Winnipeg’s Renaissance man

Peter Holle
The Next City
March 21, 1999

Tom Dixon brings life to downtown’s dying buildings

OUTSIDE THE WINDOW, A GREY PALL HANGS OVER DOWNTOWN WINNIPEG. Seated behind his desk on the sixth floor of the 97-year-old Hammond Building at the corner of Portage and Main is Tom Dixon, an award-winning preservationist, who in the last 18 years has saved several of Winnipeg’s historic buildings from the wrecking ball and transformed them into vibrant, living spaces.

Manitoba’s capital was once grandly described as a future “Chicago of the North,” but time, shifting trade patterns, and poor public policy have eroded its stature. Formerly Canada’s third largest city, and the dominant commercial centre in the rapidly expanding west, Winnipeg now ranks as Western Canada’s fourth largest city, trailing Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary. Its population is aging and stagnant. Its residents express a rising concern about the large influx of native “refugees” from the reserves, cast adrift in their strange new environment.

Winnipeg has excellent firms in the aerospace sector, in financial services, and in broadcasting. It remains a centre for light manufacturing, distribution, and government, but even some of the old core industries, particularly transportation and grain trading, are quietly shifting west. Corporate headquarters that lined its once thriving downtown streets have steadily transferred to a more competitive Calgary. With the second highest property taxes in Canada, housing construction has migrated steadily outside the perimeter. Suburban shopping malls, fear of crime, changing work patterns, and technological innovation have hit the traditional downtown area hard.

“But Winnipeg is still my Nirvana,” emphasizes Dixon, a worldly-wise over-60-year-old consultant of Icelandic origin, who has designed plants and equipment and provided management and marketing consulting to dozens of industries. During his travels in nine or 10 countries, he learned what different cities have to offer. San Francisco and Minneapolis rank among his favorites, but he still prefers the grand old dame of Western Canada.

THE DOWNTOWN EXCHANGE DISTRICT’S HEYDAY WAS IN THE EARLY 1900S. This was the city’s distribution and immigration hub — the gateway to the west. Massive Greek columns project substance and security from the imposing bank buildings lining Main Street. Here were the financial industry, the world’s busiest grain exchange, and a thriving print media, plus thousands of warehouse and manufacturing enterprises. They fuelled a robust downtown economy that supported buildings with elaborate façades, gargoyles, and terra cotta facings.

Dixon remembers the Exchange District’s vitality when he was a kid. One of his first jobs was delivering linens off the back of a truck to businesses in street fronts and back alleys and to great post-and-beam brick warehouses. This was Jane Jacobs’s self-generating downtown economy at its finest, with microbusinesses springing up constantly to substitute local products for expensive eastern imports. During his deliveries, Dixon, who was artistically inclined, studied the structures’ Old World construction techniques and craftsmanship.

That fascination eventually drew Dixon into rejuvenating Exchange District buildings, which he now calls his expensive hobby. He realized that in a world of characterless prefab office towers, traditional quality is simply no longer available, so he embarked on a string of small-scale redevelopment projects between his various consulting assignments. His aim: to play a meaningful part in saving downtown Winnipeg’s artistic and architectural heritage, which may be a key to the city’s elusive but realizable renaissance.

Dixon’s record is impressive. Since 1971, he has spearheaded Winnipeg’s first warehouse conversion, creating new office and retail space in the Donald Bain Building on venerable Bannatyne Street. History’s ghosts hover quietly in another of his properties, the Salvation Army Citadel — a fortress-like building built during the 1920s. Located on the edge of Winnipeg’s skid row, it once served as barracks for Salvation Army officers, who aided the immigrants who poured through the nearby river port and railway station. Adjacent to it, and on the same Dixon property, stands Winnipeg’s original Jewish bathhouse, boarded up and silent. Dixon purchased both buildings, anticipating future renovation.

In 1984, Dixon built his first addition to a heritage structure — a $400,000 penthouse conference facility on the Hammond Building, where he operates out of an eccentric, paper-strewn office. He mildly regrets this expenditure but comforts himself by remembering his main goal: to ensure that these buildings survive because “they will not be duplicated, . . . the nature of past construction makes it uneconomic.”

A tour of the Hammond Building reveals a diverse tenant list. Here, in the heart of what many believe is the hollowed out city, we find a high-tech DNA lab, Winnipeg’s weekly gay newspaper, a local entertainment weekly, and a gaggle of heritage and environmental organizations. They are attracted, no doubt, by the modest rents, free tenant access to the glass-walled rooftop meeting room, continuous upgrading, and Dixon’s obvious devotion to customer service. Other amenities include permanent staff, a journeyman who looks after repairs and renovations, a full-time custodian, and a receptionist who greets all visitors. When Dixon bought the dilapidated Hammond Building, it had nine tenants. Today, it has over 30. The Exchange District has seen small, steady gains that enlarge the local tax base; however, the turnaround has been an ongoing battle against apathy, false perceptions, and bureaucratic inflexibility.

IN THE EARLY 1990S, A FACELESS TRAFFIC PLANNER, CITING HEAVY TRAFFIC, flow decreed that Albert Street, where the Hammond Building is located, become one-way. Winnipeg’s downtown is beset by turning restrictions, one-way streets, and rush-hour parking bans — all part of a generally counterproductive planning bias toward expediting traffic flow into, and out of, the core. The effect was dramatic. Albert Street quickly became deserted because drivers found getting there too complicated. “You could have shot a cannon down the street,” Dixon says.

The incident pushed the community to petition for the return of two-way traffic. After elected officials had a tour of the quieted street, they promptly overturned the one-way edict. Dixon, an original director of the Exchange BIZ (Business Improvement Zone), which represents local businesses, points to this as one of a string of small victories.

