By: Stacy Dyck M.Arch., LEED AP, MRAIC
The City of Winnipeg cares about the future of Winnipeg’s Exchange District. That is a fact.
Recent press related to the insertion of contemporary design into the Exchange has sparked discussion over the future of the City’s historic gem. Positive or negative, the press surrounding the opening of the Cube in Old Market square has increased historic awareness in the City.
The truth is that the buildings of the Exchange District have fallen into disrepair. Mortar has crumbed and the intricate detailing that characterizes the historic giants of the warehouse district have begun to fade away as a result of years of deferred maintenance and apathy in times when the area was not desirable to start a business or live.
This fact may seem unfortunate, however, for the Exchange District it is a blessing in disguise. Winnipeg’s Exchange District remained untouched due to the slow economic development of Winnipeg during a period when other cities were demolishing similar historic developments to make room for new construction. Better untouched, and falling into disrepair, than non-existent. In recent years, the value of such a collection of buildings has been realized and the City’s perspective of the Exchange District has slowly come around.
Today, there is a breath of new life stirring in the area. The on-going success of The Forks, CanWest (now Shaw) Ball Park, Red River Community College and the budding businesses of the Waterfront condominiums has brought energy in numbers to the area that the Exchange District hasn’t seen for decades. In particular, the small but growing population of urban residents makes the well-rounded development of amenities in the area possible. The outlook for the Exchange District is positive. Now, what to do with the historic structures?
For the historic community, new development in the Exchange brings to question the ability of the design, construction and business communities to care for, and work with, the historic building stock. The construction industry has changed drastically since the buildings were constructed. Building envelopes and systems have changed significantly which has left a gap in the skill sets required to work with these historic buildings. On-going debate over the parameters for integration of contemporary design within a historic context strikes fear in building owners when the term “historic designation’ is raised. Where a sense of pride in owning a significant building should be, misconceptions of increased costs for repair and a lack of design flexibility occur instead.
There are many factors that influence the successful preservation of historically significant neighbourhoods. Rapid economic growth is a key factor. It seems the monetary driver of development, which has the potential to demolish landmarks of the past to pave the way for new developments, may also benefit from the powerful tourist draw of successfully preserved historic neighbourhoods. Often in opposition, both economic development and historic preservation initiatives may find allies in one another in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. Several powerful factors align, as the warehouse district embraces its potential transformation:
A unique, concentrated stock of historic buildings
Increased residential population
Introduction of a multitude of business ventures
Increased public awareness of Winnipeg’s historic wealth (particularly in light of events like Winnipeg’s successful Doors Open event held annually)
Close proximity of existing cultural attractions such as the Concert Hall, Manitoba Museum, MTS Centre, Old Market Square, the list is exhaustive
Finally, the anticipated tourist draw of the soon to be opened Human Rights Museum
All participants desire the successful redevelopment of the Exchange District.
The key is cooperation. Will Winnipeg’s urban adaptation in the Warehouse District be described as a preservation success?