VIA Upgrades Historic Winnipeg Property

The crown jewel in VIA Rail`s property assets is receiving a major facelift to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Winnipeg`s Union Station will undergo a $6.5-million dollar renovation, including $3-million for tenant improvements. In addition to serving as a train station, approximately half of the 240,000 square foot building is fully-occupied, leased space.

“Winnipeg is the largest station we own,” says Michael Woelcke, Via Rail Senior Manager, Real Estate, Western Services.

The work is part of VIA’s billion-dollar refurbishment started in 2007. $94-million has been earmarked to renovate train stations new and old from coast to coast. But the Winnipeg project is big.

“This is the largest project we are undertaking in western Canada at this point,” says Woelcke. “There’s nothing else of the same scale or significance.”

A Grand Dame

Union Station is a classic Beaux-Arts style building designed by the same architects responsible for Grand Central Station in New York City.

Opened June 24th, 1912, Union Station shares styling with Legislative buildings in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta; Union Station in Toronto; and the Supreme Court of Canada Building in Ottawa; pre-dating all the aforementioned.

Built by the Canadian Northern Railway, National Transcontinental, and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Tyndall stone structure was beautifully outfitted in a bid to attract and solidify business for the three partners. At the time, no fewer than 12 railway companies were operating in Winnipeg.

One of Canada’s largest rail stations, Union Station was designated a national historic site in 1976. Any renovation – from colour schemes to replacing crumbling stonework – is carefully regulated under the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act, governed by Parks Canada.

“It’s quite stringent with respect to what we can and cannot do to the building,” says Woelcke. “VIA must work with heritage restoration architects to make sure anything done meets their approval.”

I’ve Been Working on the Rail Station…

Plans include new wheelchair-accessible washrooms, replacing carpet and heat pumps, and painting the domed rotunda.

Woelcke says the last tenant improvements were made in the 1990s, although a $6-million facility upgrade concluded in Q3 2011. The new roof and heating system earned the facility a BESt Level 2 certification for energy efficiency from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Manitoba.

“About half of the funding comes from a capital envelope given to us by the federal government to do renovations and various infrastructure and capital work across Canada.” Woelcke adds, “Money is also coming from the Economic Action Plan.”

Other VIA properties seeing work include heritage buildings in Halifax, Toronto and Ottawa. Last year, a $6-million dollar building envelope restoration was completed at Vancouver Station. “There was water infiltration through the stone,” according to Woelcke, “so it needed significant restoration work.”

In Winnipeg, VIA also hopes to enhance the east entrance to the train station, which faces the adjoining Forks, an historic site and destination spot. Although Union Station’s west side fronting Main Street is grandly sculpted with columns and limestone, the east appears more like a service entrance.

VIA is working with the Forks North Portage Partnership to make the east entrance more visible and attractive, especially to casual visitors who may not realize the significance of the building from first glance.

“I’m not an historian, and I am biased,” offers Woelcke. “But in my opinion, it’s one of the top historic buildings in Winnipeg. It’s a grand representation of a classic building.”

Future Opportunities

Architecture aside, Union Station is a successful example of re-purposing.

When railway traffic declined following World War ll because of automobiles and air travel, the station became largely empty. More recently, while remaining a VIA Rail station, much of the facility was converted to office space. It is also home to the Winnipeg Railway Museum, opened in 1992.

However, efforts to infuse the station with retail have largely fallen flat.

In 1993, Union Station Market opened, featuring a collection of locally-owned stores. The Market tied in with newly-opened retail at the Forks, but floundered. VIA tried to sell the station in 1995 but the deal with a Winnipeg developer collapsed.

A rebound followed, when VIA secured long-term tenants for its office space beginning with Red River College. Government agencies followed. Today, tenants include the College, Corrections Canada, Citizenship and Immigration, Environment Canada, Statistics Canada, Province of Manitoba Conservation, and the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.

Woelcke says Union Station has enjoyed full occupancy for the past 15-years and he is optimistic about attracting new retail. ” I’m hoping once we build out our walkway to the Forks that there will be some opportunity for retail. But I’m not quite sure what yet.”

The Union Station $6.5-million renovation will take 18 to 24 months. Tendering is underway, with work anticipated to begin this fall.

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