Rebirth of downtown


In 1911, Chicago journalist William E. Curtis wrote that, “All roads lead to Winnipeg.” He was simply confirming that optimism for the city’s future development was extremely high in the first decades of the 20th century. The downtown was thriving with new buildings erected at a feverous pace. But then came an equally dramatic fall in the downtown’s fortunes. For decades, development slowed to a snail’s pace. Winnipeg went from being one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities and hitting third-place status on the national city population map to barely maintaining a place in the top-10 of Canadian metropolitan centres. 
But that was yesteryear. Over the last eight years, there has been a renaissance in Winnipeg’s downtown, according to Jino Distasio, the director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies (IUS). “It’s a one-in-100 years story,” he told reporters last Monday. And it’s “a good-news story.”
The IUS recently released a report in its In-Brief Series, entitled Downtown Winnipeg: Development and Investments, 2005-2013, by Distasio and Scott McCullough, which states that: “Over the last eight years, Winnipeg’s downtown has ushered in a wave of development not seen in some time. The data and supporting maps clearly point to a robust economy led by private investment with strong government support. More people are moving into the downtown, and the condo market that began with seed money from the Core Area Initiative in the 1980s through to the current Downtown Residential Development Grant, has resulted in just under 1,800 units being built within the last eight years.” 
According to the IUS report, there has been over $2 billion invested in the downtown over the last eight years, and this has resulted in one of the most significant periods of development in the city’s downtown.
In the eight years reviewed, there were 106 significant investments in the downtown and 30 currently proposed projects. “A half-dozen major projects alone account for one billion (dollars) of this total,” according to the report. “Many of these, but not all, have been funded by multiple levels of government. Yet small and mid-sized private projects easily outpace government investment in the downtown. This is most evident in the creation of new housing. We catalogued the development of 1,772 new residential units over the eight years with an additional 646 currently proposed.  This residential development has helped the downtown pull back from the low point of the late 80s and early 90s, where the population bottomed out at 11,000 people. Although we await 2011 Census statistics for the official downtown area, the current population is estimated to be closing in on 16,000 people — a remarkable turn-around. The area of highest population growth is along Waterfront Crescent up into South Point Douglas. This section of the downtown (Census Tract 0024.00) has seen a 52 per cent increase in population between the 2006 and 2011 Censuses.Downtown growth is matching, even exceeding, projections made by the city in 2007, which foresaw population growth by 4,700 to 6,070 persons between 2006 and 2021 (a rate of 1.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent).
The authors listed the top largest projects in the downtown as:
1. Canadian Museum of Human Rights, $351 million.
2. Manitoba Hydro headquarters, $278 million.
3. Winnipeg Police Headquarters, $193.6 million
4. Winnipeg Convention Centre, $180 million
5. Centrepoint/311 Portage Ave., $75 million.
6. U of W: Richardson College for the Environment, $66.6 million.
7. U of W: UNITED Health & RecPlex, $40 million.
8. RRC: Paterson Global Foods (Union Bank Tower), $35 million
9. Sky Waterfront, $30 million; Residences on York $30 million; WRHA, 640 Main St., $30 million.
“The most visible change in the downtown has been the addition of new buildings,” wrote Distasio and McCullough. “Office, commercial, and institutional developments have also seen strong growth with about two-million-square-feet developed being the redevelopment of the Canada Post building into the new Winnipeg Police headquarters. To this can be added another 700,000 square feet of development at the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.”
The authors said the major projects are changing the downtown’s skyline.
There has also been a trend to redevelop older buildings, some of which have been, or are being, converted into apartments and condos. A majority of the 106 projects catalogued are redevelopments of existing buildings. “This development is important to recognize because so much of Winnipeg’s downtown investment goes into existing buildings, and because many of these are Heritage buildings, considered more complicated and costly to renovate.”
In addition, there are 221 new hotel rooms under construction, which include the Alt Hotel on Portage and the Sunstone Boutique Hotel on Waterfront. “But the downtown also lost 571 rooms through conversion of older hotel space into rental units,” reported the authors. “The Sheraton was converted into the Residences on York in 2011, and Place Louis Riel is scheduled to convert in 2014. Although these projects decrease hotel room numbers, each of these add downtown living options. Current speculation has four new downtown hotels proposed. This includes a new hotel for the surface parking lot at 416 Main Street (rumored to be a Westin hotel); a proposed hotel by Lakeview Developments for the surface lot at St. Mary and Edmonton; and a possible hotel for the mixed use development on the lot at 225 Carlton. In addition, the redevelopment of the Carlton Inn is being pursued. These projects should see an overall increase and upgrading in downtown hotel space with an emphasis focusing on the expanding Convention Centre and the new SHED (Sports, Hospitality, and Entertainment District).” 
The authors said there are some critical clusters of development beginning to emerge, including a cluster of development within the growing University of Winnipeg campus. The U of W has invested more than $150 million. “Along with this significant investment, the U of W’s student population is over 11,000. Factor in Red River College and a dozen other smaller schools, and the total number of students downtown totals to over 24,000; a substantial economic force in this emerging area.” The authors noted that students now contribute $50 million to the downtown economy each year.
The question to be answered in the future is whether all these pieces of the puzzle of downtown development coming together can be sustained. For the short term, the success in Winnipeg’s downtown is easily seen by the changing skyline and urban landscape.