Transformation of historic downtown Winnipeg Bay building will be long road, experts say

The $130-million redevelopment of a former Hudson's Bay Co. building has the potential to transform the lives of hundreds of First Nations people and reshape Winnipeg's downtown, but it faces many potential hurdles along the way.

Southern Chiefs' Organization plans mixed-use development for 96-year-old building after transfer from HBC

The Hudson's Bay building now displays Southern Chiefs' Organization branding. Ownership of the building was officially transferred on Friday to the organization, which plans a development that will include affordable housing, business space and two restaurants. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Demolition crews could begin work in the next two months to prepare the downtown Winnipeg Bay building for a years-long transformation into one of the most significant developments the city has seen in decades. 

Before it can become a hub of housing, business and governance for southern Manitoba First Nations, however, the nearly century-old building needs a lot of work.

During a gifting ceremony Friday, the Hudson's Bay Co. handed ownership of the historic Portage Avenue building to the Southern Chiefs' Organization. Many speakers there became emotional as they talked about what the project could mean for First Nations people in Winnipeg, and for the city as a whole. 

"I truly got shivers as I had begun to realize that this is so much bigger than any of us will ever understand," said Sophia Smoke, 14, from Dakota Plains First Nation, describing her experience participating in a pipe and water ceremony to bless the $130-million project.

"We will only understand when it is written in the history books. My grandchildren will understand and feel the impact of this sooner than I will."

Sophia Smoke, 14, of Dakota Plains First Nation, spoke at the ceremonial gifting event on Friday, in which the Hudson's Bay Company handed ownership of its flagship downtown Winnipeg building to the Southern Chiefs' Organization. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, speaking to reporters after the ceremony, acknowledged the work the building will need.

"I think we have to change some of the interior.… The middle of the building is where I think a lot of the attention will be focused," he said.

The plan for the building includes the creation of an atrium with a view of the sky.  A 2019 appraisal noted that the 655,000-square-foot building, which was constructed in 1926, lets in very little natural light. 

The plan also includes nearly 300 units of affordable housing, as well as space for businesses, including two restaurants, and a new seat for the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota nations in southern Manitoba and more than 81,000 people.

The plans for the redevelopment of the Hudson's Bay Co. building in downtown Winnipeg include an atrium with a view of the sky. (Submitted by Southern Chiefs' Organization)

Daniels expects the project to be completed within three years.

As with any major construction project, however, timelines can shift depending on unforeseen circumstances, and the redevelopment of the Bay faces some unusual challenges due to its designation as a heritage building.

"Anybody who's fixed up an old house in Winnipeg knows that once you start tearing out electrics and plumbing and things like that, you don't really know what's behind those walls," said Christian Cassidy, a local historian who has written extensively about Winnipeg's architectural history.

The 2019 appraisal estimated it would cost $111 million to bring the building up to code while retaining its heritage elements, and pegged its market value at $0.

The building's heritage status means renovations need to be "sympathetic" to parts of its original design, said Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell.

That includes its Tyndall limestone facade, main floor display windows, curved elevators and reinforced concrete structural system.

Tugwell said she's excited to see how the building gets modernized while maintaining those heritage elements.

Most of all, she's happy to see the iconic building being put to good use, she told Up to Speed guest host Emily Brass during a Friday interview.

"I think it's key to [the] protection of any building. You can designate it [as historic], but if it's not fully occupied in a vibrant part of the community, you're not going to ultimately protect that building for long," Tugwell said.

"Change is inevitable. And if it's thought out with all stakeholders, I think it's only positive and it's only going to be great for this city and this province."

Developments stalled

Cassidy noted that Winnipeg has seen numerous projects announced that failed to materialize, including one example directly connected to the Bay building via the downtown skywalk.

The redevelopment of the Portage Place mall stalled after Starlight Investments walked away from a plan to build a $400-million mixed use housing and retail project.

Looking east of the Bay, the Graham Avenue property that was to become the SkyCity condo tower remains a parking lot, after that $200-million development fell through.

Still, the enthusiasm of the parties involved, along with the financial support from government, gives Cassidy hope for the Bay's redevelopment.

The Manitoba government has pledged $35 million to help, with a $25-million trust fund announced last year, plus an additional $10 million for the housing component.

Another $65 million is coming from the federal government, through a $55-million forgivable loan and a $10-million low-cost loan.

The Bay building at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard is shown in an October 2020 photo. While other downtown development projects have stalled, the level of enthusiasm and financial support for the Bay's redevelopment give Winnipeg historian Christian Cassidy hope. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg has been asked to improve streetscaping and contribute tax increment financing, which would involve forgoing future property tax revenue emanating from the site, Mayor Brian Bowman said Friday.

"It seems like they have some funding behind them, and they're enthusiastic and they have a great vision," said Cassidy. "Those are … some of the things you need to to get a project like this started."

The project could have a major impact on Winnipeg's downtown as it begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, says Jino Distasio, a University of Winnipeg geography professor and a past director of its Institute of Urban Studies.

"Maybe this post-pandemic downtown is going to be much more engaging," he told Marcy Markusa in a Friday interview with CBC's Information Radio.

"It's going to take a few years, but I think we're going to see a shift in momentum."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Laurie Hoogstraten