Sustaining Civic Memory

On May 15, 2001, the Winnipeg Free Press ran a story announcing plans to construct a new $125 million hockey arena “smackdab” (sic) on the site of the existing Eaton’s building at 320 Portage Avenue. The front page displayed a glamorous rendering of a glassy, translucent building labelled “Portage Avenue 2003” and “Megaproject rising on the ‘finest site… anywhere in North America.'” The arena–or “entertainment and retail mega-project,” so called because the zoning does not permit an arena–would house a Manitoba Moose retail outlet, 24,200 square feet of licensed restaurant/bar facilities, and 50 Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs). The article continued: “the deal ends twenty years of debate about the need for a new downtown arena.”

Well, not exactly. Since the announcement, a heated debate about heritage, conservation, and the correct way to revive the downtown has grown into a major political issue. It began when a small group of artists led a protest, and later regrouped to form the Save the Eaton’s Building Coalition, an ad hoc assembly of artists, architects, planners, professors, developers, businessmen and downtown residents. An intense public discussion on heritage and downtown revitalization has ensued on radio, television and in the provincial legislature. Prominent Canadians such as Jane Jacobs, Phyllis Lambert, Allan Gotlieb and Pierre Berton have joined the fray in support of saving the historic building. Recently, an independent poll determined that 67% of Winnipeg citizens believe that the Eaton’s Building should be saved and readapted. However, three levels of government consistently interpret the governing laws in favour of True North (the developer and future owner of the arena), and public participation in the decision-making process has been curtailed.

The Eaton’s Building is a significant Chicago-style building with deep historical and sentimental value. Its prestige and bulk were instrumental in defining Portage Avenue, one of the most famous streets in Canada. Designed by Canadian architect John Woodman (1861-1944), the Eaton’s Building was, in 1905, a progressive building, even by international standards. It follows the precedent for elegant frame structures set by Chicago architects such as Holabird and Roche in their designs for the Williams Building (1897-8), the Ayer Building (1898-99) and the Hill Company Building (1901-2). But the Winnipeg Eaton’s Building is without exact precedent; it appears at once more delicate and less ornate than its Chicago contemporaries. The faade is an elegant play of horizontals and verticals: two materials, red brick and Bedford stone, are used with cunning simplicity. The frame structure is expressed in the faade in modules consisting of simple vertical pilasters of brick separating the bays. Subtle, stronger horizontals–outlined in two bands of stone with brick between–express the floor levels. Large plate glass show windows–42 of them, one for each bay–line the ground floor. Little decoration, except for a band of Bedford stone at mid-window level, obscures the clear expression of the structure. This clarity, and the new emphasis on the horizontal, anticipated the functionalist and art deco movements of the late 1920s and ’30s. As for contemporary department stores in Canada, only the Robert Simpson Store in Toronto (1895; now The Bay) is comparable in design.

As both a building and an institution, Eaton’s was central to civic life in Winnipeg. The department store on Portage Avenue was the first Eaton’s outside of Toronto. Its popularity was immediate: 25,000 citizens–fully one third of the young city’s population–visited Eaton’s on its inaugural day in 1905. Employing 3,500 in 1910 to a peak of 8,000 in later years, Eaton’s was one of the largest employers in Manitoba, retaining tens of thousands throughout the 20th century. The store became a meeting place; it sponsored many community events (the Santa Claus Parade, the Eaton’s Boys & Girls Club); it helped the city in times of disaster (such as the 1950 flood); and it commemorated the arrival of celebrities, royalty and every other major civic event. Its image on the catalogue endeared the Eaton’s Building to every pioneer community; it is no exaggeration to claim that the Eaton’s catalogue defined the material culture of several generations of Western Canadians.

A 1997 report commissioned by the previous mayor advocated that the building could be re-adapted into a mixed-used facility at a cost of $34 million. Its steel frame was (and is) adaptable to renovation: in the first seven years of Eaton’s existence, building permits were sought for eight major renovations, including separate permits for three additional floors. The system consists of 18″ deep steel I-beams running north-south, which bear on circular cast iron columns on a 17′-6″ grid. Wood joists (3″ x 14″ at 16″ on center) span east-west, bearing on the steel beams. These joists can be added or removed for the insertion and removal of stairs, elevators and escalators without compromising structural soundness. The building remains in excellent condition: a 1989 laser survey determined that the structure had shifted only one inch in 85 years.

