Bringing down the barricades is just the beginning

I should be happier.

Free Press-Probe Research survey of Winnipeg adults shows 53 per cent oppose the removal of pedestrian barriers at Portage and Main. It was the first time in 40 years Probe surveyed Winnipeggers on the subject, and remarkably, support for bringing down the barriers has not grown.

Although I haven’t lived in Winnipeg for as long as 40 years, I certainly have counted myself among the majority on this issue for as long as I have been here. As such, the poll results should be a cause of mild celebration.

In short, I believed reopening the intersection to pedestrians would be a mostly meaningless gesture. That it would do nothing to attract people downtown or encourage people who live in the suburbs but work downtown to support above-ground businesses. That having pedestrians toddling across that intersection would snarl traffic and cripple downtown.

Those fortunate — or unfortunate enough as the case may be — to cross swords with me on this issue can attest to the fact I stridently enforced my opinion whenever I had the chance. After several cocktails at a dinner party earlier this year, I may have even told one of my best friends that his support for removing the barriers was the stupidest thing I had ever heard him say.

For reasons still unknown to me, he remains a friend.

However, something funny happened on the way to a lifetime of disparaging the idea of re-opening Winnipeg’s iconic downtown intersection to pedestrians: I changed my mind.

The epiphany started during an interview with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who was in town for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference, and joined me for a webcast chat at the Free Press News Café.

Nenshi was staying at the Fairmont Hotel on the east side of Portage and Main. At a late stage of the interview, Nenshi demanded that I ask him about the pedestrian barriers at Portage and Main. As he was a visitor to the city, I complied.

"It is, in fact, the most hostile pedestrian environment I have seen in any place in Canada. And boy, oh boy, it is the main intersection of Canada, Portage and Main. Let’s get people on it."

In that moment, I had a change of heart on the whole Portage and Main debate. I’m as convinced as ever that there is little concrete benefit from tearing down the concrete barriers. However, I cannot argue with Nenshi’s assertion that the image of those barriers is a disheartening sight for citizens and visitors alike.

But there’s more. Following the Nenshi interview I had another seminal conversation about Portage and Main with a fellow I will describe as a charter member of the "suburbs rule" fan club. This fellow suggested the city could not remove the barriers based only on the effect it would have on traffic.

As we talked, it became patently obvious that despite working there, this fellow had no interest in downtown people or culture. He told me that every day he worked downtown, he wanted to get in and out as soon as possible. Anything that slowed him down — such as pedestrians crossing Portage and Main — was unacceptable.

I suddenly found myself wishing the barriers had been removed and that the intersection had been flooded with pedestrians. I imagined that while stuck in traffic, Mr. Suburbs might notice a new restaurant or have time to contemplate some of the architecture. I then started to think about whether this fellow was smart enough to grab a bite to eat or a small cocktail after work and wait out the height of rush hour.

As I thought about all these things, I realized there were just as many reasons to tear down the barriers as I have traditionally harboured for leaving them where they are.

To be perfectly honest, I would still prefer the city take a different approach altogether when it comes to reopening the intersection. Remove the barriers if you must, but also take the time to consider alternatives for the pedestrian traffic: a pedestrian overpass, for example.

At Re-imagining Winnipeg, a series of forums held at the News Café in partnership with StorefrontMB, a number of fascinating proposals came forward to reinvent the intersection as a public space. Some of the proposals reimagined the intersection as a park. Although impractical, it would certainly solve the traffic problem if there were no traffic passing through the intersection.

Other architects dreamed of building pedestrian crossings above the intersection, with perhaps a small observation deck that would allow people to enjoy a unique view of Winnipeg’s two major thoroughfares. Imagine the wedding photos and selfies a place like that would produce.

The point of all this dreaming is that if Portage and Main is to reopen, it should be as a public attraction, not just another crosswalk. Simply taking down the barriers is not transformative; to accomplish that goal would require much more imagination on the part of the city and support from the other levels of government. Unfortunately, that’s an awfully big task for a city that is not long on bold thinking.

So, if I could be allowed to amend my position, I would like to see the barriers come down. But in their place, I want the city to do something spectacular to make Portage and Main a unique and compelling attraction. Dare to dream.