The oldest skyscraper in Western Canada is finally getting a much-needed renovation.
Winnipeg's Union Bank Tower, a national historic site in the city's Exchange District, has stood vacant for more than a decade, but, with the help of city and federal funding the building will finally be brought up to date.
"The Union Bank Tower is one of downtown's historic jewels," says Stefano Grande, executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. "It is a symbolic gateway to the Exchange District at William Avenue and Main Street.
"People are starting to understand the quality of downtown life, with its boutiques, specialty shopping and nightclubs.
|Ashoke Dasgupta, Business Edge|
|The Union Bank Tower's $16 million renovation will help restore Winnipeg's downtown.|
"This has caused a growing North American trend towards living downtown, and led to a greater appreciation of historic buildings over the last 10 to 15 years," Grande adds.
The $16-million renovation, which includes extensive upgrades for restrooms, fire exits and access for the disabled, is scheduled to commence in April and be completed within five years.
"There won't be any condos," says Dudley Thompson, owner of Prairie Architects, which was commissioned for the project by Greentree Properties, the building's owner. "The entire building will be redeveloped as retail and office space, including a new building which may be constructed on the parking lot behind the tower. We'll restore the outside of the building for $1 or $2 million."
Significant funding for the restoration has come from Federal Heritage Grants and from the City Heritage tax credit program, according to Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, who chairs the Historical Buildings Committee.
"The Tower has received about $1 million from Federal Heritage Grants. The City Heritage tax credit program has brought many other buildings back to life, though it's easier to plunk down a new building than to redevelop an old one," Gerbasi adds.
Winnipeg's Exchange District derives its name from the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, the hub of the Canadian grain industry, and the manufacturing, financial, wholesale and other exchanges that Winnipeg developed between 1881 and 1918.
A transport and commercial hub, Winnipeg was one of North America's fastest-growing cities at that time, known as the "Chicago of the North."
Some Chicago architects came to practise in the city, influencing local architects with "the Chicago style," for which the Exchange District is known.
More than 78 per cent, or 117 of the 149 buildings in the 20-block area, feature that turn-of-the-century style.
The Union Bank moved its headquarters from Quebec to Winnipeg in 1912, and its skyscraper helped mark the city as one of the country's banking centres.
Financial problems, however, compelled the company to merge with the Royal Bank in 1925. The Royal Bank remained in the tower until relocating to a new building in 1994.
At a ceremony sponsored by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in October 2000, the Union Bank Tower and the Exchange District were designated national historic sites.
Since then the city has been working to restore the area to its former grandeur as an elite cultural, business and entertainment area.
Today, the area is Winnipeg's cultural and business heart, featuring art galleries, theatres and restaurants.
Its cobblestone streets beguile pedestrians and provide a popular background for the film industry. Parts of the Oscar-nominated movie Capote were shot in the vicinity.
L. Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Association, is pleased about the tower's renovation.
"The building's structure remains good and strong," he says. "Character buildings may be demolished to make way for new edifices if not renovated, which is the last thing we want to see. We hope the owners will be sensitive to the character exuded by the old building, preserving the decorative doors, windows and mouldings."
There has been a reluctance in the city to let landmark buildings die for urban renewal, ever since the vacant Eaton's Building, too big to find enough small tenants to occupy it, was demolished in 2001 to make way for a $125 million sports stadium.
Gerbasi stresses the importance of maintaining the historical feel of the site.
"Though the downtown area has come a long way, a lot more needs to be done and the focus must be retained," Gerbasi notes. "If the building is developed as commercial space, arts and community organizations may occupy it."
Grande says although the tower plans don't include residential condos, there is a need for more downtown housing options for mixed income communities.
"Eighty-five percent of households in the William Avenue area have a household income under $35,000," Grande notes. "If 250 units can be developed on, say, the waterfront, some of them should be more affordable ones to enable the diversification of neighbourhoods such as the Exchange District and inner city.
"Mixed-use buildings with retail, office and residential space make for more active, round-the-clock utility."
(Ashoke Dasgupta can be reached at email@example.com)