A nice day to start again

What’s to be done with the downtown HBC building?

Dylan Hewlett

The University of Winnipeg has some important decisions to make in the wake of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s recent offer to hand over its historical downtown location to the institution.

The massive building, situated at the corner of Memorial Boulevard and Portage Avenue, features six floors, totalling a staggering 90,000 square feet, as well as a multi-level parking garage.

Once one of the city’s most popular retail hubs, the Bay’s downtown location has seen a significant decline in business over recent years, and now is largely used by public transit users looking to take a shortcut and warm up during colder months.

The Bay’s upcoming withdrawal from the site will come as little surprise to most Winnipeggers.

While the offer of a large, character-filled and historically significant structure located immediately adjacent to the University’s rapidly expanding downtown campus might appear to represent a no-brainer for the U of W’s higher-ups, accepting such a gift would come with some major challenges.

The HBC building was, of course, designed to function as a large department store; its dimensions - very long, very wide and relatively short - correspond perfectly to this purpose, but to virtually no other.

Currently, natural light from the building’s windows fills each roomless, undivided, department store floor adequately.

If, however, the university or any other developer were to make use of one or more floors in the building, an unhappy choice would have to be made between the presence of lots of unappealing, windowless rooms (I’m looking at you, Buhler Centre) and a case of significant spatial inefficiency.

There’s a reason why condominium, apartment, office and retail developers - the likes of which would most likely be offered their own slices of the HBC building if the university were to accept - do not normally consider structures of this ilk for development.

So, would taking on these challenges in order to obtain the Hudson’s Bay Company building be worth it for the University of Winnipeg? If handled creatively, quite possibly yes

On top of spatial inefficiency issues, the aging building will likely pose expensive retrofitting costs to potential developers seeking to modernize its interior.

So, would taking on these challenges in order to obtain the HBC building be worth it for the University of Winnipeg? If handled creatively, quite possibly yes.

There’s no way that the university will consider becoming the sole occupant of the gigantic building. A combination of university, residential, office and retail usage could, however, result in the kind of high-traffic, densely populated structure that Winnipeg’s downtown so sorely lacks.

With this combined-function model in place, the aforementioned dimensional problems facing developers could be tackled.

Why not remove the centre of each floor, opting instead for a multi-level indoor atrium (complete with skylights, of course) that could be put to any number of creative, community-oriented uses?

Highly expensive? Absolutely, but if enough government funding is secured it might just be possible.

Why pass up an opportunity to make a great university even better, while at the same time adding significant momentum to the improvement of an increasingly optimistic downtown?

The timing is perfect. Hopefully the University of Winnipeg is willing to take the risk.

Carson Hammond is a second-year English student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 66, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 25, 2012)

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