One of the newest businesses in downtown Winnipeg presents an interesting study in creative usage of the beautiful yet awkward heritage buildings of the Exchange District -- self-storage.
Adelaide Mini-Storage opened earlier this year in an 80-year-old, four-storey, 44,000-square-foot, brick and stone building.
It features more than 350 self-storage units of varying sizes throughout the four floors.
The metal storage units fit perfectly in the 10-foot-high ceilings and airy, well-lit space as if the building was constructed for just this purpose.
The fact it is located in the downtown heritage district gives it the added cachet of being part of the ongoing renaissance of downtown.
"We have destroyed so many of our old downtown buildings it's about time someone came up with a way to utilize one of these old buildings in a helpful way," said Gwen Pasveer, who along with her husband, Glenn Tewnion, is managing the business.
The building started its life as the Adelaide Street Stables for City Dairy & Silverwood Western Dairies.
And if it seems like a multi-storey self-storage business is unusual for a heritage building, its original use may seem even more unlikely to the modern mind.
Several of the brand-new metal storage units at Adelaide Mini Storage feature secret doors on the back wall of the unit. Those doors lead to ancient stairwells of a peculiar size and shape.
The hidden compartments are long, wide stairways that were originally built to lead the dairy-cart horses up to the top floors where they were fed and bedded after a hard day of delivering milk to residents of early 20th-century Winnipeg.
There is also evidence of the early use of motorized trucks after the horse and cart became obsolete with signs in the building that read, "Please reduce speed to five miles per hour."
Shelley Hagen, one of the owners of the building, is a Calgary-based real estate investor who is originally from Regina.
"I've been coming to Winnipeg since 2003 looking for investment opportunities in Winnipeg," she said. "I was really impressed with what was happening in the downtown core of Winnipeg and also impressed with the architecture."
Winnipeggers probably take for granted the grandeur of the Exchange District architecture, but in other western Canadian cities they can seem like jewels.
"Coming from Calgary where most of the older downtown buildings have been demolished and new structures put up in their place, it is nice to see these beautiful building downtown being revitalized and redefining what the downtown wants to be," she said.
The building was listed at $1.5 million and while Hagen did not want to disclose the dollars and cents required to get the business up and running, she said the whole project came in at much less than $5 million.
And as it turns out, downtown and multi-storey self-storage operations are becoming popular alternative uses for commercial buildings across the country.
George Gray, president of Grayveld Builders Corp., a Barrie, Ont.-based design/build construction company specializing in self-storage development, said those kinds of conversions are springing up all across Canada.
"In Southern Ontario there are a lot of buildings coming vacant and conversions can be very economical, costing about $10 to $12 per square foot," he said.
Hagen said when they decided they would launch a storage business in one of these old jewels they did some research and were pleased with the kind of demand they think exists in the market, including downtown offices and other businesses.
Pasveer and Tewnion figure the recent proliferation of downtown condos could add to the demand for storage in the area.
And who knows, the added mystique of possibly renting a unit with a secret doorway into an equine staircase just might be an added draw.
A stable property
Evolution of the Adelaide Street Stables:
Many developers and designers love the Exchange District, but coming up with a formula for a fresh use that makes economic sense is the hard part.
Solid brick walls and reinforced concrete footings at the Adelaide Street Stables mean the floors can easily handle just about any use.
A concrete ramp into the basement built for the original horse-drawn dairy carts and early motorized trucks, mean storage unit tenants can drive right into the building and use a freight elevator to transport goods to all four floors.
The drive-in basement provides excellent space for long-term indoor parking for summer sports cars and the like.
Inexpensive downtown real estate creates opportunities for lower-margin businesses that had been pushed to the suburbs in the past. The proliferation of downtown condos is expected to add to the demand for storage in the area.