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New apartments in core

Place Louis Riel to revert to former rental-suite model

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Close to 300 more apartments will be coming onto the downtown market over the next 12 to 24 months as another highrise hotel converts back into an apartment block.

The 302-unit Place Louis Riel Suites Hotel at the corner of Smith Street and St. Mary Avenue originally was an apartment block when it opened in 1970, but was converted into an extended-stay hotel in the 1980s.

Now the Edmonton-based real estate company that owns it -- Westcorp Properties Inc. -- has decided to go back to the future and convert most of the suites back into studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Place Louis Riel is following in the footsteps of the nearby 271-room York the Hotel (formerly the Sheraton Winnipeg), which began as an apartment block, was converted into a hotel and then morphed back into apartments about three years ago.

"This is a trend that is going right across the country," Place Louis Riel general manager John Saad said, citing three recent examples where the same thing happened in Alberta -- two in Calgary and one in Edmonton.

"I don't know what the reason for it is," Saad said, although he suspects it may have something to do with the low apartment-vacancy rate (1.2 per cent) in Winnipeg and other major Canadian cities.

Saad said the decision wasn't made because the hotel was struggling. Although he wouldn't say what the occupancy rate is, he said it continues to do quite well.

In fact, Westcorp intends to keep some suites -- it hasn't decided how many -- as extended-stay hotel rooms, he said.

"But the ownership group felt that with (the development of) the SHED (sports, hospitality and entertainment district) and the recent emphasis on more downtown living, the market is also ideal for bringing... more apartments back on the market." Saad said the conversion will be done in phases, with the first wave -- about 100 units -- expected to hit the market in the next 12 to 18 months and the rest to come on stream within the next 24 months.

Westcorp is still in the midst of a $15-million renovation project that began in 2007 when it decided to upgrade to an executive-suite, extended-stay hotel. Saad said about two-thirds of the suites have been upgraded with things such as black granite countertops, dark-wood cabinetry, stainless-steel appliances, leather furniture, flat-panel TVs and refurbished bathrooms.

He said the remaining 100 or so -- seven floors in the 25-storey complex -- will be done over the next 12 to 18 months. And they will be the first group of suites to be converted to apartments once the upgrades are completed.

While the addition of nearly 300 new rental units is good news for frustrated apartment-seekers, it also comes at a time when local hotel, tourism and convention-industry officials have been calling for more hotel rooms for the downtown.

They say hundreds more rooms will be needed to accommodate an anticipated influx of visitors as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Winnipeg Convention Centre addition and upgrades to the Assiniboine Park and Zoo come on stream over the next few years.

Manitoba Hotel Association president Jim Baker is hoping this latest announcement will act as a further catalyst for some new hotel developments in the area.

"I'm hoping this not-good news will be followed by some real positive news about a new (hotel) development," he said. "The time is ripe... and I think we might see two (new hotels)."

He noted that Winnipeg's Lakeview Management Inc. said recently it plans to built one, and possibly two, new hotels on a surface parking lot it owns on St. Mary Avenue immediately west of the convention centre.

The Place Louis Riel conversion comes a few days after Ontario developer Fortress Real Developments Inc. confirmed plans to build two highrise commercial/residential towers downtown.

There are several other developers looking at some mixed-use downtown developments in the same general area as Place Louis Riel.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2012 B3

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