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Gail Asper often avoids the underground passages connecting the four corners of Winnipeg’s Portage & Main intersection, opting to cross at street level, just past the concrete barriers that ensconce the iconic and windy crossroads.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Winnipeggers are being given a chance to reimagine one of Canada’s most famous crossroads. At Portage and Main, citizens are being asked to consider designs for lookout towers, a circular “sky garden,” and a monument. They’ve been asked whether they want mobile food vendors, pop-up businesses, artwork or Indigenous programming.

What they won’t get to decide is whether they can finally walk across those streets.

Concrete barricades have closed the intersection to pedestrian traffic at street level since 1979, forcing people to cross through an underground concourse, another intersection a distance away, or to jaywalk.

The barricades are now set to come down and the intersection will be dug up because the waterproofing layer that protects the underground concourse and mall needs repair, the city announced last month. The city released the survey on the intersection’s future on April 25 and it closes May 26.

But the city says the intersection will not be opening to pedestrian crossing at street level, and the barricades will be replaced.

“I have actually been scaling the barricades for decades,” said Gail Asper, chair of the Winnipeg-based philanthropic organization the Asper Foundation. “I absolutely believe that those barricades should never have existed, and they should absolutely be taken down immediately.”

Ms. Asper has been working at 201 Portage Ave. for about 30 years. She said throughout that time, she has lobbied every city government to take down the barricades and let people cross.

“I’m so angry about this. This is the stupidest thing that we have to have this discussion,” she said.

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The intersection of Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue and Main Street is sometimes called the crossroads of Canada, given how close it is to the longitudinal centre of the country. But if you’re a pedestrian trying to cross it above ground, forget about it.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

“This should be a place where people drive slowly, admire the architecture, admire the shops, the restaurants, and in no way should the heart of the city be seen as a highway through to other destinations.”

The intersection is a fixture in the city. It marks the point at which two of Winnipeg’s main thoroughfares, Portage Avenue and Main Street, connect downtown. It’s where Winnipeggers cheered at the end of war, protested in the 1919 General Strike and celebrated the return of the city’s NHL team, the Winnipeg Jets.

“It’s really the heart of Winnipeg,” said Jeffrey Thorsteinson, volunteer historian and researcher at the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation. “It still holds kind of a deep place in the psychology of the city.”

In 2018, the city held a non-binding plebiscite and asked Winnipeggers whether they support the opening of Portage and Main. Sixty-five per cent of voters said no.

For city council finance chair Jeff Browaty, who opposed opening the intersection during the plebiscite, fully opening Portage and Main would mean more traffic on other downtown streets and higher Winnipeg Transit costs.

“To me it really comes down to the movements of vehicles through our downtown,” he said. “I really think a lot of the public is a little too fixated on the intersection itself.”

Mr. Browaty said he’d rather see the underground concourse be more accessible and have improved lighting and visibility at street level.

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Portage and Main intersection Revitalization renderings.City of Winnipeg

Adam Dooley, who led a committee that encouraged Winnipeggers to “vote open” in 2018, said many of those votes came from suburban voters, who don’t spend much time downtown. He said downtown businesses, business improvement zones and residents mostly voted yes.

“It’s really ridiculous that the suburban vote swamped that,” Mr. Dooley said.

Opening the intersection isn’t a radical idea, Mr. Dooley added. He said the designs proposed by the city don’t need to be complicated.

“Before we go for a sky garden, perhaps we should try a crosswalk,” he said.

City planning consultant and former chief planner for Vancouver Brent Toderian said the issue comes down to a lack of understanding about the importance of a downtown.

“The suburban vote doesn’t understand how the downtown is the economic engine of the city, how it benefits everyone in the city, whether you ever go downtown or not, and how cities critically need their downtowns to be successful,” he said.

“The machinations and knots that Winnipeg specifically, like no other city I’ve seen, will tie itself into to avoid the obvious answer is mind boggling.”

Around the 1970s, the city was eager to revitalize and modernize its downtown, according to Christian Cassidy, a local history blogger and board member of the Manitoba Historical Society. It was struggling financially and losing residents to suburban sprawl.

So, when the developing company Trizec Corp. offered to build two office towers, a hotel, a five-storey bank, and an underground mall at Winnipeg’s main intersection, the city couldn’t refuse.

But the corporation had a few conditions. One of them was that the city would have to agree to close the intersection to pedestrians, which would, in theory, bring more foot traffic into the underground mall, Mr. Cassidy said.

In the end, all that was built was one tower, the underground concourse and a parkade at a cost of about $80-million, split between the city and Trizec, Mr. Cassidy said. The city held up part of its deal and closed the intersection to pedestrians.

Today, one of the main arguments about keeping the intersection closed is traffic congestion, Mr. Cassidy said.

“There’s a very strong desire amongst people that you need to keep it closed because it’ll be mayhem if you open up the intersection,” he said.

But for others like Brent Bellamy, a Winnipeg columnist and architect, reopening the intersection can’t happen soon enough.

“We take it over when we’re celebrating or mourning or protesting,” he said. “It has been a critical intersection since the beginning of time, really, and it would be great to see that come back.”

Walk the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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