What to do with The Bay

Winnipeg wants to keep the building, but how?
Winnipeg wants to keep the building, but how?

In 1926, the 656,000-square-foot Hudson’s Bay Company store at the corner of Portage and Memorial Boulevard drew 50,000 shoppers to its opening. It was the last word in modern convenience with 12 elevators and its own 600-foot-deep well that provided water to run its toilets and cooling system. It replaced the store that had existed at Main and York since 1881.

The firm of Carter Halls Aldinger built the store, a massive undertaking employing 300 men, 120 teams of horses and 20 trucks. They removed 150,000 tons of earth and drove 52 concrete piles by hand to bedrock to support the store. Construction took place in record time; only 14 months elapsed between the sod turning and the grand opening. The project was long overdue. Eaton’s had already been in place on Portage Avenue for 27 years.

For many years the Hudson’s Bay Company seal on a shopping bag heralded quality. If a gift came from the Bay, it was sure to be special. They stood behind their merchandize and were always willing to offer a refund. Shopping at the Bay was a satisfying experience. You could spend a whole day there, with lunch in the elegant Georgian Room or later a casual bite in the Paddlewheel Restaurant, and not see everything. At Christmas time, the aisles were so thronged with people it was difficult to move.

All that is gone now. Only two floors remain open. The grocery store in the basement is closed. Everyone is waiting to hear what will happen next.

There are lots of suggestions, none of them practical in themselves. While we would love to see a return to mixed retail, the two-decade long failures of retail malls in the downtown have made that unlikely. After all, Portage Place is a shadow of the dreams upon which it was built. And even though it was not well thought through and has many design flaws including an orientation to the north instead of the south, the competing suburban malls had determined its fate even before it was built.

So what now?

There seems to be appetite to keep the store as a building. The Hudson’s Bay is a core part of our town’s history.

There have been several suggestions including a preservation of the facade while an independent building would be constructed inside. If the idea is to preserve history then this solution doesn’t really work.

Another thought is to create a central atrium that would be glassed in at the top to allow the downward flow of natural light. The network of elevators and escalators could be rebuilt to provide access to each floor, which would be dedicated to a network of private business, restaurants, boutique shops, galleries, offices, a movie theatre. The difference between this and just another mall would hopefully be a changed model of business, more reliant on local merchants than chain stores, and one not “anchored” by major retailers.

The trend away from box store shopping to the more personalized service of privately owned enterprise is coming. We see it in the way eating habits are moving toward fresh, locally produced products both from the retail level and in restaurants. Small boutique dress shops have been springing up around town; they are surprisingly busy. Interestingly, Canadian Tire has begun creating a network of smaller stores for location in downtown malls. These stores will carry all the regular merchandize, but in smaller quantities.

Given the hoped-for return of residents to the heart of the city, a mix of this type of enterprise, which could include a grocery store and a liquor and wine store to service local apartment dwellers, is mandatory. Why not locate them at the site of the former department store? With the growth of the student population in the area, unique shopping experiences in the downtown core are critical. There is also a significant seniors population in the area, many of whom don’t have the transportation or the inclination to find their way to suburban malls.

There are other possibilities. The Winnipeg Art Gallery is building an annex to showcase its outstanding collection of Inuit art. The WAG has the largest collection of Inuit art in the world and the new home will provide a chance to show it off. That can add to the interest in other gallery installations that could be located at the Bay.

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