Revitalizing the Core

A rendering of the proposed True North Square.
A rendering of  the proposed True North Square.
Rendering credit: True North Sports & Entertainment.

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How downtown Winnipeg is making a comeback

By Holli Moncrieff

 

It all started with an arena.

Winnipeg lost a lovely-but-empty heritage building, and in return, got its downtown back.

“One of the biggest catalysts for the revitalization of our downtown was the development of the MTS Centre,” says Angela Mathieson, President and CEO of CentreVenture Development Corporation. CentreVenture is the City’s arm’s-length development corporation. “It reintroduced our downtown to people who hadn’t gone there in a number of years. And it allowed the Jets to come back – it was important for our overall psyche.”

The MTS Centre – and the restaurants and bars that followed – remind people of what the City’s downtown has to offer, she adds.
“It’s so helpful to have people’s first impressions of the city be that we’re strong and care about our community,” Mathieson says. “A strong and healthy downtown is key to overall economic prosperity. It’s all part of sending a message that we’re a community that’s worth investing in.”

She’s hoping the MTS Centre is only the beginning of the downtown’s development into a significant Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District.
The proposed True North Square would be a signature office, retail, and housing development. Its focal point would be an open public square that would encourage Winnipeggers to gather and watch events on multi-level HDTV screens.

“We assess and sell land downtown. We’ve been able to leverage over 770 million from the private sector during the last 15 years,” says Mathieson. “We’ve invested in two billion dollars’ worth of projects, including the MTS Centre and the expansion of the colleges.”

Housing has been a key focus of the City’s downtown revitalization plan. Over 2,200 housing units have been created. Five hundred units are under construction, and an additional 400 units are still in the planning stages. Another 300 rental units are about to be released.

“By the time all these units are complete, there will be another 3,500 people living downtown. It’s been pretty dramatic. We have an opportunity to create neighbourhoods,” says Mathieson. “One of the issues in Winnipeg is that our city is fairly new when it comes to buying condos before they are built, so the larger condo projects may have to struggle at first. But on the rental side, the units are being snapped up like crazy.”

Roberta Weiss, President of the Manitoba Real Estate Industry, is excited about the new condo developments on Assiniboine and at the Alt Hotel.

“I hope these projects are successful. If people live downtown, it will make a big difference. There’s a feeling of safety in numbers,” she says. “When I was a kid, the downtown was a hub of activity. There were no feelings of insecurity or anxiety. I realize things have changed, but it would be nice to get back to that.”
Weiss feels that the element of safety is one of the things still missing from Winnipeg’s downtown. As she points out, people may come downtown to see a Jets game or a concert, but they don’t tend to linger.

“Other cities have created great walking spaces in their downtowns. I don’t think we’re there yet,” says Weiss. “Sometimes progress is slow, but I think we are headed in the right direction. It’s much better than it was 10 years ago.”

In 1999, the City of Winnipeg owned dozens of derelict and abandoned buildings downtown. In the past few years, 40 of these buildings have been redeveloped. The City also acquired the St. Regis Hotel and the Carlton Inn.

“Those hotels really dragged down some of the other investments in (the) area. We’re hoping the Carlton Inn will become part of the True North Square redevelopment,” Mathieson says. “We’d like to see more structured parking and less street parking as well. Street parking doesn’t enhance the pedestrian feel of our downtown.”
She acknowledges that public safety is still a concern. The Downtown and Exchange District Biz have expanded their foot-patrol program, while the Winnipeg Police Service has increased their presence through its cadet program.

“I don’t think our work is done. There are still people who don’t come downtown,” says Mathieson. “There are some economic challenges when it comes to investing and building in the downtown, but it’s certainly stepped up these last number of years. We definitely have strong cooperation between government and the private sector.”
Revitalization isn’t just about the new – it’s also about restoring and repairing the old. To that end, Mathieson says CentreVenture is committed to helping existing businesses with renovations and repairs.

“We provide up to $30,000 in matching grants for buildings so they can improve their façades – we think the small stuff is important too. This grant funding is especially important in the Exchange District, where there are a lot (of) heritage building considerations,” says Mathieson. “The Pint Public House on Garry Street was one of the first recipients. It was an older two-storey building that was kind of tired.”

The excitement surrounding events like the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, which attracts a lot of foot traffic to the Exchange District each summer, shows what is possible for the City’s downtown.

“From our perspective, a healthy, vibrant downtown is essential for the well-being of the city. Getting people back into the downtown is good for the entire city,” Weiss says. “But we’re a driving city – we’re reluctant to give up our cars and walk. Maybe that’s because we’ve got so much urban sprawl. Maybe that’s all we know.”