True North Square is more than a site to work, play and live – it’s a space that injects dynamism into downtown Winnipeg, according to jurors for a prestigious award.
The mixed-use complex received this year’s National Urban Design Award for urban architecture.
“There are many things about True North Square that are so specific and so aptly expressed given the local context…but also given the local physical climatic context,” said Emeka Nnadi, one of the three jurors for the price.
He and his peers looked at how the category’s 12 submissions fit into their pitches.
True North Square, sandwiched between Hargrave Street and Carlton Street, is home to retailers, offices, apartments, restaurants and a hotel. The towers house an outdoor plaza that can be used for public and private gatherings.
It is located in Winnipeg’s SHED, or Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District.
“True North Square, in the context of the SHED neighborhood, is an important element of urban architecture, and that’s a big part of why it was selected,” said Nnadi, a landscape architect and urban designer based in Winnipeg.
All of this on what was once a dilapidated surface parking lot.
“It was one of the dumbest parking lots in downtown Winnipeg, frankly,” Nnadi said. “He was in bad shape.”
Downtown Winnipeg has been transformed over the past two decades, Nnadi said. The Canada Life Center was built; the Winnipeg Jets are back. Winnipeg got the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“There’s so much to brag about in Winnipeg compared to a few decades ago,” Nnadi said. “For True North to have that vision, to say, ‘Let’s be part of this resurgence, this rebirth’… there’s this level of kind of philosophical healing that (True North Square) is a part of.”
True North Real Estate Development first publicly shared plans for the site in 2016. At the time, it announced a four-tower development with a price tag of $400 million.
The company was looking for architectural firms capable of creating an innovative, sustainable and pedestrian-friendly product.
Perkins&Will won the lead role. The province and the city have invested millions of dollars in the square and its surroundings.
The result, Nnadi said, is “a project that could never exist as it is now elsewhere in the world.”
The towers are shaped by the site’s exposure to wind and sun.
“The buildings are really not a contemporary rectangular or box-like shape,” Nnadi said. “They look like something that’s been kind of eroded by a glacier over the years, and kind of carved out very carefully.”
The design is intended to block harsh winter winds.
“It creates a kind of microcosm or microclimate in this plaza space which is really very pleasant and encouraging for pedestrians,” Nnadi said.
The forum is also good for shortening journeys — walkers can cut while checking out what’s happening at True North Square, Nnadi said.
The development, which spans more than one million square feet, is about two-fifths complete, according to Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development.
Three towers are under construction: the North American headquarters of Wawanesa Insurance, the Sutton Place Hotel and its residential tower.
“You’ll see a lot of change this calendar year,” Ludlow said, adding that last winter’s blizzard conditions had slowed progress.
Construction is expected to be completed in early 2024, he said. The final cost of building True North Square — in its entirety — will likely reach around $750 million, Ludlow said. The company announced the Wawanesa building as its fifth tower in 2019.
“(True North Square) was meant to change the character and change the way of life for this part of downtown,” Ludlow said.
He sees the National Urban Design Award as an endorsement from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that True North is “on the right track.”
“We’re doing the right thing. We always thought we were doing it and we will continue to do it,” Ludlow said. “The more of an environment like this we have to offer downtown, the more reason it gives people to stay downtown, live downtown, etc.”
The square will be crucial to the region’s economic recovery, according to Jori Pincock, Public Realms Manager of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.
“We know bringing people downtown will be critical for the recovery from the pandemic, so having these high-quality spaces is very important,” Pincock said.
The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has used the square on many occasions, including for concerts, patios and ice sculpting spaces.
The nonprofit has a few projects underway at True North Square, but Pincock said she “wouldn’t say anything for sure.”
Ludlow said Hargrave St. Market officials, along with True North crews, were working on weekly and special events to be held in the square.
“It’s really fantastic to have (True North Square) located in Winnipeg, and especially in our downtown core,” Pincock said. “It’s not every day that we get this kind of recognition.”
Nnadi said he needed to control his Winnipeg pride while judging. He was the only juror in town.
Nnadi is a Fellow of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. The group, along with the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Canadian Institute of Planners, are hosting the awards. Winners will be honored at a virtual event on May 26.
Gabby is a huge fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.
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