Skip to main content

Winnipeggers, who vote in municipal elections on Oct. 26, see some hope for their evolving city centre, but also signs of the damage done by the pandemic

Married couple Nancy Delgado and Yair Vanegas take part in Salsa Sundays this past August at Winnipeg's True North Square, near the arena where the Jets play. The square was supposed to be home to a Sutton Place Hotel whose construction got put on hold by the pandemic.Photography by Jessica Lee/The Globe and Mail

The optimism and gloom of downtown Winnipeg is spelled out on two building sites only blocks apart.

At one, a project billed as the tallest residential building between Toronto and Calgary, the developer hopes to have the first phase of 300 Main open by spring. The pricey rental units are aimed at young professionals, empty nesters and professional athletes.

The other, a Sutton Place Hotel whose construction was stymied by the pandemic, has barely gotten off the ground. Some of those pro athletes might pass its truncated columns, each crowned by a ragged cluster of rebar, on the way to the nearby Winnipeg Jets arena.

The building at 300 Main is the tallest in Winnipeg.

In the near term, downtown Winnipeg’s future appears set to look more like the stalled hotel.

The pandemic has hurt tourism, reduced the number of workers coming to downtown offices and led to an astonishing 30-per-cent vacancy rate among ground-floor retail locations. More businesses are closing than opening, reversing the trend of a few years ago. Some derelict buildings would be at home in a disaster movie.

But local boosters hope they have the wind at their backs. They point to rising pedestrian volumes downtown as evidence of short-term progress. The Fringe theatre and Jazz festivals were back this summer for the first time since the pandemic began. Last year, the Winnipeg Art Gallery opened the world’s largest exhibition of Inuit art. And a growing downtown population provides both support for local businesses and a sense of community safety.

“The pandemic definitely hit pause, a really long pause, that we’re just starting to come out of now, but we know it’s going to take time,” said Kate Fenske, the head of the downtown area business improvement group.

Downtown Winnipeg suffers from a reputation problem but has good bones. More than a century ago, the city had dreams of becoming the Chicago of the Prairies and put up buildings to match that vision. But war and economic depression derailed the momentum, and the city never quite recovered.

Recent population growth has prompted optimism. In the 2021 census, Winnipeg passed Mississauga, to become the country’s sixth-largest city.

“For some time we were, relative to other cities, declining in terms of our overall visibility and status,” said Mayor Brian Bowman, who is not running for re-election this month. “And so, to see it moving in the direction of growth in this way, I do think it psychologically helps put a little more swagger in the steps of Winnipeggers.”

Scenes from Winnipeg: Visitors explore the art gallery, lanes on Smith Street are closed for construction, pedestrians pass discarded clothes in the Exchange District.

Part of that growth came in the city centre, where many of Winnipeg’s beautiful old buildings have survived and in recent decades have been converted to residential accommodations.

The latest city estimate shows the downtown population rising almost 25 per cent between 2016 and 2021, to about 18,000 residents.

Seeing progress on the ground can require taking the long view.

A resident of one early warehouse-to-condo conversion remembers there being little to do or buy nearby when he moved in two decades ago. Now there’s an increasing number of restaurants, bars and small shops, but the area still lacks a full-scale grocery store. A woeful mall called Portage Place limps along after the most recent redevelopment proposal fell apart.

The massive Hudson’s Bay store opposite Portage Place gradually fell into disuse before plans emerged this year to convert it into an Indigenous housing and community support centre. The details continue to be worked out, but the Indigenous leaders behind it want it to be at least partially open within three years.

The decision by outdoor gear retailer MEC to put its Winnipeg store downtown instead of in a suburban mall was hailed when it opened, in 2002, as evidence of the core being the place to be. A few years later the downtown hockey arena opened, on a former Eaton’s site, regularly attracting crowds to the city centre.

Empty storefronts at street level and in the pedestrian mall under Portage and Main.

There is scant mention of the downtown in the platforms of the three leading candidates for mayor, though all address the importance of safety and social services.

Scott Gillingham has also promised to reduce red tape around patio approvals. Shaun Loney has pledged to hire a “nightlife mayor” to help revitalize the core. And Glen Murray has said he would give more power to the CentreVenture Development Corporation, the city’s arm’s-length downtown development agency.

Like downtowns around the world, central Winnipeg was hit hard by the pandemic.

While government support flowed in to help businesses stay afloat, the sharp reduction in commuters also forced a rethinking of the role of the downtown. This month the area enters the second year of a three-year recovery plan that aims to revitalize public infrastructure, support events and help vulnerable residents.

A parallel effort to look at longer-term ways to reimagine the downtown is starting to get under way. One issue is how to connect two key areas of the core, which could mean renewing the debate about whether to allow pedestrians to cross at the intersection of Portage and Main, which was closed to foot traffic in 1979.

But a revealing exchange at the downtown MEC store highlights the more existential dilemma facing the area. A staff member recently told a would-be shopper that the store did not carry bear spray and would not sell it “at this location,” an apparent reference to the downtown’s sketchy reputation.

A mostly desolate downtown Winnipeg.

Central Winnipeg has a long history as a destination for vulnerable people with few options. Mental illness, poverty and addiction issues are evident on even a short visit. Encampments along the Red River have led to tensions over who has a right to public space. And when high-profile crimes occur in the downtown, they support a local narrative that this is a scary area.

That said, it doesn’t feel as dangerous as some residents from other neighbourhoods seem to believe. A reporter spent several days and evenings walking the downtown without ever feeling unsafe. The raucous crowd of drinkers in a small park on Portage Avenue was less of a bother than the church choir that set up amplifiers to sing to them.

“Part of that question of safety is perception. That’s not to say there aren’t incidents, but there are incidents everywhere,” said Angela Mathieson, the head of CentreVenture, adding that the solution is not to push marginalized people out of the area.

“Our role is really about getting people downtown, but it’s not at the expense of keeping the downtown an inclusive place.”

She points to the Bell Hotel, which her agency converted to supportive housing. There are also various affordable housing projects downtown. And the Hudson’s Bay makeover is expected to include subsidized accommodations for elders, students and vulnerable citizens.

Evidence of this inclusive ideal can be harder to find at street level, though. There’s a dearth of public toilets, and many benches are designed to prevent people from lying on them. Private security guards patrol parts of the downtown, including the quasi-public True North Square, where hockey fans gather after Jets victories but people who are homeless are generally notable for their absence.

Ms. Mathieson acknowledged the importance of public-realm improvements, particularly given the success over the past 20 years in encouraging residential development in the core. To her, the long-term vision for the downtown comes down largely to having even more people. More people living there and more people coming in for events, shopping or other reasons. The logic is that the more people reside in and visit the downtown, the safer it will become.

Asked about the perception of local risk, Brenna Morfitt, the director of construction and development at the 300 Main project, sounded a similar note. Her company hopes the building becomes a beacon to attract people into the core, boosting everyone’s safety.

For now, though, one selling point for the property is that residents don’t have to go outside to get to their cars. And there will be an on-site dog park for pet owners who want to avoid the local sidewalks.

Construction on Main Street across from 300 Main.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles