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In downtown development, hype reigns supreme

Only two of nine towers planned are being built now

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Pumping station redevelopment: A mixed-use tower is still theoretical.

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Pumping station redevelopment: A mixed-use tower is still theoretical.

On paper, the prospects for high-rise construction have never looked better in downtown Winnipeg, where developers hope to build nine new towers over the next three years.

But across the entire expanse of downtown, you'll find a grand total of only two cranes operating at high-rise construction sites.

Despite the presence of plenty of optimism, it remains far easier to hype a new tower in this town than it is to secure the cash to actually build such an expensive project. Every developer and their dachshund may wish to build a downtown Winnipeg highrise, but the fact remains there are only two of these towers under construction at the moment.

On Assiniboine Avenue, east of the Midtown Bridge, Winnipeg's Crystal Developers is well into the $45-million construction of Heritage Landing on Assiniboine, a 25-storey apartment tower. This is the project that was pushed off surplus city land on Fort Street following an outcry over the proximity to Upper Fort Garry's former footprint.

The other tower is rising on the northwest corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street, where Winnipeg's Longboat Development Corp. has erected the bones of a 20-storey hotel-and-office building. This is the heart of Longboat's $75-million Centrepoint complex, which faces MTS Centre.

Given the slow pace of downtown development, these two structures are significant additions to the heart of the city. But until more building permits are issued and more cranes wheel into place, this pair of projects is pretty much it.

Even ardent downtown boosters would be forced to concede it's unlikely all seven of the other towers proposed for downtown will actually materialize. That's because most of the projects involve condo units that must be sold in advance in order for developers to secure the financing they need to actually start construction.

"They're all dabbling in the presale market for sure," said Ross McGowan, president and CEO of downtown development agency CentreVenture. "As a developer, you want to test the waters, (regardless) of what the banks might want."

On Graham Avenue, for example, Toronto's Fortress Real Developments and Mady Development Corp. have declared their intention to build Winnipeg's tallest building, a mixed-use high-rise structure the could max out at 42 storeys. Fortress and Mady are planning to hold a media launch on Sept. 6 to generate interest in the project -- as well the advance sales required to actually make it happen.

Winnipeg's Longboat has already sold units in Glasshouse Skylofts, a 21-storey tower it hopes to build on Hargrave Avenue as part of the Centrepoint complex. Although the prospects appear encouraging, there is no green light for construction just yet.

Even D Condo, a virtually sold-out tower planned for the former Restaurant Dubrovnik site on Assiniboine Avenue, remains in the planning stages. A building permit has yet to be issued for the proposed 24-storey tower, the City of Winnipeg confirmed.

Creswin Properties, the Asper family firm, is still trying get its Project W off the ground on Main Street, just north of the existing 201 Portage Ave. tower. The 28-storey hotel-and-office tower remains in the "due-diligence" stage, Creswin president Dan Edwards said in a statement Tuesday.

Two towers planned for the Manitoba Public Insurance-owned surface lot west cityplace are even further away from development, as Longboat and ARTIS Real Estate Investment Trust are still fine-tuning the concept for what's they've dubbed So/Po Square. The original option to develop this land south of Graham Avenue expired in June but has since been extended, said MPI spokesman Brian Smiley.

The ninth and final tower proposed for downtown doesn't even have a developer attached. That would be a highly ambitious plan to erect a 24-storey tower on the site of the historic James Avenue Pumping Station, which downtown development agency CentreVenture has been trying to shop for decades.

"There is a whole lot of positioning going in right now," said Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone. He too concedes it's unlikely every one of the proposed towers will actually get off the ground.

Nonetheless, even hype is good for downtown Winnipeg at this point, he maintained.

"We are literally creating a new market where none has existed before," Grande said. "There is more interest today in doing a whole whack of projects than there has been at any time over the past decade."

Hopefully some of that interest is backed up by cash -- and actual shovels in the ground.

Do the proposed towers promise an improved downtown? Or are they pie in the sky? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 28, 2013 B1


Updated on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 6:41 AM CDT: Adds photo, changes headline, adds question for discussion

12:01 PM: Adds map; removes sidebar, which includes same information.

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Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

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