On the way to Wehwehneh: What it takes to transform downtown Winnipeg’s former Bay
There were only three floors open to the public when the former Bay department store in downtown Winnipeg was shuttered for good in November 2020.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Manitoba flagship had been withering for decades, floor closure after floor closure, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic delivered the final death blow.
Above the main floor elevators once stood a broad mural, The Pioneer at Fort Garry, 1861, depicting interactions between settlers and Indigenous people along the banks of the Assiniboine River. The bucolic and somewhat problematic scene was squirrelled away to the Manitoba Museum in 2014.
Now, the elevators themselves are slated to go, along with the Bay’s escalators, a few thousand tonnes of steel and concrete, and several centuries of historical baggage at the heart of the former Bay, in order to make way for a six-storey atrium.
Demolition is set to begin this summer to make room for the indoor open space, which is slated to be the central feature of Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, a $130-million redevelopment expected to open in phases starting in 2026, when the former Bay building turns 100.
“It’ll be a place that people love to be. A place for Indigenous peoples. It’s their home, and it’s a place they can feel welcome,” said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization during a tour of the former Bay building on Friday.
A year ago this month, the Hudson’s Bay Company — which facilitated the colonization of Western Canada more than 350 years ago — engaged in a ceremonial transfer of its 655,000-square-foot building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard to the SCO, which represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota communities in Manitoba.
The formal transfer of title, however, was not completed until this March. The Southern Chiefs’ Organization has now spent six weeks poking around every corner of the building as it completes the designs for a reconstruction project that will take at least four years.
The plans include 300 affordable housing units, toward the south side of the building on floors three through six, for elders and university students who are members of southern First Nations.
A Hudson’s Bay Co. museum is slated for the main floor. Two restaurants are planned, including a reopened Paddlewheel that may be moved from its former perch on the sixth floor to the second floor, near the entrance to the skywalk that crosses to Portage Place, Daniels said.
There are also plans for an art gallery, office space for Indigenous entrepreneurs, a health centre, a child-care facility, a seniors’ centre, a new seat of government for the SCO and a memorial for residential school victims and survivors.
Precisely where all the components go on the first two floors remains in flux, said Daniels, as his organization prepares to select construction companies qualified to engage in the often difficult job of adapting an old building for new uses.
A request for proposals will be issued qualified firms in May.
“You only get one crack at building a building of this magnitude and as significant as the Hudson’s Bay building, and we need to do it right,” Daniels said.
‘Larger cultural vision’ is key: architecture prof
The more meticulous the design, the less likely it is a developer will have to ask contractors to make costly changes during the construction process.
Those directives, known as change orders, can very quickly drive up project costs, said Gursans Guven Isin, a civil engineering professor at the University of Manitoba who is an expert in construction management.
Nonetheless, that shouldn’t make developers shy about adapting existing buildings, she said.
“There will be some significant costs associated with all of this, but examples from around the world show that usually it’s economically more viable to go with the renovation, instead of tearing it down and starting from scratch,” she said.
Lisa Landrum, an architecture professor and associate dean at the University of Manitoba, said the Wehwehneh project should not be viewed through the lens of economic viability alone.
“There’s an excellent, strong vision of reconciliation, which involves an enormous adaptive reuse project,” she said.
“But more significantly, it’s turning this mammoth building into a piece of porous social infrastructure which will change perceptions of citizens in Winnipeg for generations.”
The “little miscellaneous details that come through” during construction are manageable, she said, “but it’s the larger cultural vision that we want to keep our sights on.”
Funding still $20M short
At the same time, money does matter in this project. For now, Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn is not fully funded.
The federal government is providing $65 million for the development in the form of a $55-million forgivable loan and a $10-million low-cost loan.
Manitoba has pledged $35 million, with $10 million for the housing component alone. The City of Winnipeg has committed $9.7 million worth of property tax incentives, plus additional funds for streetscaping.
Daniels said he’s not certain where the final $20 million will come from.
“We’ll have to go get it,” he said, adding fundraising is underway.
“Right now we have different proposals out, we have different partnerships out. We’re talking to the banks. So all of those are playing into this.”
It’s also unclear who will pay for cost overruns on the project, should any emerge. Generally, that responsibility lies with the developer.
Daniels said if the project falls short, he would also approach other level governments for more funds.
“Let’s face it, the city and the province and the federal government — this is their project as much as it is ours,” he said.
Guven Isin said blown budgets aren’t a given, even for adaptive reuses.
“It’s not uncommon to see cost overruns and delays in projects like that, but there are also successful examples as well. So it really depends on good planning and scheduling,” she said.
Landrum said she has confidence in the Southern Chiefs’ Organization and its architects.
“This is one of the most important adaptive reuse projects going on in the entire country right now, and all of Turtle Island will have their eyes on it. So let’s do it right.”
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