Sunday, September 5, 2010

Exchange District Part 1

The Smart Bag building and Sport Manitoba's plan for it.

Kelly House on Adelaide Street, home to CancerCare Manitoba Foundation.

Last month the Canadian Foundation indicated that the Exchange District was in their top 10 for endangered heritage sites in Canada. There have been some questionable decisions in recent months regarding some of the buildings such as King Building being turned into a parkade and the Smart Bag Building being partially torn down in favour of a Sport Manitoba training center.

The character of the Exchange District is sufficient that strong measures should be in place to sustain it. Owners that let their buildings deteriorate and then beg to allow them to be destroyed in favour of surface parking lots or parkades should lose their buildings to the city.

I don't believe every building can be saved. The Epic Theatre, the first theatre west of Montreal specifically for movies and five other historic buildings to make way for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority building and parkade is a case in point. The buildings torn down included the Starland Theatre and the Club Hotel.

The truth about many blocks of Main Street is that even when the price was a dollar, no one wanted to own, develop or really even rent the places. Some of the roughest bars in Winnipeg's history operated from Higgins Avenue to just north of City Hall.

The seven movies theatres that existed along Main Street along with the Epic (1913) were Elite (1903), the Bijou (1905), The Star (1907) the Royal/Starland (1909), the Fox (1940's) and the Colonial. The city owned the Epic for twenty years. I don't recall when the last movie played in any of those theatres but I don't recall any from as far back as the 1970s.

It would have been nice to see some sort of preservation but into what with so many theatres all over the city empty? There were over 130 theatres in the city. Was it possible to preserve them all?

The Exchange District has fared better as a whole partly because it maintained its industry of garment manufacturing and furniture sales well into the 1980s and 1990s. The slow growth in the 1970s and 1980s plus Winnipeg's expansive downtown ensured the area didn't fall willy nilly to the wrecking ball.

As the popularity of the Exchange District increases, the issue of developers wanting to tear down parts of the area for parking or other aspects of their business will increase. The city has to be firmer in pushing back against that. It has to be firmer with those who let their buildings go simply to give the city no choice about their ultimate demise.

The Canadian Foundation is only slightly alarmist in its assessment of the downtown's Exchange District. There are indeed good things happening but for every one of those good things, we are still seeing some developments that completely undermine the area as a neighborhood.

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