Earlier this week Murray McNeill wrote about the multi-million dollar renovation coming soon to CityPlace shopping centre, now owned by Manitoba Public Insurance. This is great news.
Despite trouble in recent years filling some of its larger spaces, the mall has always been an important retail fixture for downtown. Its collection of fast food outlets, Liquor Mart , national chain drugstore and postal office serve thousands of residents living south of Portage Avenue.
Its only recently that CityPlace has found a way to benefit from being connected to the arena with the addition of Boston Pizza, one of the few family restaurants downtown, and most recently the Shark Club for the macho young men to congregate before a game.
One line in McNeill's story struck me: that because of "historical designation" MPI is limited as to what they could do to the exterior so the renovations will be on the inside. That's a bad move. I've always felt that that a fair bit of CityPlace's lack of success has had to do with its dismal exterior, and I'm not talking about the historically significant portions of it.
This is the north-east corner of the mall at Donald and Graham. It is arguably the most visible corner as it faces the entrance to the Millennium Library which gets 1.5 million visits per year and is passed by thousands of people per day by bus or car.
You'll notice that there is no signage indicating what the building is. In fact there are no signs anywhere on the exterior of the building that say "mall", "stores", "shopping centre" etc.. Successive owners have felt that "CityPlace" is sufficient enough to draw people into their stealthy lair.
True story: I was at a conference in early October at the Millennium Library and went out for the smoke break. Someone who was attending with me had to miss the lunch portion and lamented that they did not have time to make it to the Portage Place food court before the next session began. I told him to hit up the food court right there for a quick bite. Where ? There ! That's a mall and there's a food court with a McDonalds, A & W and about 8 other fast food joints inside. He had no clue it was there and it still took some coaxing to get him to go investigate.
In fact, during that 20 minute break I directed someone to the smoke shop in the mall and another to the postal outlet located in the Rexall Drugs in the mall. You're welcome, CityPlace. I will take a $5 voucher off my next MPI installment.
The second issue is an entrance.
The closest entrance to this important corner is hidden away under the skywalk on Graham Avenue. Why there ? Because it was complimentary to the matching mall entrance located just metres away on the north side of Graham Avenue - the one that was demolished a decade ago along with the Eaton's store.
Take my word for it, Eaton's is not going to reappear across the street so you might as well move the entrance to a place that makes sense. Somewhere pedestrians can see it and that cars and taxis can stop next to. Perhaps at the busiest corner of the building ?
CityPlace suffers from the same ailment as many other downtown buildings - they hide from the street. It seems that for some building owners, the more cut off you are the better. This might not be much of a factor if you are an apartment building or a national retailer, (or attached to an multi-level department store called Eatons), but for a mall with no exterior signage indicating what it is, the wall of bricked-in windows is a real head scratcher.
Top: 1923 (Virtual Heritage Winnipeg)
Middle: 1968 (U of M - Winnipeg Building Index)
Bottom: Original columns
So, what did the building look like back when it was a mail order warehouse ? Surprisingly more open than its mall incarnation. The top photo is from 1923 (source), the middle is a portion of a 1968 photo (source) and the bottom shows the original columns between the windows that are now closed up.
Perhaps opening up a little window space, even at its two north corners, would take from the abandoned warehouse motif that most of its street-level presence implies.
Grand opening ad, October 1979, Winnipeg Free Press
Now I don't expect that MPI will push the boat out by installing hundreds of windows and affix Piccadilly Circus-esque signage around it - any more than I would expect to see the funky disco-era people from the above ad hanging out at Donald and Graham. Still, spending millions to renovate the interior of a building whose exterior hides what it is seems a bit of a waste.
In the short time that it has owned CityPlace, MPI has shown that it wants to take a lead in some downtown redevelopment projects. A good start would be to give its own mall's exterior some of that TLC.