To counter the arena proponents’ claims that the building cannot be readapted, the Save the Eaton’s Building Coalition unveiled a proposal–designed entirely with volunteer services–on July 26, 2001, for a $65 million “Eaton Square.” This proposal integrates 500,000 square feet of residential, commercial, retail, and public spaces while inserting a 20,000 square foot atrium with shops and restaurants. “Eaton Square” was widely published in local newspapers, but met with criticism from the city and True North on the basis that it lacked financial backing. In response, on October 3 the Coalition unveiled a new proposal in conjunction with Lakeview developers and architect Stephen Cohlmeyer. The revised plans incorporate 375 apartment units for approximately 600 tenants, a central atrium with ground floor retail, and public space, with 100 of the apartments designed to allow conversion into hotel units depending on market conditions. The cost of the project–which would make use of government loan subsidies for new housing as well as heritage tax credits–would be $35-40 million. The effects of the project would be extremely beneficial, as residential uses are essential to urban renewal. Moreover, since True North has stated their preference for implosion, rather than deconstruction, as the method of demolition, a revitalized Eaton’s would save invaluable resources–some 75,000 tonnes of wood, steel, glass, and stone–from ending up as landfill.

Critics of the proposed arena point out that it does not make a great deal of sense. After an outlay of over $125 million, its seating capacity will be no greater than that of the existing City-owned arena at Polo Park. True North’s primary architects, Sink Comb Dethlefs of Denver, Colorado (local architects Smith Carter resigned from the project on November 28 after a revised design was announced, and have been replaced by Number Ten Architectural Group), have struggled to fit the proposal on the Eaton’s site, which is much smaller than that of the existing arena. As a result, the new building will intrude into adjacent Hargrave Street, reducing it from four lanes to two, and a cantilevered overhang about 400 feet long (over the entire length and remaining width of Hargrave) will create an urban “tunnel.” Also dubious is the claim that the arena, which will operate at most 130 nights of the year, will be able to revitalize the downtown. True North has also stipulated that the old arena be demolished when the new one opens, relegating yet another large, functional building to landfill.

Still, elected officials decided that the value of the Eaton’s Building could not match that of a new arena. On April 26, 2001 Mayor Murray wrote to a concerned citizen in Victoria to say that the arena would not be built on the Eaton’s site. But a series of baffling events swiftly ensued. On May 23, the City voted to proceed with the arena on the basis of
a Term Sheet (dated May 14, 2001) to which True North, the City, the Province and the Federal Government were parties. The Term Sheet promised $38.5 million in funding from all three levels of government, additional tax concessions, and revenues from 50 VLTs. On June 12, the Standing Policy Committee on Planning, Property and Development voted, against the advice of its own Historical Buildings Committee, to recommend to Council that Eaton’s not be designated as a Grade II Heritage Building. On June 20, despite a huge public protest, City Council voted on this recommendation. The following day–as required under the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) for Federal monies to flow–True North held its Open House with a display of schematic architectural drawings and a model of the proposed arena. A day later, newspapers disclosed the sale of the building–assessed by the Land Registry Department at $7.28 million–to Osmington Inc. (a Toronto company named in the Term Sheet) for $10.00. Six days later the Provincial Minister for Culture, Heritage and Citizenship confirmed that his department would not support the Manitoba Heritage Council’s recommendation to designate the Eaton’s Building.

More recently, despite a multitude of dissenting letters from citizens, the Federal Minister of Western Economic Diversification announced the EAA Screening Report had been approved and $10 million of federal money would flow to True North. These events illustrate the weakness of heritage and environmental legislation, and how easily two large buildings can be sentenced to demolition, a decision that the Save the Eaton’s Building Coalition is seeking to challenge in the Supreme Court of Canada. The arena proposed for Winnipeg is only the most recent of a long list of large sports facilities to be foisted on cities throughout North America–from Dallas to Chicago to Baltimore–some on historic sites, all of which have consumed large sums of public money. And few have demonstrably revived their neighbourhoods.

Terri Fuglem is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.