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True North Square has towering ambitions to revitalize Winnipeg’s downtown

Hope may not always spring eternal along downtown Winnipeg’s oft-frozen streets.

But the buds of a revitalization are now set to bloom following the announcement of a $400-million “live, work and play” development unlike anything in the city’s history.

Just as the Winnipeg Jets’ playoffs dreams were snuffed out, a new sense of optimism emerged in the form of a four-tower project spearheaded by the National Hockey League club’s ownership group.

Construction site preparation at True North Square began even before the $400-million project was announced last week. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

Named True North Square, the one-million-square-foot-plus private development has been a poorly kept secret in Winnipeg. Last week, True North Sports and Entertainment made it official at a press conference at MTS Centre, the Jets’ home, kitty corner from the development’s main site: a massive excavation already in progress for weeks.

“I honestly believe the renaissance of our downtown is well under way,” said Mark Chipman, True North’s chairman. (He and David Thomson, whose family owns The Globe and Mail among other entities, are the biggest shareholders of privately-held True North.)

True North Square, whose four towers are to include a luxury hotel, class-A office, residential and retail space, is an ambitious play for the Prairie city.

Nothing on this scale has been built in its downtown. And its backers, which include venerable agriculture and food giant James Richardson and Sons, are wagering the city’s long-suffering downtown is poised to reinvent itself.

In effect, True North Square could reorient the city’s downtown heart to this new sports, hospitality and entertainment district from Portage and Main – often derided for its barriers barring pedestrian traffic, making it an inhospitably barren key intersection even when winter winds aren’t freezing exposed skin. The project’s tag line is “redefining the heart of the city.”

Vancouver-based Northland Properties will have a huge presence at True North Square, with a 275-room Sutton Place Hotel and the 130-suite Sutton Place Residences. (True North Sports and Entertainment)

And to those who know Winnipeg’s rich history – True North backers among them – the development is a step toward restoring the past glory of the city dubbed “Chicago of the North” at the dawn of the 20th century.

Today momentum is now such that True North has attracted high-profile partners, including Vancouver-based Northland Properties. The family-owned conglomerate, whose holdings include the Sutton Place hotel chain, will construct two towers on the secondary site of the project: Sutton Place Hotel, featuring 275 rooms, and the 130-suite Sutton Place Residences.

“I think in the next 50 to 100 years, downtown Winnipeg will be more important than it’s been recently,” said Tom Gaglardi, chairman and chief executive officer of Northland Properties.

Yet as bold as it is for Winnipeg, the project is not blazing new trails. It is following a tried and true model, said Katie Hall, director of legal and corporate affairs with True North Real Estate Development.

“By no means do we think we’ve come up with anything incredibly innovative,” she said about the project whose centrepiece is an outdoor plaza that opens toward the MTS Centre across the street, where presumably pregame events will occur.

The main commercial tower is already partly leased, to heavyweight tenants Scotiabank and Winnipeg law firm Thompson Dorfman Sweatman. (True North Sports and Entertainment)

Ms. Hall said there has been a trend across North America in which sports and entertainment companies use arenas – the “bread and butter of what they do” – as anchors to develop around. (Think Toronto’s Maple Leaf Square, Edmonton’s soon-to-be Ice District, or the entertainment complex surrounding the Staples Center in Los Angeles.)

Winnipeg is also doing what other cities are doing: moving away from suburban sprawl in favour of rebuilding an aging core, said Frank Magliocco, national leader for the Canadian real estate practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “But it’s no longer a trend; it’s now a norm.”

As with other downtown renewals, central to Winnipeg’s is its pro sports arena. The MTS Centre, constructed in 2004 by True North, made the return of the Jets feasible and led to other nearby developments, including the Centrepoint office and retail building, whose main tenant is engineering firm Stantec. But True North Square is the largest in scale.

“The fact they’re placing a bet and saying, ‘We want to develop the core,’ is a function of what we’re seeing globally,” Mr. Magliocco said.

While the True North Square concept had been a rumour since the Jets’ return, the press conference last week offered some surprises: four towers instead of three, Richardson and Sons as 50-per-cent equity partners, and the main tower being 50 per cent leased already with anchor tenants such as Bank of Nova Scotia and Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, one of Manitoba’s largest law firms.

The $400-million True North Square will take on the look of similar North American projects built around sports arenas, including those in Toronto, Edmonton and Los Angeles. (True North Sports and Entertainment)

“It’s a big statement that those tenants are on board,” says Lee Billinkoff, senior vice-president of office leasing with Cushman and Wakefield, which helped secure them.

Yet True North’s new tenants will leave significant vacancies on Portage and Main a few blocks away, including 201 Portage, one of the city’s premier properties.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” said Rosanne Hill Blaisdell, managing director of leasing with the Regina-based Harvard Developments, which almost two years ago purchased 201 Portage, once headquarters of Canwest Global Communications.

Thompson Dorfman Sweatman’s departure “does create a vacancy, and a very serious one, but having said that, we are proponents of investment in making downtowns greater places to be,” she said.

Ms. Hill Blaisdell added Winnipeg is “a fragile market” so it could “take some time to replace” large tenants.

True North Square is so massive that it has the potential to shift Winnipeg's core away from Portage and Main. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

But Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to make Portage and Main pedestrian-friendly could make filling vacancies easier, she added.

Moreover, the city has very little available class-A office space with a vacancy rate of 4.4 per cent in the last quarter of 2015. By comparison, Toronto’s was 6 per cent.

With the addition of True North Square, Mr. Magliocco said there could be a depressing “impact on net effective rents and space – unless the economy is growing.”

Manitoba’s economy is expanding, forecast for 2.4 per cent this year compared with the national average of 2.2 per cent. Whether that translates into growth for downtown remains to be seen.

True North and its partners obviously believe it does.

“It’s a touch of a leap,” Northland’s Mr. Gaglardi said. “But it’s not that big of a leap when you look at the people involved.”

The $400-million, mixed-use True North Square project involves four high-rises on two adjacent sites between Winnipeg’s MTS Arena and the RBC Convention Centre. Here’s a look at some of the tower details:

By the numbers

The $400-million, mixed-use True North Square project involves four high-rises on two adjacent sites between Winnipeg’s MTS Arena and the RBC Convention Centre. Here’s a look at some of the details:

Tower 1. Named Scotiabank Tower at True North Square, the 17-storey office tower will flank the outdoor plaza and have a sweeping, curved design. Its 365,000 square feet of office space will have features such as high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass. Expected completion is 2018.

Tower 2. Also on the outdoor plaza, the 24-storey building will have a similar design along with 200,000 square feet of space including a plaza, second-level restaurant and retail. It will also include boutique office floor plates and top-floor residences along with roof-top amenities. Expected completion is 2019.

Tower 3. The Sutton Place Hotel will be a 27-storey, 275-room high-rise with a roof-top garden and restaurant on the main floor that will “boast the best of modern European design with the highest level of service within that industry,” said Jim Ludlow, True North Sports and Entertainment’s president and chief executive officer.

Tower 4. The adjacent Sutton Place Residences will be 17 storeys with 130 units. It will share facilities with the hotel, including indoor swimming pool, fitness centre, spa and conference facilities.

Outdoor plaza. A public plaza, a two-acre space between towers 1 and 2, is being considered for a variety of uses, from outdoor concerts and pregame events to ice skating and festivals. Mr. Ludlow said Truth North is seeking public input.

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