Downtown Bay committee chair looking for a 21st-century vision for 20th-century 'statement piece'

Chair of committee to redevelop Winnipeg's shuttered Hudson's Bay Building believes there is vision and money to reinvent the historic landmark

What to do with the recently shuttered building is Winnipeg's 650,000-square-foot question

Winnipeg Economic Development President and CEO Dayna Spiring says she is starting to get calls about interest in Winnipeg's now closed former Hudson's Bay Co. Building. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

It hits you when you look at the windows — for generations, Christmas displays were a draw at the Hudson's Bay Co.'s onetime flagship store in downtown Winnipeg.

This year, they were never set up.

Like many Manitobans, the CEO of Winnipeg Economic Development has fond memories of The Bay at Christmas. 

"I remember as a kid coming down here with my mom. We would do one Saturday of Christmas shopping," said Dayna Spiring.

"The Christmas floor up there — we would go and spend an hour going through the Christmas decorations."

Now, Spiring has been left to figure out what comes next for the recently shuttered 650,000-square-foot building, widely deemed as historically priceless yet economically worthless.

Christmas displays were a draw at the Bay's downtown Winnipeg store for generations. There were no displays this year, though, after the store suddenly closed in November. (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba)
(Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba)

She's leading a city-appointed advisory committee to figure out not only the best use for it, but perhaps most critically — who will pay for it?

"We know we have to rethink it. We know it has to look different going forward."

While there is nothing concrete yet, she says the phone is ringing — mostly from the private sector.

"It may be some combination of residential, office, retail, restaurants," she said. "I think there will be multiple uses in this building, at the end of the day commerce has to prevail." 

20th-century statement piece

Last month, Hudson's Bay abruptly closed the store, well ahead of a previously announced closing date of February 2021, citing Manitoba's COVID-19 retail restrictions as the final blow.

If COVID-19 killed it, declining interest and the overall shift away from department store retail were certainly the underlying conditions that made the store's demise simply a question of time.

Historically and architecturally, the building is undeniably significant.

Tyndall stone cladding begins to cover over what was then Canada's largest reinforced concrete structure, as the Winnipeg Hudson's Bay building takes shape in 1926. (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba)

"It was an expression of their power. It was a splashy building. It's a splashy building today," said Amelia Faye, curator of the Hudson's Bay Company collection at the Manitoba Museum.

She says the store marked a clear shift for the Hudson's Bay Co., midway through its third century.

"A lot of people think of Hudson's Bay as retail or the fur trade. This marked that transition."

On Nov. 18, 1926, when the building opened, 50,000 people — then-one quarter of Winnipeg's population — passed through the doors, drawn to its offers of high-end fashion, dining and entertainment.

"It wasn't about retail, it was an expression of who we are as a company," by the Bay, Faye said. "It's a statement piece."

WATCH | Footage of opening day at the Bay in 1926:

Clad in local Tyndall stone, at the time it was Canada's largest reinforced concrete building, and helped define the look and shape of downtown.

Its exterior elegance and interior strength still make it unique, said Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy.

"The building is such a beautiful building. It's part of our story."

A costly reno

There have been redevelopment proposals over the years. Manitoba Hydro, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and University of Winnipeg have all looked at the building.

"Everyone who has looked at it realizes it's a $100-million endeavour," said Bellamy.

That's to get the building to code. Age is one problem — size is the other.

WATCH |  What to do with Winnipeg's Hudson's Bay building:

Dilemma of what to do with Winnipeg’s Hudson’s Bay building

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
The Winnipeg building where the Hudson’s Bay Company transitioned from fur trader to iconic retailer now sits empty, having been deemed too expensive to redevelop.

The footprint is so big very little natural light gets into the middle, making residential or retail redevelopment difficult.

Previous proposals have included cutting in atriums, or large holes in the sides.

"They've all considered cutting a hole in the middle, cutting up the floorplates because it's such a deep building," Bellamy said.

"That will likely be part of the solution — redefining the actual shape of the building itself."

Historically priceless, economically worthless

When Hudson's Bay went private earlier this year, a real estate analysis pegged the Winnipeg property's value at $0. 

Even with a $100-million investment, it concluded a repurposed building may only be worth about $10 million. 

In other words, an investor could lose $90 million, minimum.

Privately, some developers say it would be better off demolished. But its heritage status prevents that.

Still, even with those economics, Spiring says she believes the project can, and will, be driven by private investment.

"We are going to look at all the plans before," she said. "We are going to look at what other jurisdictions have done, and in Winnipeg, we'll punch above our weight."

Graffiti on the Winnipeg Bay Building calls out HBC's colonial history. Proponents of redevelopment say reconciliation should influence future uses for the building. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC News)

She is also hearing a desire within the city to include community space, along with an acknowledgement of the both the Hudson's Bay Co.'s past as builder of the country, and its role in colonization. 

Hudson's Bay still owns the building, but it's not clear what role it will play.

"We have to do something that makes financial sense and something that is great for this community. We are going to have to balance all of those factors," said Spiring.

"I think for the right buyer and the right group of people, this is going to be something iconic."

The Winnipeg Hudson's Bay store was abruptly closed before its announced February 2021 shutdown. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)


Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC national news based in Winnipeg. He has spent most of his career in Western Canada while covering stories across the country and abroad for CBC News.