Winnipeg at a cross­roads: Is now the time to fi­nally fix Portage and Main?

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - WINNIPEG

Mo­men­tum is slowly build­ing to re­make one of Canada’s most hos­tile in­ter­sec­tions. Oliver Moore ex­plores how it could bring new life to the Man­i­toba cap­i­tal’s down­town

Laid out where 19th-cen­tury ox-cart tracks came to­gether, Portage and Main is the “cross­roads of Canada.” It has been feted in song, memo­ri­al­ized on a stamp and was one of the tonier prop­er­ties for sale in a Cana­dian ver­sion of the game Monopoly.

It is also, if you’re a pedes­trian, one of the most un­wel­com­ing in­ter­sec­tions in the coun­try.

For nearly four decades, peo­ple on foot have been banned from cross­ing at Portage and Main, in an ef­fort to push them through an un­der­ground mall. Any­one de­ter­mined to cross has to jump the con­crete bar­ri­ers and dash through the traf­fic – a risk few are will­ing to take.

Every at­tempt to re­open the in­ter­sec­tion has failed, in­evitably met with con­cerns about the im­pact on ve­hi­cle traf­fic. Al­though de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo gen­er­ally agree that it wasn’t wise to cre­ate the in­ter­sec­tion the way it is to­day, they in­sist it would slow down driv­ers too much to change it.

Ad­vo­cates for change are gain­ing mo­men­tum, though, backed by a mayor who promised this shift when run­ning for of­fice, and say re­mak­ing Portage and Main is sym­bolic of the kind of city Winnipeg wants to be.

“It’s about where is our city go­ing in 30, 40 years; what it is our mil­len­ni­als want,” said Ste­fano Grande, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Down­town Winnipeg BIZ, which sup­ports re­open­ing the in­ter­sec­tion. “End of the day, the best down­towns in the world are the ones that are walk­a­ble.”

The in­ter­sec­tion

Portage and Main oc­ca­sion­ally hosts pub­lic gath­er­ings. Fans of the Winnipeg Jets ral­lied there to try to save their hockey team in the 1990s and then gath­ered in 2011 to wel­come it back. The site was the fo­cus of a Canada 150 cel­e­bra­tion this sum­mer.

Most of the time, though, the in­ter­sec­tion re­mains a mon­u­ment to the pri­macy of the car. With pedes­tri­ans re­moved, in a deal with nearby prop­erty own­ers to push peo­ple on foot to shops un­der­ground, the spot has been en­gi­neered for a sin­gle pur­pose: mov­ing cars through as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble. There are few cy­clists and the mul­ti­ple lanes of turn­ing traf­fic in­crease the dan­ger to pedes­tri­ans who dare to cross.

Pedes­tri­ans who fol­low the rules are shunted un­der­ground. Some of the routes are grand – peo­ple can de­tour through a his­toric BMO branch, com­plete with mar­ble col­umns and a soar­ing ceil­ing, on the way down­stairs – while oth­ers are less im­pres­sive. On the north­west cor­ner is a grim set of stairs, starkly lit and smelling of urine, lead­ing down to the shops be­low.

Un­der the in­ter­sec­tion is a cir­cu­lar pas­sage with a hand­ful of stores. The lot­tery kiosk does good trade while a cloth­ing-al­ter­ations busi­ness has failed. A Tim Hor­tons out­let is by far the most pop­u­lar. The decor is dated and it is not an en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­ages one to linger.

Few linger at ground level, ei­ther, leav­ing Portage and Main with lit­tle street life, noth­ing to re­flect the spot’s im­por­tance to the city’s psy­che.

“Portage and Main has re­ally al­ways been more than an in­ter­sec­tion,” said Mayor Brian Bow­man, who cam­paigned on re­open­ing it. “It has that emo­tional con­nec­tion.”

Two city staff re­ports on Portage and Main are due this month, in­clud­ing key de­tails about traf­fic im­pact, and ur­ban­ists are op­ti­mistic. The city is closer than ever to re­solv­ing the is­sue. And if it hap­pens, the re­opened in­ter­sec­tion could even­tu­ally play a key role link­ing plans for a ma­jor mixed-use devel­op­ment just to the south, and a new ur­ban cen­tre be­ing built a bit to the west.

Taken to­gether, the changes prom­ise to re­make down­town Winnipeg, ex­pand­ing the pop­u­lar site known as The Forks, adding res­i­dents in a city core that had few of them even 20 years ago and im­prov­ing pub­lic space.

“The one im­ped­i­ment for con­nec­tiv­ity are the phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers at Portage and Main,” Mr. Bow­man said. “There’s a small seg­ment of peo­ple who think Winnipeg’s down­town is a great place to drive through. We want to make it a great place to visit.”

A mixed re­cov­ery

Winnipeg’s down­town spent decades as a place few chose to visit. Its golden era was be­fore the First World War, when the city was boom­ing and had dreams of be­com­ing the Chicago of the Prairies. Many of the most beau­ti­ful build­ings in the core were built in that op­ti­mistic era, be­fore war, eco­nomic de­pres­sion and the open­ing of the Panama Canal knocked the city back on its heels.

Progress since then has been un­even in the city

cen­tre, where ear­lier the­o­ries about ur­ban plan­ning are ev­i­dent. As well as Portage and Main, there is a ho­tel perched atop an eight-storey park­ing garage and a down­town mall that has had a dead­en­ing ef­fect on its sur­round­ings. A great num­ber of cheap sur­face park­ing lots are wait­ing for re­de­vel­op­ment. There are some bi­cy­cle lanes, but they start and stop, in one case fun­nelling cy­clists be­tween bus and reg­u­lar traf­fic lanes.

