Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Downtown buildings getting some far-reaching facelifts

COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE

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A Winnipeg architectural firm has come up with a Romans-meet-the-Jetsons plan for the redevelopment of a high-profile downtown heritage building.

North Portage Development Corp. recently asked architects Sasa Radulovic and Johanna Hurme of 5468796 Architecture to devise a redevelopment plan for the long-vacant 103-year-old Mitchell-Copp Building on the north side of Portage Avenue between Hargrave and Donald streets.

A team of engineers and architects, including Hurme and Radulovic, had conducted a detailed inspection of the fire-damaged building and concluded it was structurally sound and worth preserving. So North Portage asked them to put together a redevelopment plan it could use to market the former neo-classic banking hall to prospective buyers or tenants.

What they and their design team came up with was a building-within-a-building concept that retains the original stone and brick walls, but adds a giant, translucent "box" of office space suspended in midair above a basement-level restaurant.

Radulovic said the box will be surrounded on all sides by empty space so that natural light from the rooftop skylight can filter all the way down to the basement.

The box will include four floors of office space (2,000 square feet per floor), and will make extensive use of contemporary building materials such as translucent glass and plastic and synthetic materials.

"We think the contrast (between old and new) will be quite neat," Hurme said in an interview Friday.

North Portage CEO Jim August said corporation officials are "delighted" with the design and believe it will be a valuable tool for marketing the building, which has been vacant since 1992 when the interior was gutted by fire.

North Portage acquired the building in late 2007 as part of its ongoing efforts to revitalize the North Portage area.

"We've been talking to a couple of different groups about either buying or leasing it, or even doing some kind of joint venture," August said. "We'll work with them in any way that makes sense...."

He said it's anybody's guess how long it will take to strike a deal.

"I would hope it's sooner rather than later. It will happen, but whether it will be in three to six months or six to nine months, I just don't know."

He admitted that getting a deal done probably won't be easy.

"We're in tough economic times, so I don't expect to have them (prospective buyers or tenants) kicking down our door."

The Mitchell-Copp Building is one of a number of high-profile, downtown heritage buildings that are getting an extreme makeover.

Work is to resume this spring on redevelopment of the former Masonic Temple at Donald Street and Ellice Avenue, and on the three-storey Hample Building at 271 Portage Ave.

And the city's CentreVenture Development Corp. should know within a month or so whether a second attempt at reviving the Hample Building's next-door neighbour -- the long-vacant Avenue Building -- will proceed.

Here is an update:

THE MASONIC TEMPLE

Also know as the former home of Mother Tucker's Restaurant, the 114-year-old Masonic Temple is receiving a radical overhaul, which included power-washing and repainting the exterior, installing new windows and gutting the interior.

Now, Wolfrom Engineering is waiting for warmer weather to begin the next phase in the $2.5-million redevelopment. That will involve adding a glass atrium on the second and third floors on the north side of the building. The atrium will run the depth of the property, extend out over the sidewalk and provide additional space for Wolfrom Engineering, which will be relocating its offices to the second floor of the building.

"This opens it (the building) up and brings it out to the street," owner Dan Wolfrom said in an interview.

He said the plan is for his firm to buy the building from its owners, restaurateur Peter Ginakes and business partner Bob Harris. It hopes to find one or two retail tenants -- possibly a restaurant -- to lease the main floor and to convert the third floor into six loft-style apartments. Five will be about 700 square feet, and the sixth will be about 1,200 sq. ft.

Wolfrom said he hopes to have all the renovations completed by late summer and to have the building fully occupied by the end of the year.

THE HAMPLE BUILDING

Local developer/businessman John Caci said new windows will be installed this month and he hopes to also have the exterior upgrades completed by early summer.

In the meantime, he has the building advertised for sale or lease after a plan to establish a hairdressing school on the main floor fell through. If he can get the right price -- it's listed at $1,445,000 -- he'll sell. If he can't find a buyer, he plans to convert the top two floors to office space and the main floor to office or retail. He'll redevelop one floor at a time as tenants are found.

Listing agent Elaine Cowan of Avison Young Commercial Real Estate said she's received leasing inquires from restaurant operators, as well as the federal government but no deals are in the works.

THE AVENUE BUILDING

A tentative deal to sell this 105-year-old former office building to Saskatoon developer Kingdom Ventures Corp. could be in jeopardy because Kingdom has been unable to find a new equity partner to replace one that backed out after last fall's stock market meltdown.

Kingdom co-owner David Johnston said talks are continuing with the building's owner -- CentreVenture -- and with a Winnipeg group that might be interested in taking an equity stake in the building.

He said he already has a redevelopment team and a plan in place. It calls for the main floor to be converted to retail and indoor-parking space, the second floor to office space and the top four floors to residential condominiums.

All he needs is a new equity partner, which would then enable him to obtain financing.

"If I'm not able to find the right partner in the next month or so, I'll probably have to move on," Johnston said. "This has dragged on for quite a while already (he struck a tentative deal to buy it last August)... and for the good of the city and the good of the downtown, I don't think we want this to drag on too long."

If the Kingdom deal fails, it would be the second time a tentative deal to sell the building has fallen through. Winnipeg-based A.S.H. Management planned to convert it to a "green" commercial building, but handed it back to CentreVenture after it couldn't find an anchor tenant.

Know of any newsworthy or interesting trends or developments in the local office, retail, or industrial real estate sectors? Let real estate reporter Murray McNeill know at the e-mail address below, or at 697-7254.

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2009 B3

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