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True North Square, Winnipeg's newest office towers, is the new home of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman.

JOHN WOODS

When one of Manitoba’s largest law firms moved this month into its new office space, adorned with the works of local artists and saturated with natural light from the seemingly omnipresent sunny skies of a Winnipeg summer, its senior management beamed with the pride and excitement of owners of a newly built home, the envy of its neighbours.

And indeed Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP (TDS) had much to be excited about as the first tenants to move into 242 Hargrave, the first of four towers to be completed for the city’s ambitious True North Square project.

“Law firms often don’t get a chance to reimagine the way they do business, and this was a great opportunity to do just that,” says Keith LaBossiere, chief executive officer and managing partner of the 135-year-old, Winnipeg-headquartered law firm.

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“Traditionally at law firms, all the lawyers are on the outside walls and the partners get big, fancy offices, the associates get smaller offices and the staff are all in the middle.”

That layout is markedly absent from its new 57,000-square-foot, $9-million space, occupying the top three floors of the 17-storey tower. Gone are the floor-to-ceiling walls of books, sprawling offices for its bigwigs and the 25-year-old décor of its previous digs at the city’s former premier office tower 201 Portage – located at Winnipeg’s most renowned corner, Portage and Main.

While a law firm inhabiting a cutting-edge architectural space in a newly built skyscraper hardly moves the news needle in large centres like Toronto, in Winnipeg, it’s kind of a big deal.

After all, the last speculative commercial office tower built was 201 Portage, completed in the early 1990s. And it would likely still be if it hadn’t been for the National Hockey League’s return to the city.

The True North Square project – named after the company, True North Sports and Entertainment (TNSE), that owns the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and the Bell MTS Centre – is the most direct extension of the sports and entertainment district that sprung up around the arena over the past decade.

Featuring the 242 Hargrave office tower, and a soon-to-be-completed mixed-use tower of office, retail and rental accommodations, which bookend an open-air square kitty-corner from the arena, the project will serve as the epicentre for “Whiteouts” – those gatherings of white-clad Winnipeggers giddily afflicted with playoff fever.

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Thompson Dorfman Sweatman moved into 242 Hargrave at True North Square this month and was among the handful of firms to commit early to the new Winnipeg tower. Previously TDS had been in the city's former premier office tower at 201 Portage Ave.

JOHN WOODS

For True North Real Estate Development, the project ushers in a new era for Winnipeg’s downtown.

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“Winnipeg was tired through the ’90s,” says Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development.

“It had a phenomenal history with a great underbelly of arts and culture, but it hadn’t manifested itself in way in downtown to bring more people back to the core.”

The construction of a new downtown arena, which involved a controversial tear-down of the historic Eaton’s building, changed the dynamic in the mid-2000s. A few years later, the Jets returned – and along with them, burgeoning life to the downtown. A new high-rise hotel and condominium across Portage Avenue from the arena followed a couple of years later. Seemingly, the city’s downtown had momentum, grasping on to a live-work-play trend that had already gripped larger cities in North America.

But the True North Square project marked an even more ambitious move. Having a gathering spot for hockey fans is bold enough, given downtown in the winter can feature winds so cold it feels like your skin is burning.

Even more audacious for the little Prairie city, however, was constructing a speculative office tower where demand was lukewarm – in a good year.

Convincing businesses comfortably nestled in other locations to pick up and move to a more expensive footprint – in a city renowned for being conservatively frugal – is perhaps as challenging as attracting a major professional sports team to the city.

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But a handful of major firms – TDS, MNP LLP and Bank of Nova Scotia – quickly jumped on board, in part because of the project’s vision and the opportunity to start from scratch.

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Mark Howe, TDS director of client relations, ascends a staircase separating two of the law firm's three floors at True North Square.

JOHN WOODS

For TDS, the clean slate, combined with the prestige of the building’s marquee location, were compelling enough.

“Lawyers traditionally don’t do change very well, and this was an opportunity to change a lot of things,” says Allan Fineblit, TDS’s chief operating officer.

Certainly the changes are many: upgrades to the latest communications technology, such as video conferencing, as well as modular furniture and other office components that provide flexibility.

“It’s hard to predict what the future will bring, so we wanted our space to be able to adapt to whatever we need.”

Glass walls throughout emphasizes transparency and collaboration while providing energy efficiency by reducing the need for lighting during the day.

The use of ample glass and wide-column spacing also create openness on every floor in the building, says one of the lead architects, Ryan Bragg, a principal in the Vancouver office of Perkins and Will, which designed the project alongside Winnipeg firm Architecture 49.

“It’s a very predictable square grid,” he says. “So tenants can change what they do with their spaces because offices often change with the times much quicker than buildings do.”

True North’s 242 Hargrave by no means offers expansive floor plans. But less is more in the Winnipeg office marketplace, Mr. Bragg says.

“It’s less space, but it’s more of everything else.”

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TDS's new offices and boardrooms feature plenty of glass walls and high ceilings to let in natural light.

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Mr. Bragg likens its amenities – the latest IT infrastructure, fitness and yoga studios, multitenant collaborative spaces, storage for bicycles – to the latest smartphone. By comparison, the older office stock in the city is akin to the old flip phone.

“None of what we take for granted today [like the internet] existed when other existing buildings were designed.”

TDS’s new office embraces the 21st century’s new aesthetic for corporate spaces: several small, sound-proofed glazed boardrooms, a massive meeting room that can be split into smaller ones, an expansive, high-ceiling employee lounge with a futuristic automated coffee/latte/espresso machine, and intimate collaborative spaces sprinkled throughout.

And yes, lawyers still have their offices, although each glass office along the curving, outer west-facing wall of the building, which faces the square, is modest in size.

“What we tried to do here is strike a balance, so everybody’s got an office,” Mr. LaBossiere says. “If they need to work on their own, they can, but if they want to work with somebody else … they have these larger collaborative spaces.”

And while TDS’s new office is on par with large firms’ offices in larger centres, the lawyers were careful to stick to their Manitoba roots.

“We wanted it to speak Manitoba, so that’s why you see Tyndall [local limestone] stone when you walk in,” says Mr. Fineblit, also noting the works of local artists throughout.

But he also pointed to the tile flooring in reception as opposed to marble, and an overall design sensibility favouring efficiencies in space, energy and indeed cost, all of which reflect Manitoban values.

“We were careful that we didn’t want to deliver a message to our clients when they walk in here that, ‘Holy cow! Now I know where all my legal fees are going.’”

Tale of the tower

Some facts and figures on the 242 Hargrave office building at True North Square:

— First privately developed commercial office space tower constructed in Winnipeg since 1990.

— 365,000 square feet of Class A office space.

— More than 60-per-cent leased, with enough talks with prospective tenants to exceed capacity, says True North Real Estate Development president Jim Ludlow.

— Opened for occupancy in July with first tenant, law firm TDS.

— Features amenities such as bicycle storage and repair room, fitness and yoga studios with change rooms and showers, healthy option food court and grocery.

— Faces on to a plaza that can hold about 2,000 people, designed for public gatherings.

— First of four towers in a $500-million, one-million-square-foot, mixed-use project. Other towers include 225 Carlton (a 25-storey, mixed-use building with mostly residential rental, to be completed next year) and the Sutton Place Hotel and Residences (an 18-storey, 288-room hotel and a 13-storey tower with 130 residential suites, built in conjunction with Northland Properties of Vancouver and expected to be finished in 2021).

Source: True North Real Estate Development