Many Win­nipeg­gers have be­come ac­cus­tomed to view­ing the down­town as a lo­cus of poverty and petty crime. And peo­ple who ap­pear to be suf­fer­ing from ad­dic­tion and men­tal-ill­ness is­sues are preva­lent through­out the core, where nu­mer­ous sup­port ser­vices have sprung up to as­sist them.

How­ever, Christo­pher Leo, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of city plan­ning at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba, said that the area’s tra­jec­tory has to be kept in per­spec­tive.

“The down­town looked like it was on the way to be­com­ing Detroit. I guess it was the late eight­ies and early nineties. It’s im­proved a lot since then,” he said. “Grad­u­ally, Winnipeg is de­vel­op­ing more eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity down­town. To my eye, it’s look­ing pretty good.”

Suc­cess sto­ries in­clude the Ex­change District, an artsy en­ter­tain­ment area that hums with ac­tiv­ity on warm evenings. Some im­pres­sive old build­ings have been con­verted to up­scale con­dos. Par­lour Cof­fee opened just north of Portage and Main in 2011, tap­ping into a la­tent lo­cal de­mand for se­ri­ous cof­fee.

An arena for the Winnipeg Jets hockey team was shoe­horned into a down­town site. A bit to the south­east is a strik­ing pedes­trian bridge across the Red River. To­gether with a path, this sym­bol­i­cally recre­ates the link to the area known as St. Boni­face that was sev­ered when Union Sta­tion opened in 1911.

One of the key mo­ments in the evo­lu­tion of cen­tral Winnipeg was the re­birth of the in­dus­trial area near that train sta­tion. A photo from 1956 shows at least a dozen sid­ings be­tween the sta­tion and the river. That space is now a pop­u­lar mix of park­land and busi­nesses, run by a pri­vate devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion owned by the mu­nic­i­pal, pro­vin­cial and fed­eral gov­ern­ments.

Dubbed The Forks, the spot at­tracts as many peo­ple as Banff and has some of its busiest days in win­ter. But 14 acres of the 50-acre site re­main un­de­vel­oped. A se­ries of park­ing lots stretch­ing from north to south is next on the list.

Paul Jordan, CEO of the Forks Re­newal Corp., said that it plans to lease the space to de­vel­op­ers, lead­ing to 20 or 25 build­ings over the next two decades. These will have re­tail and pub­lic spa­ces at ground level, with res­i­den­tial above.

“We’re go­ing to cre­ate a vil­lage,” Mr. Jordan said, con­nect­ing it with the rest of the down­town by “punch­ing un­der” the CN rail line that runs through the city cen­tre.

The train sta­tion – a struc­ture that dates to head­ier days, built a cen­tury ago by the ar­chi­tects who did Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal in New York – will serve as the pedes­trian en­trance to the new devel­op­ment. And the or­ga­ni­za­tion is in the mid­dle of a com­pe­ti­tion to se­lect the best way to pedes­tri­an­ize part of the key road lead­ing into The Forks, build­ing on a par­tial clos­ing done last year as a test.

“All the cars slowed down and pedes­tri­ans started walk­ing with­out fear­ing for their lives,” Mr. Jordan said.

Amid these changes, Portage and Main, just to the north of the planned new devel­op­ment, feels stuck in an ear­lier time. Ve­hi­cles race through and few pedes­tri­ans dare to walk across.

In­cre­men­tal change

The pres­sure is on Mr. Bow­man, the mayor, to show some progress on this is­sue be­fore he runs for re-elec­tion. And with the 40-year agree­ment to close the in­ter­sec­tion com­ing to an end in 2019, the city has to plan for what comes next.

One idea be­ing con­sid­ered is to be­gin by open­ing only one side of the in­ter­sec­tion. This would al­low Mr. Bow­man to say he has started mak­ing good on his prom­ise. It would also al­low the city to ease into the change, min­i­miz­ing the im­pact on traf­fic.

Mr. Bow­man would not com­ment on this pos­si­bil­ity, say­ing that op­tions are still be­ing worked out. One of his most vo­cal crit­ics on the file, North Kil­do­nan Coun­cil­lor Jeff Browaty, said that he could be amenable to some­thing less than a full open­ing, sug­gest­ing that the in­ter­sec­tion could per­haps be used for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Go­ing all the way would be too dam­ag­ing to traf­fic flow, he ar­gued.

“The de­lays will be sig­nif­i­cant, and back­ups will be bad,” Mr. Browaty said, adding that he wants to “fol­low the sci­ence” when mak­ing this de­ci­sion.

Go­ing with a staged ap­proach could mean that fu­ture dis­cus­sions are about in­cre­men­tal change, not the bi­nary ques­tion of whether the in­ter­sec­tion should be open or closed. And mak­ing even a small change could also defuse a de­bate that all sides agree has be­come too po­lar­iz­ing, and has sucked up too much civic oxy­gen.

“We need to get past Portage and Main,” said Zach Fleisher, who sits on the board of the ad­vo­cacy group Bike Winnipeg. “Portage and Main re­ally lim­its our abil­ity to fo­cus on other is­sues.”

TRISH McALASTER / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

JOHN WOODS/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In a deal with nearby prop­erty own­ers to push peo­ple on foot to shops un­der­ground, the sur­face at the in­ter­sec­tion of Portage and Main has been en­gi­neered for a sin­gle pur­pose: mov­ing cars through as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble.

Out­side en­trances to un­der­ground pedes­trian walk­way

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Crews be­gin paving Portage and Main in 1978. A 40-year agree­ment to close the in­ter­sec­tion will end in 2019, putting pres­sure on Mayor Brian Bow­man and the city to plan for what comes next.

To cross the street, pedes­tri­ans use a con­course (in grey, right), which links all four cor­ners of the city's main of­fice district via an un­der­ground round­about.

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