The Johnston Terminal building in the Forks District of Winnipeg has long been a part of the city’s industrial history, and it’s now destined to become a part of its postindustrial digital future.
It’s a property whose purpose has come in from the cold – quite literally. Constructed in 1929, the four-storey brick warehouse functioned as a cold-storage railway terminal before its first renovation in 1993. Today, this iconic building, in the middle of one of the most popular pedestrian-gathering areas in the Forks, will soon be a new home for Amazon Web Services (AWS).
First founded as an Indigenous settlement and with a history dating back over 6,000 years, the Forks is named for its location, right at the junction where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet. A crossroads for Canada’s transcontinental railway and the fur trade, throughout history the region has witnessed the Industrial Age and welcomed waves of immigration.
Now, Amazon will be taking up residence, along with recent acquisition Thinkbox Software, a company founded in 2010 by Winnipegger and chief executive Christopher Bond, that supplies visual effects for film and video.
“When we were acquired by AWS, it just made sense to stay here. We have the talent and the know-how, but it’s also important to have a workspace that can attract new talent,” says Mr. Bond, whose tech tools have been used in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor, Green Lantern, Harry Potter and Avatar, as well as videos and commercials.
AWS will occupy 13,000-square-feet in the Johnston building, mirroring the continuing trend of smaller, less central cities seeking – and acquiring – major tech tenants. After gobbling up historic buildings in major centres like downtown Toronto, San Francisco and elsewhere, developers and planners are discovering the virtues of older buildings in lesser-known areas that still have that all-important “cool” factor. As the ideal bait for luring skilled millennial and Generation Z knowledge workers away from the bright lights of the GTA or Silicon Valley, companies are happy to pay less for leasing or purchasing such properties; for young workers, it’s the appeal of more affordable housing, shorter commutes but still gain access to exciting, well-paying employment.
For example, in Charlottesville, Va., (population 48,000) a fast-growing tech company is spending US$21-million to renovate and lease 85,000-square-feet in a factory that once churned out scratchy wool U.S. Navy uniforms on land once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
The challenges can be both physical and regulatory, explains Brian Roy, the local developer responsible for converting the site, locally known as the Woolen Mills factory.
For one thing, the Charlottesville building is 118 years old – meaning the wiring, lighting, ductwork, structural integrity and everything else must be brought up to 21st century standards, Mr. Roy says.
At the same time, heritage restrictions imposed by the city of Charlottesville are standing in the way of modern environmental and sustainability renovations that are considered indispensable, both for withstanding climate change and for attracting young, skilled workers.
“We looked closely at putting in solar panels for electricity, but it’s a heritage building and we’re operating under rules as [to] what we can do to physically alter the building for at least five years,” Mr. Roy says. “After that, we’ll see.”
“It isn’t easy but it’s where our workers want to be,” says Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree, Inc., a provider of digital software enhancements to such major clients as National Geographic, HBO and Fox Sports.
In Winnipeg, because the Johnston building had already been redone in the 1990s, such hurdles were not as prevalent. Nevertheless, converting any legacy building generally comes with all kinds of challenges, says Lyndsay Jones, vice-president, property management with Artis REIT, which manages the terminal building.
“These requirements often involve more time and increased cost,” Ms. Jones says. The Forks North Portage Partnership, which oversees the Winnipeg area, “has very stringent archeological requirements to which all service providers must adhere. It can be particularly challenging in an older building [like the Johnston Terminal], particularly when it comes to excavating for new fibre lines.”
She adds: “Any changes to the building exterior have to be approved both by the Forks North Portage Partnership and by the City of Winnipeg. On the interior, we’ve tried to maintain as much of the original character of the building as possible. When designing tenant spaces, every attempt is made to highlight these features, such as exposed brick, and open ceilings so that the timbers are visible.”
According to Kate Fenske, CEO for the area’s business association, Downtown Winnipeg, protecting the heritage of structures such as the Johnston Terminal Building and areas like the Forks is important because these sites become magnets for jobs, retail and tourism.
“The Forks has been a destination for more than 20 years. People want a place to go to, and that’s important when you look at the core of the city and how the downtown competes with the suburbs to attract people,” Ms. Fenske says.
“The Johnston Terminal already has places within the building to get a bite to eat and to shop. Adding a place where people work adds another dimension – it really helps create that live-work-play space,” Ms. Fenske says.
Both Ms. Jones in Winnipeg and Mr. Roy in Virginia agree that it’s important to provide office space that is somehow both retro and modern at the same time. Despite its lack of sustainability features, the Charlottesville former mill features a penthouse meeting room that invites abundant sunlight and opens onto a balcony facing the city, including views of the hill where Jefferson’s Monticello estate is located.
“He’s still watching us,” Mr. Roy says.
In Winnipeg, the developers also paid close attention to the wants and needs of modern workers while respecting the past, Ms. Jones says.
“Fortunately, the building lends itself to large open spaces. There are windows along the entire exterior perimeter of the building, which allow for beautiful river and city views.”
Ms. Jones adds: “The open workspace concept allows light to be drawn into the space, which creates an inviting environment for workers. Due to the architectural features of the building, such as timber columns and brick-bearing walls in an open concept layout, these features can be accentuated and become a design feature, instead of something hidden behind drywall.”
Getting to and from work is easier in a mid-sized town, Mr. Bond and Mr. Roy agree, especially with both buildings being centrally located.
“You can ride your bike to work,” says Mr. Bond – perhaps subconsciously overlooking the extreme winter weather that Winnipeg is known for.