Are we ready to give the Hudson’s Bay building its second lifeline downtown?

Stefano Grande

Revitalization of the Hudson’s Bay building? That’s a tough nut to crack. It’s big; it’s old and obsolete, and built in an era in which retail was the downtown. Retail in Winnipeg is now scattered throughout the city, in big box stores and large shopping centres, and in places to which residential growth has been redirected – in the suburbs.

Today, downtown retail primarily serves office workers and local residents. Large spaces like Hudson’s Bay cannot function the way they did in the mid-1900s, and as a result its 800,000-square-foot space has been scaled down.

Hudson’s Bay, the company, continues to work on reinventing itself to remain current for today’s savvy shopper, and the management team at the downtown location has put a lot of effort into utilizing the space in different ways, inviting the public in as a win-win for the community and Hudson’s Bay. We need to continue supporting this iconic retailer in its current location.

Many people look to the Hudson’s Bay building as Winnipeg’s historic gem. It needs to be preserved for many good reasons. Without an archive of our history, our city would be soulless. Imagine our city without the downtown and the Exchange District and its repertoire of heritage buildings.

So what can we do? What can be done to give this incredible and beautiful historic building a second lifeline?

If the Hudson’s Bay building should be demolished, I am quite certain that a surface parking lot would generate a ton of cash for its owners. It would be filled during the day, but it would be a large wasteland in the evening. Perhaps if this happened decades from now, the Hudson’s Bay building could be transformed into a series of ramps to park five floors of free parking. That’s certain to bring more people downtown – to do something.

Realistically, the only solution is to redevelop it, but this is a formidable task. The Hudson’s Bay building would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate into office, residential or smaller commercial spaces. Number crunchers will tell you that not many businesses would be willing to pay $50 per square foot, when across the street, spaces are half the cost. It’s also unlikely that Winnipeggers would shell out $600,000 for a 900-square-foot condo with no parking when a more affordable unit could be found in Tuxedo or Waterfront Drive, even though they may find personal value in being part of an ongoing legacy of this unique building. The numbers just don’t work.

A property tax freeze over a long period of time could generate $40 to $50 million in incentives for developers, but it may not be enough to make the redevelopment financially viable. The idling that has happened for over a decade now continues forward.

This is a task for our development community, to play a role and to invest. If they patiently wait, they will reap the benefits in several decades. Government can play a role in providing special tax breaks on all construction materials and services purchased for this task. Manitoba Hydro can provide its loans to retrofit the building to Power Smart standards. Freezing property taxes and/or blending tax incentives with traditional financing could help lower the carrying costs of the project for the developer.

All these actions could lead to stronger real estate values around the Hudson’s Bay building, creating lifts in the surrounding tax base. We have seen what the MTS Centre has done for the surrounding buildings and developments and I believe an effort here could offer the same benefits for our downtown.

We must proceed with caution. If incentives are provided, then the Hudson’s Bay building needs to become part of a broader vision for the community. The Hudson’s Bay building will need to appeal to and support the residents and business owners who have invested millions into the neighbourhood, while being attractive to the students and visitors who frequent our downtown.

Let’s revitalize the Hudson’s Bay building based on the vision our community has of its community. Let developers show everyone how they can play a role in the revitalization. This is the only solution unless knocking the building down is what Winnipeg truly wants.

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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