Is Winnipeg ready to open up Portage and Main?

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

Growing up, I wanted to live in New York City. I wanted the classical architecture, I wanted the metropolis of people, and I wanted the sense that anything could happen because it’s the city that never sleeps.

I used to believe that Winnipeg could never offer—or even begin to offer—any of those things. I wrote downtown off as a deserted wasteland before I explored its space. At the time, all I saw or wanted to see was the vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks. Now I realize how unfair I was to this city and the people and the organizations that work tirelessly to make Downtown Winnipeg a destination place for residents and visitors. Now, when I explore downtown I see the excitement and I see the passion. I finally see what so many people who live, work and play downtown see: a place that can be spontaneous, showcase interesting architecture and stay wide awake if you can keep up with it.

Downtown Winnipeg's revitalization

While people may attribute the current cultural renaissance to the return of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, revitalization efforts started long before any celebratory street parties took to Portage Avenue and The Forks. From grassroots to established organizations and from local businesses to entrepreneurs, a variety of people have been working behind the scenes to transform and modernize downtown. In fact, Downtown Winnipeg’s renaissance has been slow-burning since the early 2000s, largely in part because of the former mayor of Winnipeg, Glen Murray. After leaving municipal government, Murray was instrumental in establishing many of Downtown Winnipeg’s most popular landmarks such as the Museum for Human Rights and the MTS Centre. 

Yet, one of Murray's most ambitious and controversial projects intended to open up Portage Avenue and Main Street through a design competition in 2004. At the time, property owners around the intersection weren’t interested in Murray’s idea. However, property and business owners can no longer ignore or dismiss the conversation because the entire City of Winnipeg will now have the opportunity to decide on whether to keep the intersection’s barricades in place or open them up for pedestrians.

The history of Portage and Main

Since city council announced the referendum in July 2018, locals, industry experts, politicians and influencers have written a variety of pieces ranging from approval to disapproval. However, what is still missing from the discussion is why Winnipeg is ready to open up the intersection and create a shared space between pedestrians and vehicles.

In the 1960s, when the city’s planning division concluded that mixing pedestrian and vehicular traffic at Portage and Main was no longer viable, the city invited urban planner Vincent Ponte to create a proposal for the intersection. At this time, the city planner’s solution to the relationship between pedestrians and vehicles was to separate them. And while Ponte proposed a circular causeway built 19-feet above the intersection to avoid any interference between people and vehicles, the city took his idea in the opposite direction and funneled pedestrians underground instead.

I admit underground concourses and skywalks do serve a need in Winnipeg—it gets cold here, like minus-50 F and more frigid than Mars -cold. So, these interior walkways provide a reprieve from the extremely low temperatures, the wind-chill and the icy sidewalks that Winnipeg experiences. Unfortunately, they also draw people away from our city streets. Nevertheless, just as we made adaptions for our climate in the 1970s, we need to continue to adapt to our current climate as well. There need to be options.

While the climate is still cold throughout December, January and February, the climate concerning the political, sociological and cultural ambitions of those 46 years ago are much different. While city planners at the time aimed to separate people and vehicles, our goals and objectives now should lean towards increasing connectivity and designing “people-first places”. At its core, a “people-first place” builds healthier communities, increases commerce and modernizes cities through the creation and implementation of mixed-use spaces and intersections. The latter of which increases connectivity, bringing people outside that create safer spaces for everyone. Globe and Mail columnist Andre Picard describes it nicely and succinctly: “Streets are the original and ultimate social network; you need to construct them not only for commerce but for culture and community-building.”

Part of the issue is our city’s reliance on vehicles, and how we’ve built this city to how we continue to develop it that contributes to our dependency. Winnipeg and the majority of downtown is not a “people-first place”—especially for people with accessibility issues. It takes a person in a wheelchair almost nine minutes to cross from one side of Portage or Main to the other, using the concourse. By removing the barricades, it will take them less than five minutes. Their voices are critical, and we should not ignore them in the broader discussions surrounding the intersection. It’s not a politically correct-type argument to make it easier and ensure the safety of people with disabilities who want to cross Portage and Main. As Picard wrote, “If you want healthy communities, you need to create a sense of space, of belonging; you need to build inclusive, diverse spaces, where healthy runners and cyclists, parents pushing strollers, frail seniors with walkers, people using wheelchairs, street people, immigrant shop owners and pin-striped business types all feel at ease moving about and intermingling.”

Furthermore, Portage and Main isn’t merely a busy intersection either. It’s a part of Winnipeg’s brand—an every day advertisement for people living in the suburbs and for people visiting Winnipeg to see. According to CBC, 81,000 vehicles pass through Portage and Main each day. Whether it’s people commuting from the north end to the south end of the city or people visiting from all over the world—when they see our historic intersection, they see a soulless crossing in its place. Portage and Main is a critical commute and a landmark that is void of people. How can we show visitors and those from the suburbs what downtown can be if we hide people underground, which inadvertently perpetuates the negative stereotypes that downtown isn’t a safe or exciting place to be?

Representation matters and if people who visit downtown don’t see themselves in this space, we aren’t doing a good job of showing what downtown has in terms of livability and walkability. Ultimately, what people desire in choosing a home or a community to build their life in is a place where they can live, work and play. Organizations such as CentreVenture and the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ have been instrumental in revitalizing downtown spaces to provide these elements and encourage people to live there. Now, it’s up to us to continue that growth and integral to that is to vote and open up Portage and Main. This intersection feels like a watershed moment for Winnipeg. A gatekeeper to modernizing downtown and creating a place where everyone—not just those who work downtown or live in an urban suburb—can see themselves and feel safe and happy.

People who refuse to dream and acknowledge the benefits of opening up Portage and Main should not get to be the sole deciders on how we grow as a city. Everyone should take advantage of this referendum and vote! I believe hiding people and forcing them underground no longer makes sense for Winnipeg. It decreases the value of the city and deters our safety and future as a modern and cultural destination. Aspiring to be a “people first place” is beneficial to Winnipeg and all of its residents. Downtown is the heart of Winnipeg, so let’s treat it like the vital organ that it is. We are ready. #VoteOpenWpg.

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