When the Hudson's Bay Building opened to the public in 1939, it was the biggest retail space Edmonton had seen. More than 20,000 people passed through the glass doors of the building within two hours—nearly one-fifth of Edmonton's total population at the time.
Over the years, the Bay mirrored the city's growth—as the population grew, so did the space. By 1948, a third storey was added, and in the mid-1950s, a $3.25-million expansion doubled the space of the original building.
In 1967, the city assessed the Bay Building as its most valuable piece of property at $3,226,820. Through the years, it would undergo further renovations and additions. By 1989, the city had designated the site a municipal historic resource.
Unfortunately, a waning economy and high overhead costs forced the Hudson's Bay Company to close the doors of its landmark store in the early 1990s, which was symbolic of other dwindling retail activity in the city's downtown core. Most of the space sat empty for more than a decade. In 1997, the Bay Building partially reopened when CHUM television (then A-Channel, now CityTV) became a tenant in the southern portion of the building.
When the University of Alberta was first considering the purchase of the Bay Building in 2005, it investigated alternatives such as constructing a new building on a greenfield site. However, the purchase and renovation of the Bay Building offered many advantages. Because of its downtown location, LRT linkage, large floor plate and high ceilings, the Bay Building was very suitable for the university's space needs as it could be converted for considerably less and would take half the time to complete than a new building.
The university received financial support from all levels of government to purchase the Bay Building because the conceived transformation gave a rare opportunity to create a downtown hub where the university could strengthen its linkages with the downtown business, arts and cultural community and meet the space shortage on campus. Such a U of A presence also would accelerate technology transfer and commercialization and help revitalize the downtown core.