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Bell Block gets ringing endorsement

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A Winnipeg developer is breathing new life into another long-vacant Exchange District heritage building.

Karl Loepp, president and owner of Lola Construction Management Inc., is in the midst of converting the 107-year-old Bell Block at 370 Donald St. into a mixed-use complex with retail -- possibly a restaurant -- on the main floor, and 34 studio/one-bedroom rental apartments on the other five floors.

Loepp said the suites will all be open-concept, loft-style units, with exposed brick walls, exposed timber posts and beams, 2.7-metre to 3.6-metre-high ceilings (nine to 12 feet), and 2.3-metre-high (71/2 feet) windows.

Tenants will have the option of leasing either a furnished or an unfurnished suite.

"If we get a lot of demand from people who want furnished, we will furnish the whole building," Loepp said. "And if they want unfurnished, we will accommodate them."

To keep rents "affordable" -- Loepp said they'll start at $800 for an unfurnished unit -- the apartments have been kept small (400 to 550 square feet in size).

A couple of display suites are now ready, and another company Loepp owns -- -- will begin marketing the units within the next few weeks. The rest of the suites should be ready for occupancy by March next year.

Loepp, whose company has been involved in about 15 apartment-block rehabilitation projects over the past 10 years, wouldn't say how much he's spending on the Donald Street project.

The complex, which is located on the northwest corner of Donald Street and Cumberland Avenue, will be called 370 Donald Street and was originally designed as a warehouse. It was later converted to light manufacturing, retail and office use.

Its last tenant was Gray's-Carter's Auction and Antique Warehouse, whose owners -- Michael and Del Stevens -- also owned the building.

The Stevens sold it in 2007 to another Winnipeg developer -- I. Rentz Real Estate Management Group -- who also wanted to convert it into a retail/apartment complex. The city later seized the building because of unpaid taxes, and the Stevens reacquired it last year in a tax sale.

"We hadn't even listed. Karl came to us... and said he'd love to buy it," Del Stevens said in an interview. "And we were happy as heck (to sell it to him). We always wanted it to be redeveloped. We just couldn't do it ourselves and didn't have any use for it ourselves because it was too big."

It was the city's downtown development agency -- CentreVenture Development Corp. -- that told Loepp about the building.

Loretta Martin, the agency's director of development, said they were familiar with some older apartment buildings Loepp's company had refurbished in the Broadway area and they knew he was looking for another downtown project to tackle.

Martin said the Donald Street building is ideally suited for rental units because it's located between the University of Winnipeg and Red River College's downtown campus.

"And we can always use more market rental units in the downtown."

Loepp said he would never have tackled the project without the financial aid he received under the city-provincial Downtown Residential Development Grants Program, which CentreVenture administers.

He wouldn't say how much money Lola received under the popular program, which has provided $40 million in grants to 27 projects. Those projects are expected to produce about 1,500 new downtown residential units -- about 900 condominiums and 600 rental apartments.

Although Loepp has been in the construction business for about 25 years, this is his first project involving the conversion of a commercial building to residential use.

"It's been a surprisingly large amount of work. Very complex... and costly."

To convert the 30,000-square-foot building to residential use, Lola had to basically tear out the inside and start from scratch.

They then replaced the roof, the mechanical systems -- heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing -- the floors, interior walls, and all of the windows. It also built new washrooms and a new lobby area and installed a new elevator.


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 email address below, or at 204-697-7254.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2012 B6


Updated on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 9:29 AM CST: corrects URL, adds link

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