Impact of the historic site not fully realized until recent return of the NHL to the site

In 1902, 3,000 jubilant supporters packed into the Main Street Auditorium to watch the Winnipeg Victorias come from behind to beat the Toronto Wellingtons 5-3, clinching their third and final Stanley Cup championship.

Two years later, that flourishing young metropolis would further cement its reputation as one of Canada's big league cities as the dramatic Eaton's Building began to rise along Portage Avenue. The tenth largest department store in the world, it was estimated in 1960 that 50 cents out of every shopping dollar spent in Winnipeg happened at "the big store." With a floor area nearly double that of the 30-storey Richardson Building, its scale and presence made her a Portage Avenue icon and one of Canada's most significant buildings of the early 20th century.

When Eaton's fell into bankruptcy in the late 1990s, the store closed and public debate raged over the future of a building that was cherished by generations of Winnipeggers. In 2002, with public opposition, the decision was made to demolish the structure and replace it with a new 15,000-seat arena, then called the True North Centre.


The significance of that decision would not be fully understood until last Tuesday when the city watched an emotional Mark Chipman proudly announce the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg.

 The fortuitous selection of the Eaton's site for the new arena would lead David Thomson, Canada's wealthiest man, to become part of the True North team. In 2001, Thomson's real estate company, Osmington Inc., which owned the empty Eaton's building, would partner with True North in the development of the property. This planted the seeds of a relationship with the Chipman family that would blossom into the collaboration that would eventually bring NHL hockey back to Winnipeg. Had the arena been built anywhere else in the city, Thomson's wealth, reputation and influence would probably not have been part of the story and the return of the NHL would likely still be a dream.

Through that bit of good fortune, the legacy of the Eaton's Building is today presenting us with a renewed opportunity to transform our downtown and fully realize the potential of the MTS Centre as a catalyst for urban renewal. Longboat, the Chipman family's real estate company, will soon begin construction on the first spin-off development of the NHL's return, redefining the block across Portage Avenue with a mixed-use project that will likely include a mid-rise "cheap-chic" boutique hotel, office and retail space, an exhibition hall and indoor parking.

In an effort to establish momentum from this development, Centre Venture is lobbying government to designate an 11-block area around the arena as a themed zone called the 'sports, hospitality and entertainment district' (SHED) employing a tax increment financing (TIF) strategy that would reinvest property tax revenue to stimulate further growth in the neighbourhood.

Although branding large-scale urban areas with a singular theme has rarely proven to be a successful tool for redevelopment, TIF strategies such as the one promoting downtown residential projects can be very effective. Reinvesting property taxes into the neighbourhood around the arena could accelerate the diverse and organic development that is already occurring. As an example, helping to reintroduce the historic Metropolitan Theatre as an active participant in the neighbourhood could make a significant improvement to street life and vibrancy in the area.

By far the most significant contribution government could make towards maximizing the physical impact that the return of the NHL will have on our downtown would be to proceed with the long-sought-after expansion of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. With the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, IKEA, the airport, stadium and the newly elevated stature of the MTS Centre, there has been a convergence of development happening in Winnipeg that will attract both visitors and investment from abroad.

A nationally competitive convention facility that creates a synergy with the arena would enhance this momentum while acting as a significant catalyst for the private development of compatible hospitality and entertainment amenities in the area. Increasing the attraction of the neighbourhood as a destination would promote development on the large surface parking lots that significantly degrade the urban quality of the area south of Portage and would improve the viability of existing commercial buildings.

As the puck drops at the MTS Centre next October, we should take a moment to recognize the role that the majestic old Eaton's Building played in making it possible. As heart-breaking as it was to lose a cherished friend, without her sacrifice Winnipeg would likely not be a "major league" city today. She was built long ago, fuelled by the optimism of a great city confidently heading into a new century. Her presence transformed Winnipeg and Winnipeggers. Her absence is now providing us the opportunity to look forward once again, to embrace that same spirit and enthusiasm for our city's future in this century.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at bbellamy@numberten.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2011 B5

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