Monday, March 26, 2012

The Next Tall Building in Winnipeg

Skye Halifax is 150 meters tall in the planning process

Who will have the taller buildings in five years: Winnipeg or Halifax? Well, if the newly bold Halifax continues with development plans, it will be Halifax.

And so might follow Saskatoon and Regina after that.

And Winnipeg? Well, who knows?

Now, no city should measure its success or virility based on skyscrapers. The completion of the Burj Khalifa is evidence that building a tall tower for the sake of building it could be quite costly. The tower has plenty of empty space and rents are 40% down.

Still, taller buildings supporting mixed uses can be highly effective in creating a vital community without the sprawl that taxes our infrastructure budgets and time management in terms of transportation.

So let's look at big Halifax project: It is called Skye Halifax and will have two towers called the Twisted Sisters standing at 48 floors each! The plan calls for a mix of condos and offices. The tallest building in the Maritimes now is the former Dalhousie residence building called Fenwick Towers at 33 floors. In actual height it is shade under 55 Nassau.

The height of Skye is 150 metres and the cost will be $350 million. There are still hurdles to pass as height restrictions have been in place in Halifax for some time so that buildings will not overshadow the Citadel. However, the grandiose design and the money involve have people re-thinking things. Perhaps it is because the old experience of Halifax and a tall tower is Fenwick. Unloved and unheralded in design, it likely made people cautious.

We'll see shortly if this Halifax project gets off the ground.

So what do we have in Winnipeg?

One of the buildings to go up with some height in the last year was the 13 floor Pembina Hall residence building in the fall of 2011. The cost for even this modest development was $42 million and the technical snags were many including students being caught in a failed elevator

Prior to that was the Manitoba Hydro building at 22 floors in the downtown in 2005.

The tallest buildings presently under construction are the Human Rights Museum and the Winnipeg Stadium.

Most other highrises are still in the planning stages or have been chased away altogether. The Canad Inns hotel at the Health Sciences Centre is under way now. The tower across from the MTS Centre is also under construction.

However, now we have to ask what next and where? And is it possible to build something greater 20 floors?

The conclusion would have to be yes if opposition doesn't scuttle the idea.

The quickest solution to getting some density and taller buildings might be to sell Portage Place parking to the developer who comes up with something for the two pads on the east and west ends of the mall. CentreVenture squatting on the mall parking does nothing to develop the site. Seems they could net some cash and kickstart either hotels or condos atop Portage Place.

It seems a missed opportunity with Winnipeg Square where the sale of the parkade could have kickstarted a hotel or condos on Trizec 2's pad.

The new construction of the Convention Centre might also be ideal for a few towers if multiple parties are brought together to see how to feed off the synergy of the main building.

Aside from a few obvious places downtown where an office/condo tower might work, there are some potential places in and around the vacated golf course for some residential development although the cries against traffic will be be loud.

A plan B for the Fort Rouge yards should be in place because it hard to see if they residences there will be built or not. There are some potential sites along Henderson, Portage and Pembina.

What will drive any tower in Winnipeg though will be residences. Condos will be needed for seniors, young professionals and for families who can't afford housing. Rental places are in desperate need.

It is unlikely we are to see an office tower of any height go up without the money that comes in from condos.

So will Winnipeg get on top of that?

Well, time will tell but it seems just as likely we might complain about any tower even if it was going up on a gravel parking lot in the downtown of the city.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Richardsons to Buy Part of Viterra

The Richardson family continues to be one of the strongest business entities in Canada all the while based in Winnipeg.

Today we learn, the Richardsons will pick up part of Viterra as the Regina-based company is bought up by Switzerland's Glencore International.

Despite the sale of large chunks of the Viterra company, it will remain headquartered in Regina.

We didn't end up so well when Viterra bought up Agricore United a in the past decade. Even now, huge gaps in the once filled Canwest building remain open due to the the purchase and closure of the grain offices (compounded by Canwest being grabbed by Shaw as well).

There had been some promises that Winnipeg wouldn't be so bad off from the purchase of Agricore United but alas, hundreds of employees were shed from the head office that was numbered around 500.

And Agricore's loss came on the heels of United Grain Growers and Agricore joining together. At that time, hundreds more lost their jobs. At least in that event, it was two Winnipeg companies joining forces.

As the Canadian Wheat Board ends (with the loss of hundreds of jobs there as well), the once great agricultural enterprises that employed so many seem to be dwindling.

I wonder how long it will be before we ask: how do we preserve the old Wheat Board building or what should go in there?

Anyways, it is hard to have too much sympathy for Viterra given we got thrown under the bus when they took over Agricore. The Richardsons pick up more grain trading business for a shade under a billion. Agrium from Calgary picks up all the retail stores. Glencore picks up the overseas businesses and makes Regina its base in Canada.

It is hard to measure what value that promise has from Glencore. As much as the promise Winnipeg had from Viterra?

Glencore is in the middle of a even greater $90 billion merger with a mining corporation. Hard to imagine where they will be or where their head offices might exist even a few years from now.

