Imagine a Winnipeg that could build the Union Bank Tower, Canada's first skyscraper, the nation's tallest building, crowned with the British Commonwealth's highest flagpole. Imagine a Winnipeg that could have more construction in a single year than Toronto and Montreal combined. The Winnipeg of 1904 optimistically pushed skyward with every new building, marking its place on the world stage with its towers, just as developing cities such as Dubai and Shanghai do today.
At the heart of Winnipeg's rampant vertical growth was the security of the most sophisticated high-pressure fire-protection system in the world. At full production, 35,000 litres of Red River water could be pushed through a 13-kilometre network of pipes, powered by six massive engines housed in the James Avenue Pumping Station.
Since being decommissioned in 1986, the hulking machinery in the pumping station has been silent, its windows boarded up, its roof and walls decaying. Over the past quarter-century, proposals to transform the building into a brew pub, a restaurant, condominiums, a gallery, a museum and office space have all come and gone. Each time, the cost of converting a century-old industrial building into suitable public space has made the business case for redevelopment unworkable.
Realizing time had become an enemy for this charming old neighbour, a local group of engineers, architects, builders, developers and heritage advocates came together in late 2012 with the goal of finding a final solution that would preserve the pumping station from demolition, celebrate its unique industrial character and transform it into the social heart of its burgeoning urban neighbourhood.
To overcome the financial hurdles responsible for killing the previous proposals that relied on the old building for its economic return, the group began to look at an intervention large enough to make the pumphouse restoration economically feasible. Their proposal, something as brash as one might have seen in 1904 Winnipeg, is to build a 24-storey, mixed-use tower above the existing heritage building.
Each floor of the tower will house 10 to 12 units, ranging between 650 and 700 square feet. By taking a long-term approach to the investment, developing a rental property instead of the typical condominiums began to make economic and functional sense for the project. The hope is introducing a younger, more diverse demographic at a higher density will change the dynamic of the area and inject a new vibrancy into the neighbourhood, making the building more attractive to renters while supporting the pumphouse and fledgling retail spaces along Waterfront Drive and throughout the Exchange District.
Designed by Sotirios Kotoulas, the esthetic vision for the tower is to create a forward-looking image that is a modern representation of the industrial machinery hidden within the walls of the pumphouse itself. Structural and mechanical systems will be celebrated on the exterior, with visible cross-bracing and bolted steel connections set against refined materials of masonry and glass to create an urban industrial esthetic, unique in Winnipeg's skyline. Rounded concrete stairwells along the north side recall the smokestacks of the steam plant that once rose over the adjacent site, further evoking this industrial imagery.
With the tower providing the financial backbone for the project, the historic pumphouse is freed from being an economic driver, allowing it to become a public amenity for the city and surrounding neighbourhood.
Few Winnipeggers have had the opportunity to experience the magic within the walls of the James Avenue Pumping Station. Entering the space is as inspiring as the majestic marble-clad banking halls along Main Street. Streaming daylight glistens off massive machinery that looks as pristine as the day it arrived from England a century ago. The vision is to transform this hidden beauty into a space for all Winnipeggers to experience, a machine garden, a cultural-district hub, a four-season piazza for a northern city, a 21st-century urban park without precedent.
The spectacular machinery will be maintained and celebrated with a series of new activities programmed around, above and through them to create an active and vibrant public space. A mezzanine-level gallery will run along the perimeter masonry walls, accessed by a catwalk cantilevered into the grand volume. An urban café will sit at the east side of the building and spill out onto Waterfront Drive. Rooms will be dramatically hung from the ceiling to create new floor space suspended above the cast-iron machines. The building will include spaces for the neighbourhood to gather, performance areas, event space and niches for people to simply get lost by themselves among the mechanical statues in a lively, four-season urban public place designed for a winter city.
The proposal for the James Avenue Pumping Station will undoubtedly meet opposition as it proceeds. Area residents have already come forward to voice concern the building violates the eight-storey height restriction outlined in the Waterfront Drive zoning bylaws. They feel a building three times taller than its neighbours would detract from the charm of the adjacent low-rise, historic neighbourhood, altering the character of the adjacent Exchange District and setting a precedent for more highrise construction along the river. Many feel the special nature of the pumphouse itself will be lost with a modern tower rising above it and express concern that views from other residential properties will be compromised.
The Exchange District is our city's most valuable urban resource. Unlocking its potential has been and will be the key catalyst of Winnipeg's downtown renaissance. A strong commitment to heritage and character preservation is critical in the Exchange itself, but its edges, filled with open lots and derelict buildings, are an important opportunity to inject new buildings with greater density and diversity in support of the historic neighbourhood. The pumphouse proposal asks important questions. What is the vision for growth around the edges of the Exchange? A continuation of the same or something different? What type of neighbourhood should we build? The answers will define the face of our downtown in the future. The Winnipeg of 1904 certainly would have embraced such a radical scheme. What will the Winnipeg of 2014 do?
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.