Opened in 1905, the Eaton’s store on Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue was a monument to the prosperity of the era. Winnipeg was then a bustling city of 75,000, and the commercial and transportation hub for Western Canada. The red-brick Eaton’s building, which quickly grew to encompass eight storeys, 21 acres of land and more than 600,000 square feet of retail space, provided employment to 8,000 people. Through its on-site and mail-order operations, Winnipeg’s Eaton’s was, for a time, the most important and pervasive retail outlet west of Toronto.
But the good times did not last, either for the city or the store. For the past two years, the Eaton’s building has sat vacant, with few
takers in sight. Now, a consortium of local investors intends to demolish the structure and replace it with a $125-million sports arena and entertainment complex featuring, among other things, an exterior fibre optics display that mimics the effect of the northern lights. The consortium, the True North Project, enjoys the backing of the city’s businesses and media, not to mention $38.5 million in capital funding-and much more in the form of tax breaks-from various levels of government. Supporters see the new complex as crucial to revitalizing Winnipeg’s downtown. Critics, on the other hand-some of whom have fought what so far has been a losing court battle against the project-are asking why a land-
mark building must die in the name of urban renewal. “You don’t destroy something that has been in the hearts of Western Canada,” says Harry Lazarenko, one of only three city councillors opposed to demolition. “We’re making a very big mistake.”
The critics are also upset at the speed with which the True North Project has been approved. The consortium first unveiled its proposal at a news conference on May 14, with a beaming Mayor Glen Murray and Premier Gary Doer in attendance. Nine days later, city council approved the project in principle. A second council vote on June 20 confirmed the decision to demolish the Eaton’s building. The votes went ahead even though both the city’s historical buildings committee and the Manitoba Heritage Council, an arm’s-length agency that advises the province on heritage
matters, recommended sparing the building. “The proponents are in an unseemly rush,” says Bill Neville, a University of Manitoba political scientist who resigned last month as chairman of the Manitoba Heritage Council to protest the proposed demolition. “I think they know that, given time, other alternatives will come up for saving the building.”
Supporters of the True North Project maintain there are no other viable uses for the
Eaton’s store. For one thing, the building is so large it would be difficult to find enough smaller tenants to fill it. They also contend that the outdated wood-plank flooring throughout the building would be prohibitively expensive to bring up to code. Moreover, the Eaton’s site is touted as ideal for the 15,000seat sports arena (with up to 17,000 seats for concerts) that is projected to bring people into the civic core for 130 event nights each
year, including home games of the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. Winnipeg native Mark Chipman, owner of the Manitoba Moose and one of the key investors in the True North Project, says he has watched in dismay as the city’s downtown stagnated in recent years. “No single building is a panacea for revitalization,” he says, “but this one can clearly be part of the rebirth.”
Those views are echoed by Winnipeg’s mayor. Critics accuse Murray, who traditionally has been a strong advocate of preserving heritage buildings, of betraying the cause when it comes to Eaton’s. He remains unapologetic. “Quite frankly,” says Murray, “we have better architecture downtown, and we don’t have the resources to save everything.” The Eaton’s building is expected to fall within a matter
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