Th Richardsons are not likely to go anywhere. With any luck, this will result in more head office jobs and more economic spin offs for the city.

Likewise, Paterson and Cargill appear to be entrenched in the city.

However, the downtown continues to remain littered with hundreds of jobs lost in agriculture. It is hard to imagine that the end of the Canadian Wheat Board will spur a new movement of ag business that will replace what was lost.

And in many cases what does exist may ultimately be owned and controlled in places like Switzerland.

It will be an interesting year ahead.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Upper Fort Garry

Manitoba Club and Upper Fort Garry Gate

All that remains of Upper Fort Garry

Too many calls for money, too many preservation projects that need government money, no timelines for getting projects done, too few deep pocketed donors and the constant chasing away of businesses that do want to invest.

It is no way to get things done.

Seed money can be helpful for projects as we have seen in condo development downtown and how it has leveraged a significant private investment. However, things like the Millennium Centre, Upper Fort Garry and the Human Rights Museum always seem to be fighting for viability and starved for cash.

It is particularly galling when preservation projects end up looking similar or worse than what was planned. The Millennium Centre in the CIBC building chased away Cowboys from Calgary only to become and under utilized and not so well known...banquet hall.

And now the Friends of Upper Fort Garry are turning the Fort Garry site into a parking lot for at least two years.

Have to say this is pretty discouraging. Makes you wonder if the project will even get off the ground. It might be 2015 or 2016 before shovels are in the earth. Who is to the say that some of the principle players driving this are going to still be around? Not to be morbid but the length of time for development exceeds a lifetime for some people.

A surface lot isn't doing anyone any favours in the area except maybe the Manitoba Club and the guests there for dinner.

I compare this to land that the province sat on behind Broadway not helping the area around the Convention Centre. The stubborn refusal to consider all development options for that section of land left them windswept lots. And that has lasted decades and the Convention Center was isolated.

It is hard to stay upbeat in the city when bold plans wait years and sometimes decades and what we get is a parking lot.

Not easy to say this will be for the good of the city in five or ten years when it hurts so badly now.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Government Building Downtown

The provincial government has stepped up moving and consolidating offices in the downtown area. Some people have said this is not true development as it is government, others are against it for the simple reason that it is government pure and simple.

I'll set aside the libertarian view we should not have government or extremely little of it. Suffice to say, Winnipeg has had a high level of all three governments making a base of the city for delivery of their services. I don't have to go back far in our history to see what unbridled private delivery of business services meant. In some cases it meant a shoot out if we go back to the Hudson's Bay and Northwest Company rivalries.

However, as I said, I won't go into an anti-government or anti-business screed. I believe we try to limit the overreach of government but I happen to believe that there needs to be balance. To that end, I think all three levels of government need a strategy in the province of Manitoba to promote density, sustainability and best land use through re-development. And wherever possible use this strategy to leverage private investment.

If you look all up and down Portage Avenue, for example, many of the office buildings there have had some form of government office in them. I am not exaggerating in the least. While some of the buildings had a geographic reason to be in the area (such as the former post office building...later CJOB building), many of the other offices were leased just because space was needed.

In short, government offices have helped fuel suburban office development for years.

The provincial government as well as the federal government have always had offices downtown but not so much a plan. The province has placed lots of offices on Broadway over the years and it has helped give that street vitality. It has made sense given the fact that the legislature was right there on the same street. Only problem is that the province's strategy meant sitting on surface lots behind Broadway for decades contributing to a lack of density around the Convention Centre.

The province has been hit and miss in recent months about leasing or helping fuel a building cycle downtown lately. It is leasing space in an old Air Canada building at 352 Donald Street and a space at 287 Broadway and then again at 777 Portage Avenue. Those are the hits. The misses are calls for companies to make offers of property and then not following through.

Even a small amount of leased space can trigger millions of restoration. And so it is the case with 111 Lombard Avenue where Brick's Fine Furniture used to be located. It is an attractive building with a parkade across the street and surface parking lot beside. Despite the fact the building reno will include an expansion into vacant space, it seems the province probably can't help think it is attractive with the parking.

The proper investment by government in offices that they need can be the beacon for further development. Some interesting things are happening in terms of this investment now. It could and should be even better.

A plan should be in place to slowly move things to more central locations in a community here and elsewhere in Manitoba. Placing a very large building with tax people near the fringes of the city should be something thought of as unusual in the future.

There are good places downtown. However, they need people. Those people primarily come from those who live in the area. However, central location for sport, entertainment and office workers helps elevate a downtown to one that is busy with activity all day and all night.

More people equals more safety in that it generally translates into an abundance of eyes and ears to report break ins, aggressive behaviour and the like. Think of how most people feel when they are in The Forks: generally secure and happy to be there.

In 2013, it might be a surprise some of the things that are happening downtown. I can't think of anything so strong since the 1980s and the Core Area Initiative and its beginnings. Sadly, what eventually happened as that the focus became just on Portage Place and The Forks and too much in between fell by the wayside.