‘A different purpose’: Experts imagine future uses for downtown Winnipeg Bay

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The announcement of the coming closure of the Bay in downtown Winnipeg came as a shock to some, but it wasn’t a surprise to others who’ve recently gone for a stroll through the giant, and quiet, retail building.

The questions now are what to do with all that space, and who gets a say? 

The Hudson’s Bay Company announced earlier this month it plans to close the six-storey building, which has operated at the corner of Portage and Memorial for nearly a century, this coming February.

The company cited “shifting consumer behaviour” as one reason for walking away from the historic brick and mortar landmark that opened in November 1926.

“This kind of building clearly … is no longer viable for this magnitude of in-store retail during the age of Amazon, and certainly during the age of a pandemic,” said Hazel Borys, president and chief executive officer of PlaceMakers, a city planning firm that works with cities in Canada and the U.S.

The HBC’s Winnipeg store at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, photographed circa 1939. It was the company’s flagship until it was supplanted by a store in Toronto. (Hudson’s Bay Company Archives/Archives of Manitoba)

Signs of a closure on the horizon built up over the past decade. One of the few downtown grocery stores, located in the building’s basement, closed in 2012. The Bay shuttered its Paddlewheel restaurant on the top floor the following year, to the chagrin of turkey sandwich-lovers. Other floors of the building were also shuttered.

Redesign proposals were floated. Potential buyers emerged, then disappeared.

A real estate appraiser pegged the building’s worth at $0 last year, due to the millions in costs associated with its sale and the more than $100 million in estimated renovations needed to bring it up to code.

Now, with a firm closure date, a variety of experts, including Borys, are sharing visions for what the Bay building could be — none of which appear likely to get off the ground without government support.

Hazel Borys: Mixed use and ‘tactical urbanism’

Downtown city bylaws allow the Bay building broad and generous multi-use zoning designations, leaving a range of redevelopment options, Borys says.

“Basically, anything people could want to do with this building they can do as a matter of right, as far as various uses go,” she said. 

“The answer is what the collective community and one, or several, visionary, fearless developers may come up with.” 

Tax breaks and government involvement would be necessary to make a mixed-use vision for the Bay viable, says city planner Hazel Borys. (Submitted by Hazel Borys)

If she had unlimited resources, Borys said she’d want to see residential housing on the top floor, a combination of commercial uses on the middle levels, and a mix of medium-scale retailers on the ground, including cafés.

In the basement, Borys would like to see more of the “tactical urbanism” of pop-ups and resellers that have temporarily taken over the space from time to time, she said.

Tax breaks and government involvement would be necessary for any of this to be viable, said Borys.

“A city being willing to reduce taxes, or allow some time for taxes to not be due in order to try to spark and incentivize development, is very important,” she said.

“Having those abatements in the near term pays back all citizens of the city and makes it worth it in the long term.”

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