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The bunker-like entrance of a subterranean pedestrian tunnel at Winnipeg’s iconic Portage & Main intersection on May 1, 2023.Shannon VanRaes/Globe and Mail

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham is planning to reopen Portage and Main, one of Canada’s most historic intersections, to pedestrians for the first time in more than four decades.

Often called the crossroads of Canada because of the proximity to the longitudinal centre of the country, Portage and Main – with 16 lanes of car traffic and zero crosswalks – has been a nexus of debate across Manitoba. Barricades have closed the intersection to pedestrian traffic at street level since 1979, forcing people to use an underground concourse, cross at another intersection a short distance away or jaywalk.

The downtown site marks the point at which two of Winnipeg’s largest thoroughfares, Portage Avenue and Main Street, connect. It’s where people cheered at the end of the Second World War, protested in the 1919 General Strike and celebrated the return of the city’s NHL team, the Winnipeg Jets, in 2011.

Mr. Gillingham, who became mayor in 2022, said during his election campaign that he was not interested in allowing pedestrians back into the intersection. Four years earlier, when former mayor Brian Bowman promised a reopening – before backtracking after a majority of Winnipeggers voted against it in a non-binding plebiscite – Mr. Gillingham had even stood in opposition as a city councillor.

But at a news conference in City Hall on Friday, he explained his 180. “There’s a lot that has changed in the past six years. We have information today we didn’t have then.”

He said his decision largely hinged on a recent report, commissioned by city council, that shows repairs to the intersection’s underground concourse would cost around $73-million, with up to five years of construction-induced traffic delays.

That report, published online Friday, will be presented to a council committee on property development next week, after which a motion will be drafted for the reopening.

Any repairs to the leak-prone concourse, particularly to replace its waterproof membrane, are also “not a one-time fix,” says the report, written by James Veitch, acting urban planning manager for the city. “Even a new membrane would have a service life of approximately 40 years, meaning that this undertaking would need to be repeated in the future.”

Mr. Gillingham’s plan is to permanently close the underground walkway, which houses several businesses. Preliminary conversations with planners suggest decommissioning the concourse could cost up to $50-million and take around five years, he said.

Kate Fenske, chief executive of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said although details about the reopening are uncertain, she will always encourage more pedestrian access. “We know that more street-level activity and foot traffic actually increases not only the vibrancy but also the safety of downtown,” she said in an interview.

James Richardson & Sons Ltd. owns a 34-storey office tower at the corner of Portage and Main that connects to the concourse through the underground Winnipeg Square shopping mall. In a statement, spokesperson Barb Perreaux said the company supports the reopening, but would need more details before commenting on the closure of the pathway.

“At this point, most of us are unsure whether this is an either/or type of situation, and if the city needs to let go of the underground before allowing street-level access,” Ms. Fenske said.

Joined at his announcement on Friday by four council members who represent downtown wards, Mr. Gillingham said that he expects some councillors to be against the initiative, but that he plans to forge ahead with the reopening by summer of 2025, to coincide with the launch of Winnipeg’s new transit route network.

Russ Wyatt, a councillor representing the suburb of Transcona, jumped on the podium after Mr. Gillingham had finished speaking to reporters. City officials turned off his microphone, asking him to share his thoughts elsewhere.

“I don’t think the mayor has the right to undermine the voice and the will of the people who spoke loud and clear in the last plebiscite that we had,” Mr. Wyatt said at the podium, adding that one of the reasons Mr. Gillingham won the mayor’s seat was because he had been against the reopening of Portage and Main.

“If he had been clear and open to the citizens of Winnipeg at the time of the last general election, he would have lost.”

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

The Globe and Mail

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