Picture from the Free Press of the Union Tower
The Union Bank Tower's conversion probably owes a lot of its redevelopment money to the need for stimulus investment in today's economy. The funding of Red River College's culinary school in the abandoned Royal Bank building would have likely remained on the wish fulfillment list but timing is everything.
The $27 million retrofitting has been talked about for a while but in October, the Tory government was in town bearing gifts along with other levels of government. Paterson GlobalFoods, a local grain company and the Winnipeg Foundation have also committed a good chunk of change.
It should be noted that the Winnipeg Foundation has probably done more for urban renewal in Winnipeg than many others with money donated to the Centennial neighbourhood and to the Central Park district.
The Union Tower, situated beside City Hall, promises to be one of the more transformative redevelopments in Winnipeg. The 107 year old skyscraper is listed as western Canada's oldest tower. It has stood empty many years now since the Royal Bank left for the siren call of being near Portage and Main.
Red River College's plan in a nutshell was to move its culinary school from its Notre Dame campus to the tower which would be perfect as a showcase for street level restaurants. The food prepared and served by students would cover fine dining (Jane's Restaurant), casual dining (Hard Drive Cafe) and take out (Grab-and-Go).
The stimulus funding that is being showered all over Canada made it possible to go ahead with the work.
One of the more interesting aspects of the project is that it includes student housing. The upper floors of the tower will be converted to a 100 bed student residence.
In one stroke, this project will fill a historic tower with people that will be present 24 hours a day.
Some has said this project will not necessarily do anything for the downtown and cites the University of Winnipeg as an example. This was countered by a letter from the University of Winnipeg.
However, Galston's suggestion that the University of Winnipeg has not had a "good effect" on the local community is not only dead wrong; it completely ignores the facts. If Galston actually took the time to walk south of Ellice Avenue today, he would see community renewal in action: a vibrant, pedestrian mall on Spence Street and a front lawn teeming with students, faculty and local residents alike; a basketball court regularly used by children and youth from the local neighbourhood; a brand new building called McFeetors Hall, home not only to nearly 200 students, but dozens of families from the local community, and a new day care centre -- one of the largest in Manitoba -- serving children not only of students, but from the community as well. On the north side of Ellice, he would see the Helen Betty Osborne building, home to the Wii Chi Waakanak learning centre (a community computer lab) and the Global Welcome Centre for immigrants and refugees, many of whom live in the neighbourhood.
The truth is that both writers are right... and wrong.
It is true that the University of Winnipeg has made strides in the last several years. However, this community mindedness was hampered severely by cutbacks in the 1980s. It was back then that the last of the University of Winnipeg dorms were closed to make space for other uses for the university. Similarly, apartment blocks on Spence were taken over for a daycare and Menno Simons College. While the daycare and the college were both worthy additions, the university began to lose population after hours and weekends.
For a university to be vital at all times, it needs people there at all times. The loss of the dorms and students living nearby was painful. The opening of McFeetor's Hall Residence this past fall brings 175 residents downtown. Likewise, the university's four houses on Balmoral Street keep students close to campus where they make use the neighbourhood services.
The Red River College plan for housing at the Union Tower ensures that people will not just be present during business hours. That alone will be a change downtown.
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