit reconciliation — or reconciliation based on people, not on ornamental relationships — can take place,' says U of Manitoba associate professor Niigaan Sinclair. (University of Manitoba)

Sinclair said his vision is a consortium of groups coming together to take over, but he acknowledges it isn't possible without government backing.

He thinks the space should give Indigenous Peoples a means of participating in the local economy, and include a new friendship centre to serve as a major cultural hub downtown.

It could also be repurposed and used by the many organizations working with the Indigenous community, a growing population that's most densely situated in downtown and the surrounding area. 

"[It] needs a space in which non-profit reconciliation — or reconciliation based on people, not on ornamental relationships — can take place," he said. 

"That's what the city needs more than anything else, and I can think of no bigger space of real estate downtown than this huge building, which was built off the exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and can be used for a different purpose."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.