Dixon has much to say about parking rules, zoning requirements, and the time and effort consumed in alleviating their effects. During one renovation period at the Hammond Building, he recalls getting a permit to block a side lane for building activity. On occasion, construction workers would park in the strip, only to find their vehicles improperly ticketed by parking commissionaires. Patiently, Dixon would gather up the tickets, bring them to city hall and have them cancelled. It was only after he threatened to take the tickets to the mayor that the ritual ended.

Building codes are another story. The quest for fire safety can lead to expensive inflexibility with ruinous impact on the economics of rehabilitating heritage treasures. Winnipeg’s historic multistorey warehouses were built to store heavy commodities and to support heavy machinery — hence the practical, yet attractive, post-and-beam construction that combines brick and massive wood timbers.

Dixon recalls a battle during the 1977 redevelopment of the Donald Bain Building. Although fully sprinklered, a municipal order required that he cover the wood ceilings with two layers of drywall. Although fire authorities could not think of any instances of an exposed wood beam catching fire (they actually only char slightly), they persisted in their push for drywall crawl spaces.

The authorities finally relented after Dixon provided a letter from Lloyd’s of London confirming that crawl spaces invite invisible smouldering and second and third alarm flare-ups. Nevertheless, the ordeal did not end there. The authorities insisted that Dixon cover the beams with a special fire-suppressing bituminous paint that cost a bundle and banished the rich natural wood color beneath a milky sheen.

Probably the last birdcage elevator in the core area is in the Bate Building, constructed in the early 1900s. Two years ago, the Department of Labour issued an upgrade order, the costs for which would have eliminated the lift. Heritage Winnipeg, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Winnipeg’s historic architecture, enlisted Dixon, who is a director, and others to meet with the deputy minister of Labour and his top officials responsible for elevator regulation to defer this requirement. They contacted officials in Chicago and Toronto, who confirmed that converting these systems was unnecessary as long as they met their original safety standards. The drum-elevator, on birdcage, system was saved.

The regulatory rigidity that complicates the economics of recycling heritage buildings, particularly in a depressed market like Winnipeg’s, prompts a mild but cogent response from Dixon: “We need to encourage a more reasonable approach. Agencies need to have the authority to make exceptions without compromising safety.” Dixon, noting a recent change in attitude at city hall, adds, “many want to help, and the expertise has greatly improved.”

It is now fashionable at Winnipeg city hall to talk of downtown residential development — a stance 180 degrees removed from the urban planning prejudices that were standard as recently as a decade ago. Dixon remembers the head of the city planning department emphatically telling him in 1979 that the core area east of Main Street was “unsuitable” for residential living. Since then, there has been only limited development — a set of condominiums in the Exchange District, and their values have fallen.

Dixon believes the area needs apartments rather than condominiums. “Young people can’t afford the down payments, so they stay away.” He admits there is a catch-22 with apartments. Rent control, gone from much of Canada, is still enforced in Manitoba. It scares away investment, so buildings stay empty.

Excessive taxation also tears at Winnipeg’s heart. The city ranks at, or near, the top in national property tax comparisons, and historically those taxes have fallen more heavily on the commercial core. As business has shifted outward, the hefty tax bills have driven many owners into abandoning their properties — and have discouraged anyone else from picking them up. The result is a large inventory of heritage buildings held precariously by city hall. In January, arson destroyed one of these orphans, the 115-year-old Leland Hotel.

Dixon has no definitive answers, although he likes the idea of changing property taxes so that a flat rate is levied on land, not on buildings and improvements. He also favors a much wider use of user fees to illuminate the costs now randomly piled into property taxes. Another clue to the solution can be found in the area’s urban government pre-1972 — before 13 small cities in the region were amalgamated. St. Vital, the area Dixon has lived in most of his life, was well run before its absorption into Unicity. “There was a tight little management group that focused on the bottom line,” he recalls. “You could get answers quickly because the councillors were on top of it all. With Unicity, we lost track of the politicians, and there is too long a distance to the decision makers.”

Dixon refers to crises in old-style American cities like Cleveland. “At some point, the system collapses and goes back to the basics. There they now job out a lot of services to bring their costs down.” He is hopeful about discussions at city hall over the Indianapolis model, which has public employees competing against private vendors. Dixon believes, “municipal employees are an asset, but they need incentives to perform.” He is also optimistic about the new mayor, Glen Murray, and his open and forthright manner.

It is later in the morning and the sun seems set to break through the overcast sky. A workman ducks into a shrouded doorway. The 23-foot-wide, four-storey building is the former Criterion Hotel built in 1914 on McDermot Avenue. It probably has the most beautiful stone, terra cotta, and ceramic façade of all the derelict Exchange District buildings. It is a shell, the inside gutted by a fire during a failed reconstruction in 1987. New steel girders shimmer in the darkened hulk. Tom Dixon and Doug Young, a local realty developer, have levered a financial Heritage Assistance Grant from the city to save the structure. By fall, perhaps sooner, life will have returned to the offices the workers are building.

Tom Dixon is a self-described dinosaur — just recently, he replaced his rotary dial phone, and he doesn’t bother himself with computers or e-mail. But he is an optimist. Twenty years from now, he envisions Winnipeg with a vibrant and exciting downtown, capitalizing on the personality of its people and on its heritage ambiance. Presumably, the public policy ills that have stunted a great city will be corrected. Visitors will find a unique architectural treasure, a city second only to Barcelona as a representative site of historic warehouses — thanks in part to Winnipeg’s modest renaissance man.

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