Portage and Main

Stefano Grande

The Downtown BIZ is supportive of implementing a phased approach to make below and above grade improvements at the iconic intersection of Portage and Main, and in a forward motion that one day can lead to pedestrians crossing Portage and Main.

Last week, City Hall passed a $3.5 million motion to repair the crumbling Portage and Main intersection. But rather bringing back the barricades, which are crumbling, moving forward with building proper sidewalks and integrating the new design into the efforts of the private sectors own effort for the beautification of their own private spaces / plaza area.

Looking down upon our iconic corner of Portage and Main

At this time, the City of Winnipeg has not committed to the opening of Portage and Main, but rather this presents an opportunity to introduce pedestrian activity incrementally. If money needs to be spent to keep infrastructure current and safe, spending it in a manner that aligns with the Citys’ vision, is smart business. This also allows time for the City to get it right, listening to the thoughts and concerns, and ideas and visions of Downtowners who live, visit and work downtown.

During a recent discussion last week with Tim Tomkins, CEO of the Time Square Alliance, he reminded me of the similar challenges he faced in intruding more pedestrian to Time Square, through their revitalization efforts.

New York has embarked upon a dramatic urban experiment of turning busy streets into pedestrian.

“When our New York Mayor first suggested closing part of Times Square to traffic and creating a larger and better pedestrian environment, many retailers, businesses, drivers and New Yorkers were wary, at best,” Tompkins said. “For sure, there were things to adjust, and it helped that the initial steps were incremental and reversible if it hadn’t worked out.  But for years – through the lens of ordinary folks who walked through Times Square on a daily basis – we knew we had a problem and that we had to explore solutions. As I noted, back in the 1970s and 80s the problem in Times Square was that you couldn’t get through it without being mugged, and by 2000 the problem was you couldn’t get through it.  It was too crowded and the pedestrian experience was horrible. Not only was the iconic and historic center of our city not functional, it was not even remotely aspirational. We deserved better.”

“There were things that had to be sorted out – traffic adjustments, maintenance and management protocols for the space, getting the programming and regulatory tools in place.  And there’s more work to be done. But nine months into this grand experiment, between 2/3 and ¾ of our local workers, businesses, and New Yorkers said the pedestrian plazas should be made permanent, and the number of local workers who were satisfied with the experience in Times Square jumped from 43% to 74%.”

Whats’ common between New Yorkers and Winnipeggers is that there are two main views, in both cities. Some people feel strongly about wanting to get from point A to point B as quickly and with as little traffic interference as possible, while other feel strongly about wanting to create a walkable neighborhood which is an exciting and vibrant place.

Recently 120+ downtowners were simply asked “What best describes what you’d like to see occur at grade on Portage and Main?” The top responses from the survey showed us that people want places where they can enjoy restaurants, a place where they can gather to celebrate and a place where all types of transportation-users are found. Downtowners want change.

In addition, many business owners, developers and property owners feel that the intersection’s barricades cut off pedestrian movement as well as commerce, business and social interaction, which is the lifeblood of our Downtown that creates the vibrancy that people really want. As a result, this blocks urban revitalization and leaves missed opportunities for re-development, small business development and cuts off the city’s four most vibrant neighborhoods/districts which include East and West Exchange, Portage Avenue and the Forks.

A vibrant downtown can only be achieved if we keep applying the same proven principles – creating great and well-designed places and spaces, for people to walk, and all forms of transportation.  This is the magic formula which works for our Downtown, and leads to more density and more taxes for the City.

By the City making these incremental changes, Winnipeggers will be able to keep the conversation going and help with finding solutions that will eventually develop a consensus on a permanent one, like New Yorkers did. This incremental approach will also give the City time to engage with stakeholders, take a deeper dive on transit and traffic studies, and even broaden design strategies, in order to get it done right.

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