Warehouse a housing hope for Main Street

Facility could be turned into affordable units -- if the right buyer shows up


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A 20,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Main Street and Jarvis Avenue is up for sale, representing an opportunity to be redeveloped into a useful property — such as low-barrier, affordable housing — along the beleaguered part of Main just north of the underpass.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2021 (516 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A 20,000-square-foot warehouse at the corner of Main Street and Jarvis Avenue is up for sale, representing an opportunity to be redeveloped into a useful property — such as low-barrier, affordable housing — along the beleaguered part of Main just north of the underpass.

All it needs is a community-focused buyer to step up and make a significant investment in an area of the city where the need for such a development has arguably never been more obvious, with housing shortfalls magnified during the pandemic.

“It has tons of potential,” says realtor D.J. Campbell Trudeau, of Century 21 Bachman & Associates, the listing agent for the 1908-built structure. In addition to housing, that potential could include street-level independent retail, such as a grocery shop, or community service locations.

The 814 Main St. property is up for sale after its current owners spent more than three years working on plans for a residential conversion with micro apartments. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press)

It’s potential the current owner recognized, but after getting to the brink of developing the property into 60 “micro” apartments with shared amenities a few years ago, the idea stalled for reasons he said are unrelated to the project’s viability. More on that later.

As of now, the building’s four storeys are being used primarily as storage, though it mostly stores dust. But not so long ago, there was a lot going on at 814 Main St.

Designed by brothers A & W Melville, the building opened in 1908 as the Grand Opera House, according to city heritage officer Murray Peterson. It showed live plays and movies, but the venture was short-lived, sold in 1913 to close out an estate and meet mortgage payments. In 1918, the building underwent a significant renovation, with the main floor cleared for three side-by-side storefronts and the upper floors used as offices and manufacturing areas. The renovation took a failed opera house and transformed it into a business hub.

Redubbed the Traders Building, a series of long-term tenants soon came in, making the building a lively spot at the corner of what were then two vital industrial streets. Henderson’s Directories, which list local businesses and enterprises as well as where they operated, from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s showed businesses like A. Kaplan Jeweller, Dominion Electric Co., Secter’s Knitting Mill, J. Demkiw Tailor shop, Royal Shoe Store, and the Peoples Book Store, which operated out of the building for over 50 years.

The building was owned for much of the 20th century by Progress Candy Manufacturers and later the Galpern Candy Co.

Despite significant wear and tear — the pediment has been stripped away, as have the cornices — the block is foundationally solid. “This building was built to last,” Peterson said.

However, as the last century waned, much of the industry and independent business that was situated there moved elsewhere or closed down, and residential housing investment in the strip has lagged at a sluggish pace. Just a few blocks south, luxury developers lined up to salvage empty factories and warehouses into lofts and condos, a transformation which some herald as the reason for the Exchange District’s reversal of fortune.

On the north side of the underpass, there have mostly been false starts to such a reversal.

The building at the corner of Main Street and Jarvis Avenue as it appeared around 1970. Built in 1908 as the Grand Opera House, it was transformed into a business hub with storefronts, offices and manufacturing a decade later. (City of Winnipeg)

About five years ago, the owners of the Northern Hotel bought the building at 814 Main St., which is sometimes listed as 207 Jarvis Ave., with no real plans for its use.

“My business partner was home sick trawling the internet,” said the Northern’s Keith Horn. “He told me the building’s for sale. Says we should take a look at it.”

Horn and his partner, who came to Winnipeg from Ukraine in the mid-1970s, and is now in his late seventies himself, met with the owner, struck up a conversation, and bought it.

“We didn’t really have a vision at the time,” Horn says. The initial idea was to use it as storage, but zoning didn’t allow for it. They considered later using it as an arts centre, but were told they’d need expensive elevator upgrades to do it.

Then their architect suggested that residential conversions could give the building a new purpose: the preliminary plan became 52 “micro” apartments, about 100-square-feet each, with communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, along with eight “self-contained” suites with their own bathrooms. Horn said the common areas were thought of as a way to keep the rent lower and to promote socializing.

The ownership, along with local firm Cherry Construction, got to work. And a lot was needed, said Chris Forsyth, owner of Cherry, which operated out of 207 Jarvis for a stretch.

At that point, the building was in extremely rough shape, Forsyth said. The roof was rotting, the wiring needed to be modernized. There were decades-old boxes of Christmas candies and Easter bunnies; the giant wooden paddle used to stir the candy cauldrons was still there, wedged behind junk. On the main floor, the names of the Royal Shoe Store and Demkiw tailor shop are still visible in the entryways.

Forsyth did the initial drawings for the building, the construction for which his company would work on. It was a project he was passionate about, not only because it would have been his company’s biggest to that point, but because it could actually make a difference.

The 20,000-square-foot building is mostly empty, but has a lot of potential. (Supplied)

But after over three years of work and planning, the idea fell apart, and Cherry moved on, with the future of the project appearing dead in the water after major investments had already been made, and little indication the plan would progress without the owners’ go-ahead, Forsyth says. “Nothing else has happened since.”

Horn said the reason for that stagnation is personal differences between himself and his business partner, who is 76 and at a different stage of life. “We had plans drawn up, went for financing, and that went through,” Horn says. “Last minute, my partner was in Europe for the summer, and it stalled.” His partner was “looking to wind things down” he said.

After listing the property unsuccessfully, Horn is hoping that by putting it on the market again with a new agency, it might stimulate some renewed interest.

“I’ve decided if I’m not going to do anything with this building, someone else should,” he said. “So we’re trying to sell the building along with the plans, and hoping someone with all the homelessness going on accepts the idea and makes it happen.” The building’s sale isn’t contingent on the exact specifications of the plan being used, and there’s still significant work to be done.

“Here’s a building that has a lot of potential,” Horn said. “If other people can make it happen, maybe it’s time.”

“It’s an awesome building, and I wish it would have worked out,” Forsyth said.

If ever there was a time for it to work out, it’s now. Over the past year, the need for affordable housing has been magnified, with housing experts saying the full extent of the pandemic’s impact — on people living on the street or below the poverty line — still being revealed.

“The need for affordable housing and low-barrier housing has been beyond critical for many years,” said Chantal Smith, the North End Housing Renewal Corp.’s program lead for tenant-landlord co-operation, who said affordable housing also needs to have proper amenities, including space.

Designed by brothers A & W Melville, the building opened in 1908 as the Grand Opera House, according to city heritage officer Murray Peterson. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Now is the time to start thinking about repurposing some of these mammoth old buildings to align with the homelessness crisis we’re currently in,” she said.

What’s holding those projects back is often hesitancy to take on that challenge and commit to it.

“There’s a lack of momentum perhaps, maybe a lack of incentive,” she said. “But if someone does that, they could be groundbreakers. That might be an exciting idea for developers out there.”


Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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