The state of Winnipeg’s Exchange District

Winnipeg’s historical district still shows potential

The feeling you get from the architecture is what makes the Exchange District a gem, says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg. Dylan Hewlett

Over 1,000 new residences have been created in the Exchange District over the past three years and in 2013, Red River College will open its new building, including a residency, bringing more people into Winnipeg’s historical district.

The 20-block area filled with small shops, restaurants, art studios and businesses is expanding into a desirable living space for one of the first times in over 100 years.

Meeting neighbours

John Giavedoni, executive director of Residents of the Exchange District (RED), created RED as a way to bring the community together.

“It’s important for people to come out, chat and get to know their neighbours,” he said.

Through RED, Giavedoni runs informative events and social mixers. In early May he brought in CentreVenture to speak about community economic development and Peg City Car Co-op car sharing.

“People rarely need to use a car in the Exchange, but having one available to go get groceries, or visit a friend across the city, would work really well,” he said.

He said that recently he’s had residents approach him to let him know that through RED, and through the spirit of the community, they’ve met more of their neighbours than they did in the suburbs.

“Many people, despite the suburban ‘neighbourhood,’ just park their cars and go into their fortresses,” said Giavedoni, who spent most of his life in Charleswood and Fort Richmond before moving to the Exchange. “People in the Exchange walk a lot more - to go to work, to get a bite, to go to a show - and they bump into their neighbours all the time.”

The concern for safety

“Safety is not a primary concern with people who live in the Exchange District,” said Giavedoni.

He said that the people who actually live in the Exchange feel safe, and people who don’t live there have a perception of what they call “downtown issues.”

“They might hear about a car broken into, or see some vandalism, maybe see a homeless person on the street, and that’s just part of downtown, but those things can happen anywhere,” he said.

However, the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) does take safety concerns seriously. The BIZ now has four full-time patrols monitoring the area, and in 2012 extended the patrol hours to midnight five times a week.

“You’re always going to have people who are concerned about an area,” said Stephanie Scherbain, marketing and communications co-ordinator for the Exchange District BIZ. “We have a presence on the street, and we’ve had a very positive response from businesses.”

But still, the people who are there most often are not worried.

“Being a young woman I’m extra conscious of my surroundings if I’m down there really late at night, but I feel like it’s pretty far down the list of sketchy areas in the city,” said Olivia Maxfield, who has had a studio in the Exchange for two-and-a-half years.

“I know some people are wary of the homeless people that hang outside of Mondragon wanting to grab a few bucks, but I’ve never had any negative encounters with any of those dudes. I’ve just made a couple friends.”

Live, work, and play

Along with the influx of new residents comes a change in how the area operates.

Many of the converted residences are now mixed-use buildings, with storefronts, offices and now residences.

“It’s turning into what I call a live-work neighbourhood,” said Nan Campbell, retail team lead at Aveda Institute’s newly opened Rorie Street location. “It’s a neighbourhood where people live and work.”

With the changing environment, businesses will need to adapt.

“At 5 p.m. you don’t want people going home,” said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg. “It’s supply and demand. As more and more people want to live in the Exchange, more and more amenities will be needed.”

One thing some residents feel is lacking is a place to buy fresh produce.

“I feel like the Exchange is really lacking basic conveniences like a grocery store. Anyone who lives down there probably has a bit of a trek to grab a loaf of bread,” said Maxfield.

But Giavedoni said that can’t happen until things stabilize.

“I wouldn’t want to see a grocery store open in the Exchange only to find that there wasn’t enough residents. I don’t think it’s far off, though,” he said.

If we follow the template of how the Exchange was over 100 years ago, it would be successful today - we don’t need to re-invent anything.

Cindy Tugwell, executive director, Heritage Winnipeg

Another concern for businesses is the high turnover rate of small retail stores.

“There are still some struggles with turnover. For every successful business there’s one that fails,” said Lindsey Wiebe, social media reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, who works out of the WFP News Café on McDermot Avenue.

She said that in the one year since the News Café opened, the shop next door has changed hands three times.

“I think we need to find out what it is that causes these types of businesses to fail,” she said.

Stephen Hua, who lives in the Exchange, and operates two of the area’s nightclubs, and the recently opened Deer + Almond restaurant, said the solution might be mixing in a bit of corporate influence.

“A big corporation like that has its uses,” he said. “If I’m a retailer, if I’m a restaurant, if I have a Starbucks pop up across the street from me, it will bring traffic.”

Hua said it has to be a balance between local business and big corporation.

“We’re missing that corporation,” he said.

While urban sprawl can be blamed for the lack of residential and commercial density in the Exchange, it is also one of the reasons the area has been preserved.

“Walking through the Exchange, it’s going back in time to streetscapes that haven’t changed in 100 years,” said Tugwell.

After the First World War, the focus of building moved to Portage Avenue, leaving the buildings within the Exchange untouched.

“The feeling you get from the architecture is what makes it such a gem,” said Tugwell, who believes future development in the area should take its lead from existing stores, galleries, studios and apartments in the area.

“If we follow the template of how the Exchange was over 100 years ago, it would be successful today - we don’t need to re-invent anything,” she said.

Published in Volume 66, Number 27 of The Uniter (May 30, 2012)

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