The battle for Portage & Main is all about city vision

Portage and Main: Ground zero in the battle to revitalize Winnipeg. Photo by AJ Batac
Portage and Main: Ground zero in the battle to revitalize Winnipeg. Photo by AJ Batac

By Stefano Grande

The fear of opening up Portage and Main is grounded in two perceived issues: the slowing down of vehicular traffic, and the fear of the loss of businesses. But, interestingly, perhaps the real fear is about putting our city on a new track to a different vision.
The first fear is that Winnipeg motorists will be upset with an additional 40 seconds of waiting as they watch those that live and work downtown go about their day-to-day lives, crossing Portage and Main to get to a meeting, to grab something to eat, or to just meander on a warm summer day.
Really, an additional 40 seconds upsets people? I honestly know more people angered at not being able to finish a text or two while waiting at stop lights because the lights are turning too quickly!
Secondly, there is a fear that property and business owners may see their rental values plummet and businesses close because a few thousand pedestrians a day three to four months of the year will be diverted from the thriving underground world of shops and services to cross Portage and Main aboveground on a warmer summer day.
These perceived issues are worth talking about, not necessarily because they are real, but rather because these fears may be holding our city back, and holding back downtown businesses from potential growth.
Business leaders will need to think deeply and ask themselves about their vision of their downtown. Is it to simply protect their investment, and hold on to what they’ve been doing? Or should we invest strategically, try to secure a bigger piece of the overall Winnipeg retail market and in doing so, build something great for our city and future generations?
As citizens, and stewards of our city for our children, we really need to ask the question: do we want neighbourhoods that are friendly to people – bustling, vibrant and interactive, that allow people to freely walk around, do things and go places?
Or are we fine with driving from point A to point B, on the road to bankrupting ourselves filling potholes and draining our disposable income with the costs of owning a vehicle or three?
Investors, property owners: as it is today, are those 4.5 million annual visitors to The Forks and the ballpark, and those thousands of new residents on Waterfront, interested in walking to our province’s most famous intersection to eat, grab some food, sit and take in the incredible history?
Right now, it’s an ugly walk, and one without much to do along the way. What would you do to get some of that pedestrian activity to venture to Portage and Main? And are you happy with the density of office workers and residents in and around Portage and Main? By developing pads and surface parking lots, we could line the streets from The Forks to Portage and Main with offices, residents, and storefront after storefront, making the walk a real pleasure.
Pedestrians cross busy streets every day in Winnipeg. In fact, almost a dozen pedestrian crosswalks litter Portage Avenue as downtown residents, workers, students and visitors safely cross eight lanes of road daily. Hundreds of cars wait a minute or more every day to make left turns onto new roadways and bridges, while on a warm summer night hundreds of people cross by traffic in incredible pedestrian villages like Corydon and Osborne.
Think about those great walkable cities – Montreal, Vancouver, Boston, New York. Is that the pedestrian experience we want to strive for? Or are we content to be a city where we isolate ourselves as we park and ride to every retail district, as you see in Scottsdale, Atlanta, and Dallas?
What types of neighbourhoods do we want to create? More Corydons, Osborne Villages and Exchange Districts, or more suburban neighborhoods where all the homes look the same and you need a car to grab a coffee? It doesn’t have to be all one or all the other – but we do need better balance.
The opportunities are clear. The end result even clearer.
The conversation around opening Portage and Main is about much more than just people crossing streets and cars travelling quickly downtown. This is a conversation about the type of city we should be.
This conversation should be about the private sector demanding a more dense and vibrant corner that physically connects our history to our emerging districts – The Forks, Waterfront and the ballpark. It should be about asking politicians to create more effective development policies so affordable multi-family homes can be built in the downtown.
It’s about the creation of a stronger office development environment so that developers are motivated to build more offices downtown than in cheaper spaces in far-flung industrial parks – spaces in the middle of nowhere that cost taxpayers significantly and stifle the creativity of workers that comes from interaction with their environment and with diverse people.
This is about smart jobs and economic development, leading to a healthier, vibrant, and more sustainable city for taxpayers.
Don’t be fooled: the battle for Portage and Main is all about the vision for our city, and nothing less.

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