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Hard-won urban renewal on Red River waterfront

The hotel stands in contrast to the adjacent restaurant – the Cibo Waterfront Cafe – which is housed in an old pump house. That property traded hands many times before Sunstone took it over and developed the $1-million café. The establishments are located near the region’s first fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Co.

Sunstone Resort Communities

The sight of parents pushing their children in strollers on a pathway along the Red River is a small, but important, victory for developer Bill Coady.

"You wouldn't have seen that here a few years ago," says the chief executive officer and president of Sunstone Resort Communities.

Mr. Coady is referring to how far Winnipeg's Waterfront District has come since the city built the road – Waterfront Drive – on the eastern edge of downtown about a decade ago.

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Where a rail line once ran along the banks of the Red, serving the city's thriving warehouse district more than 100 years ago, Waterfront Drive is now home to more than a dozen condominiums and fledgling enterprises.

Among them are the Mere Hotel, a 67-room boutique establishment that opened in 2013, and the adjacent Cibo Waterfront Cafe, a Mediterranean-style restaurant. Both developed by Sunstone, the hotel and café represent the latest chapter in the birth, decay and renewal of Winnipeg's historic Exchange District – an 80-acre collection of heritage buildings on the northeast side of downtown.

To Mr. Coady and others involved in Waterfront Drive's development, the projects are a turning point. Soon after opening, Sunstone realized it had hit a home run. The restaurant is busy with local traffic and tourists, particularly on weekends. And the hotel is booked through most of the summer.

"We're in the top five in Winnipeg on Tripadvisor.ca and popular with our target market: business travellers and millennials," Mr. Coady says.

A little more than a decade ago the Waterfront District did not exist. Instead the boulevard winding along the Red River – about 12 city blocks from Lombard Avenue near Portage and Main to Higgins Avenue at the edge of Point Douglas, one of the city's most impoverished neighbourhoods – was a no-man's land separating decaying warehouses and an underused riverbank park.

Construction of low-rise condominiums along Waterfront in recent years has breathed life into the area. Yet until Mere opened, it had little to offer for tourist accommodation.

Built on a former parking lot, the modernist three-storey hotel, with its distinctive exterior of yellow and green vertical bars, offers luxury essentials. Rooms feature contemporary décor, complimentary energy bars and drinks as well as an espresso machine. Geothermal heating, a plug-in station for electric cars, and a large interactive information touchscreen in the lobby add to its cutting-edge, high-tech atmosphere.

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That's in stark contrast to the 95-seat restaurant Cibo, housed in the restored City of Winnipeg Pump and Screen House. The 1950s brick structure, which once fed water to Winnipeg's steam heating plant that kept downtown warm, closed in the 1980s.

"This property traded hands many times before we came along," Mr. Coady says, adding that the addition of the café, which can serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to hotel guests, helped the developers get funding for both projects.

Government incentives have been crucial for many developments, including a $40-million condo building also by Sunstone, says Angela Mathieson, CEO of the city's CentureVenture Development Corp. "Effectively, developers get back property taxes toward covering costs."

But they did not play a role for Mere and Cibo. Constructed for about $14-million, the hotel and restaurant did, however, benefit from the fact Sunstone could lease the land. "The city still owns it, which made it easier for them to approve it and rezone it," says Mr. Coady. "It made our costs lower, too."

Still residents had to come on board, and once the boutique hotel and restaurant began operating, the community saw the benefit.

"We're bringing business and leisure travellers who want a different experience," says Ben Sparrow, CEO of Sparrow Hotels, which manages the hotel. "There is a lot of interesting design elements in the Exchange District as well as really good food and art."

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Mr. Sparrow's company had long been eyeing a hotel in the area. Yet it took years of layered development – condos, cafés, art galleries, offices – to make the economics work.

Moreover, a long-held perception the area was unsafe, because it had been so sparsely populated, had to be overcome. That changed with residential development, Mr. Sparrow says.

"Our belief in the safety was a big part of our support for this project."

Challenges remain. The area was recently in the news after the body of Tina Fontaine was found at the now condemned Alexander Docks – a hub for a once-thriving riverboat industry. The teen's tragic end has come to symbolize the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women, and the docks are next to the Mere Hotel in full view of many of its rooms.

Yet to its boosters, Waterfront is safer than ever because more people now live there.

Waterfront and the entire Exchange District's population now exceeds 1,600 residents, with about 780 living in condos on Waterfront Drive. And it will continue to grow as more residential projects are completed in the next couple of years, according to CentreVenture.

"For us it's always been about more people living in the district," Ms. Mathieson says.

Also essential to success has been redevelopment of old warehouses in the adjacent Exchange District, named after the Grain and Produce Exchange located there until the 1970s. Home to one of the largest collections of heritage buildings in Canada, many of the more than 130 stone and brick structures sat derelict for years, says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.

"In many ways the Exchange was saved due to lack of redevelopment over decades," she says. During the 1960s and 1970s it was cheaper for owners to let buildings sit derelict than demolish them.

"There had been some demolition by neglect, but it wasn't pushed by redevelopment that happened in cities like Toronto." Not until the late 1970s did the public begin to perceive them as cultural assets to be preserved, Ms. Tugwell says.

Renewal efforts eventually took off in the 80s and 90s with a tripartite government agreement to redevelop the area, she adds. Artists moved into lofts bringing arts and culture. Then the federal government designated the Exchange District a national historic site in 1997.

Plans for Waterfront Drive, however, did not get under way until the 2000s. Government provided $9-million to build the road, connecting The Forks – another historic site, and now home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – with the Exchange.

While Waterfront is comprised of mostly new builds, including Sunstone's condos built on the former steam plant site, the Exchange's heritage streetscapes were instrumental in its growth.

"I don't ever think Waterfront Drive on its own could have been enough to create that critical mass needed to animate the street," Ms. Mathieson says.

Mr. Coady agrees, adding the hotel and the restaurant owe much of their success to the adjoining neighbourhood's hard-won renewal.

"No one was thinking of putting a hotel here 10 years ago," he says. "But that whole idea where people used to think, 'Is it safe?,' is gone. It's the safest part of downtown."

Waterfront Drive facts

Condo and commercial development along Winnipeg's Waterfront Drive:

17 – Residential/mixed use projects complete, three under way with two to begin construction.

$155-million – Total investment for 722 residential units.

$81-million – Investment in commercial projects.

Notable completed developments:

200 Waterfront: 44,000-square-foot commercial space; $6-million.

Ship Street Village: eight condo units; 4,267-square-foot commercial; $4.5-million.

The Excelsior: 48 condo units; 11,000-square-foot commercial; $17.5-million.

The Strand on Waterfront Drive: 15 condo units; 9,300-square-foot commercial; $6-million.

Sky Waterfront Condominiums: 139 condo units; 11,800-square-foot commercial; $40- million.

Source: CentreVenture Development Corp.

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