Predicted boom for Portage and Main up for debate

THE debate over the reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrians took an interesting turn this week when a U.S. software firm proclaimed that Winnipeg can expect to generate $18 in private-sector investment for every dollar spent on opening the intersection to pedestrians.

But commercial property appraiser Rocky Neufeld said he doesn’t understand how the firm reached its conclusions, adding he believes opening the intersection will lead to lower property values for the buildings on the intersection’s corners.

“I love to sit outside and have a drink whenever I can but I won’t do it anywhere in areas where it’s toowindy and hot,” Neufeld said. “Portage and Main iswindy as hell. It’s a sun-focused area. It’s either windy and cold or stagnant and hot.”

Boston-based firm State of Place said it used its own unique forecasting model to conclude the city can expect to see a dramatic increases in property values and rental rates in the immediate area adjacent to Portage and Main.

Mariela Alfonzo, founder and CEO of State of Place, said removing the barriers alone will have little effect on the intersection, adding her firm’s work demonstrates that enhancement of the area through urban design changes can have a dramatic impact on public perception and enjoyment — and that will translate into increased property and rental values.

“I don’t think you should only just take the barriers away and call it a day,” Alfonzo said. “You really need to think more holistically about the kind of design changes needed there.”

She said her firm’s analytical model changed the look and use of the intersection with the addition of trees, outdoor dining, attractive pavement designs, on-street parking and other improvements.

“There are many other things that have to happen at that intersection, from a design perspective, to achieve the goal that you’d want in doing this,” Alfonzo said.

State of Place said if Winnipeg were to invest $7 million to reopen the intersection and make the necessary design changes, property owners could expect to see the following benefits on a oneblock stretch of Main Street, from Portage Avenue to Mc Dermot Street:

• an increase to office rents by $5.52 a square foot;

• an increase to retail rents by $6.73 per square foot;

• generation of additional retail revenues of $50.22 per square foot;

• an increase to overall property values of $126 million over a 10-year period;

• a return of investment of $18.07 for every $1 spent.

Neufeld can’t imagine any of the benefits predicted by the State of Main model. He said diverting pedestrians from the underground to the street will cause permanent damage to the underground businesses, leading to vacancies and lowering the property values.

Alfonzo said the opposite would be true: underground retailers and property owners would be motivated to make their space more attractive and end up getting more customers as more people are attracted to the intersection.

Neufeld said when he looks at the intersection, he doesn’t see there is enough physical space to make the design changes Alfonzo said are necessary. Without that space, he said, the building owners will be hard-pressed to make the desired changes to make the area more attractive.

“There is a little bit of space in front of 201 Portage, a little bit of space in front of the Richardson building, that’s just about it. If you have people there, what are they going to do? Is Hy’s going to put an outdoor café there? I don’t see it.”

Alfonzo said her firm is not a design or consulting firm but is a software firm that developed predictive, analytic software that’s used by municipalities, developers and transportation agencies to “guide, design and (make) planning choices and to justify them from a business case perspective.”

She said her firm chose Portage and Main to coincide with the International Downtown Association conference taking place in the city.

“We’re capturing how movement from lower-quality space to higherquality space, how that could move the needle from an economic development perspective,” Alfonzo said. “It’s based on a robust statistical model where we had an almost infinite combination of different urban design qualities across many different neighbourhoods.”