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Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District looks to the future

Peter Caulfield
Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District looks to the future
WWW.EXCHANGEDISTRICT.ORG — The Exchange District is a National Historic Site located one block north of Portage and Main in Winnipeg. The Exchange District Plan 2022, which was adopted recently by Winnipeg City Council, aims to draw a roadmap to the area’s future.

Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District has just drawn itself a roadmap that will help guide its way into the future.

The Exchange District Plan 2022 (EDP), which was adopted recently by Winnipeg City Council, is the result of a collaboration between the Exchange District BIZ (Business Improvement Zone) and the City of Winnipeg.

According to its authors, the purpose of the EDP is:

  • To define a long-range vision for the Exchange District;
  • to establish priorities and objectives to align efforts and to guide decision-making, and
  • to identify directions and actions to help achieve the vision and objectives.

David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, said the plan came out of the growing sense the city had been making decisions about the district’s infrastructure that did not seem to be part of a big-picture plan.

“It appeared that a series of one-off decisions were being made instead,” said Pensato.

The last time there was a cohesive plan for the Exchange District was more than 20 years ago.

“We want to see the Exchange District become a complete community, with a lot of people living there, too,” said Pensato.

Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, said all levels of government – and their money – need to get involved in the Exchange District.

“It worked with the Core Area Initiative (a large Winnipeg urban regeneration project) and it will work again,” said Tugwell.

The Exchange District is a National Historic Site located one block north of Portage and Main.

Twenty city blocks in area, it is known for its intact collection of early 20th century warehouses, financial institutions and early terracotta-clad skyscrapers, about 150 heritage buildings in total.

At the turn of the 20th century Winnipeg was one of the fastest-growing cities in North America. By 1911, it had become the third-largest city in Canada, after only Montreal and Toronto. More than two dozen rail lines converged near the city centre, attracting over 200 wholesale businesses.

However, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the First World War slowed Winnipeg’s growth and its importance as a wholesale centre declined in the 1910s and 1920s.

By the 1940s, many of the Exchange District’s warehouses had been converted into factories and workshops for the garment trade.

After the Second World War, much of Winnipeg’s downtown development shifted southwest.

The lack of new development, plus the demand for inexpensive wholesaling and manufacturing space, left the Exchange District largely intact.

As a result, Winnipeg today has one of the best maintained early 20th century commercial districts in North America.

Exchange District Plan 2022 describes the district’s accomplishments, opportunities and challenges at length and in some detail.

Some examples:

  • Development activity has been steady, with a recent focus on residential and mixed-use developments.
  • The district’s heritage buildings continue to attract investment with one-half of all development projects since 2001 including a heritage building.
  • Approximately 12 per cent of the total plan area is made up of surface parking lots and vacant lots, which means many development opportunities.

On the other hand, adapting existing buildings for new uses can be a challenge.

Structural limitations, such as inadequate accessibility features, air quality systems and fire protection components, make it difficult and expensive to meet modern building code requirements.

Although there is plenty of investor interest in the Exchange District, the municipal review and approval process can be time consuming and difficult to navigate, particularly for infill developments.

Redeveloping a heritage building can be expensive and challenging, particularly when there aren’t enough craftspeople to do the work and financial incentives are insufficient for large heritage projects.

Although redevelopment in the Exchange has created new housing and businesses, it has also meant fewer affordable studio spaces for artists who have long relied on the area’s existing warehouse buildings.

Sasa Radulovic, founding partner of 5468796 Architecture Inc., has lived in the Exchange District since 2004.

Radulovic is optimistic about the district’s future.

“The transformation of the Exchange District from what was once a neglected and run-down part of the city 40 to 50 years ago to what it is today has been slow enough that there are still spaces at reasonable rents for small businesses, and they won’t disappear,” he said.

Winnipeg is fortunate to be growing slowly compared to other cities in Western Canada.

“Although there is a growing amount of residential development in the Exchange District, it’s alive, not a sleepy dormitory suburb,” said Radulovic. “Both of sides of Main Street are buzzing.”

For more information on the Exchange District Plan 2022, go to

Recent Comments (1 comments)

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Rob Mallard Image Rob Mallard

I believe that I once read that Winnipeg was the first city in North America to have a Planning Department. From memory, it was established circa 1920. The 40 year building boom ended the same year and explosive growth never returned to Winnipeg.


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