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Winnipeg's 26,000-square-foot James Avenue pumping station remained vacant for decades until its recent restoration, but recently underwent an extensive $25-million redevelopment.handout

Past the shimmering glass, corrugated black metal and supporting steel stilts of a new low-rise rental building, passersby can catch a glimpse of the old James Avenue pumping station, a significant part of Winnipeg’s history.

Located along the nearly redeveloped Waterfront Drive – previously a railway line along the Red River – the $25-million project’s modern exterior surrounds a historic heart.

Once drawing from the river, the station’s high-pressure water system pumped 9,000 gallons a minute, providing water to the city’s Exchange District and adjacent downtown area, from the early 1900s to the mid-1980s. It was considered an engineering marvel when first constructed in 1905.

Despite receiving a heritage designation in 1982, the 26,000-square-foot James Avenue pumping station remained vacant for decades until its recent restoration.

Today it features a gastropub on the main floor, which opened in the fall, and an advertising agency on a newly constructed second floor.

The building now features a gastropub on the main floor, which opened in the fall, and an advertising agency on a newly constructed second floor.handout

Central to the restoration is the original machinery that pumped water to fight fires in surrounding warehouses and office buildings during Winnipeg’s halcyon days a century ago as a major rail hub.

The redevelopment is considered a triumph, given the requirement as a designated heritage property to preserve its mechanical guts, which made it challenging to repurpose.

Yet the project – called the Pump House – is not without controversy, says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.

“All you see at first is this black, ultramodern building in front, canopied above the old building, so it’s hard to see the original exterior,” she says.

Over the years, we have provided grants for more challenging heritage properties.

Angela Mathieson, chief executive officer of Centre Venture

Ms. Tugwell adds that she includes herself among heritage enthusiasts who are not big fans of the design of two new mixed-use, low-rise structures, composed of 93 rental units in total, that bookend – and mostly obscure – the original pumping station.

“But when you go inside, the salvation is that everything was redone beautifully,” she says.

Redeveloping the original building’s 16,000-square-foot main floor was not enough to make the project viable. It also required 11,000 square feet of office space on the newly added second floor, as well as the two adjoining low-rise rental buildings to make it economically feasible, says Bryce Alston, director of Alston Properties Ltd., the developer behind the Pump House.

“Any new building constructed next to or on top of a heritage building is likely going to be criticized by some people,” he says.

The three-phase project marks a milestone in a decades-long campaign to preserve Winnipeg’s large stock of historic buildings, including the Exchange District, where the pumping station is located.

courtesy Heritage Winnipeg

One requirement of the building's designation as a heritage property was that the project had to reserve its mechanical guts - the original machinery that pumped water to fight fires in surrounding warehouses and office buildings.handout

The area, just northeast of downtown and bordered by the river, was designated a National Historic Site in 1997 and features one of the largest collections of heritage buildings on the continent, according to Heritage Winnipeg.

Redevelopment of the Exchange District gained momentum in the late 1990s with the launch of Centre Venture, an arms-length organization of the City of Winnipeg that fosters downtown development, including preserving heritage assets.

“Over the years, we have provided grants for more challenging heritage properties,” says Angela Mathieson, chief executive officer of Centre Venture.

That includes the Pump House. Centre Venture provided agency-owned empty lots adjacent to the building to develop the new adjoining low rises.

“It really took an all hands-on-deck approach,” says Ms. Mathieson, adding Centre Venture also provided mortgage financing and a $200,000 grant.

Since 1999, the municipal development organization has helped restore 75 downtown heritage buildings worth more than $400-million in project costs.

It has also fostered new developments through initiatives such as SHED (the Sports Hospitality Entertainment District), which encompasses the Canada Life Centre and True North Square. The multiblock area has seen the construction of three new skyscrapers in the past 20 years, including a first-class office tower.

The project also required 11,000 square feet of office space on the newly added second floor, as well as the two adjoining low-rise rental buildings to make it economically feasible.handout

More remains to be done, Ms. Mathieson adds, especially in the wake of the pandemic, which has resulted in high office vacancy downtown.

Among other heritage projects is the recently completed former Masonic Temple. Built in 1895, the iconic building housed nightclubs and restaurants for decades since the Freemasons moved to another location in 1969, but had most recently been vacant for more than 15 years.

Currently owned by Winnipeg entrepreneur Peter Ginakes, who, along with business partners, invested $4-million in its redevelopment, the three-storey, cream-coloured brick building reflects a Romanesque Revival-style and has proved challenging to redevelop for several reasons, including its location.

Situated between the Exchange District and the SHED, yet just outside of both, the structure did not qualify for financial programs supporting either renewal initiative.

“Most people don’t have the resources Ginakes and [his partners] have,” says Syd Storey, a heritage redevelopment and assessment specialist who worked on the project.

He says the temple is more a passion project than a profitable one for the developers.

Like the pumping station, the redevelopment of the 16,000-square-foot Masonic Temple took more than a decade to complete. After closing as a nightclub in 2004, it was finished just months before the pandemic – which has made finding tenants difficult, Mr. Storey says.

He adds that the Masonic Temple, currently vacant, can house one or more tenants, and is suitable for use as a restaurant, office space or retail space.

However, Ms. Mathieson remains hopeful this other heritage redevelopment “hard case” will eventually be leased, marking another urban renewal milestone for the city.

“There is always a solution,” she says. “Our mandate it to make sure that these buildings aren’t torn down.”