Winnipeg at a crossroads: Is now the time to finally fix Portage and Main?
Momentum is slowly growing to remake one of Canada's most hostile intersections. Oliver Moore explores how it could bring new life to downtown Winnipeg
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, CEO 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."
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 history in pictures
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 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 re-creates 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 Corporation, 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, it was built a century ago by the architects who did Grand Central Terminal in New York City – 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.
The Forks, then and now
The pressure is on Mayor Bowman 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."
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