City closes downtown skywalks, underground concourse due to COVID-19 pandemic

No way to cross Portage and Main

CROSSING the street at Portage and Main just became an even bigger obstacle.

As of Friday evening, the city shut the doors to the entire downtown overhead walkway system, along with the underground concourse at Portage and Main until further notice as a health precaution due to COVID-19. To make it to the other side of the windy intersection, pedestrians will be required to locate the nearest street level crossing.

People voiced their opinions on social media over the weekend, with a common argument being everyone should be staying home anyway so the added restrictions at Portage and Main is a non-issue. Brent Bellamy, a senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group, couldn’t disagree more.

“We may be in a crisis situation, but people still need to access medical appointments, fill prescriptions, buy groceries, get exercise, air and sunlight,” Bellamy said.

“Many are still working in essential services. Many of these people need to catch the bus, or walk to their employment. We have very deliberately made the choice that even when the 70,000 workers and 25,000 students are not downtown, the 17,000 people who live there must cross the city’s central intersection by going underground. If we are going to live with that choice we must ensure that option is available to everyone, always, first and foremost for those with mobility challenges, because the alternatives are unrealistic and quite honestly shameful in a modern city like ours.”

Forcing people to go outside and walk an extra block or two to get to a crosswalk might not be a major inconvenience for some, but for seniors and people with disabilities, it can make a simple errand difficult, especially with this week’s snowfall. With the snow buildup and the construction going on outside the office building at 201 Portage Ave., it’d be nearly impossible for someone in a wheelchair to navigate around the building and for people to stay six feet apart.

“When you actually look at how far it is just to cross the street ‘one block over,’ it is the equivalent of walking between two and four-and-half lengths of a football field, depending on which direction you are coming from,” Bellamy said. “If you are in a wheelchair, or a senior, or just about anyone actually, that is an unreasonable distance.”

Bellamy adds these obstacles are nothing new. Even when the skywalk and underground are open, it isn’t easy for people to get around.

“The intersection being inaccessible right now is news because it is caused by a pandemic, but the fact that it is inaccessible is the reality almost more often than not. The ramps inside the concourse have been closed for the last month because the roof is leaking across them. Before that, one of the elevators was broken and took months to repair. Before that, the sprinkler system in the concourse burst and an elevator was closed off. Every day after business hours and on weekends, the elevators in the office buildings required to access the concourse are closed. Every single day,” Bellamy said.

“If we are going to force people in a wheelchair to use four elevators and two ramps to get across the street, they should at least work.”

The barriers at Portage and Main have been the great debate in town for years. Oly Backstrom, the president and CEO of SCE LifeWorks, said issues like this one wouldn’t exist if people would simply be allowed to cross the street. But to him, bringing light to the city’s recent decision goes much further than making another point as to why the barriers should be gone.

“I don’t want to get bogged down in that specific issue because Portage and Main is a bit of a lightning rod. But to me, it’s symbolic of how society views accessibility, and even how people are viewing accessibility issues during this pandemic,” said Backstrom, who asked his Twitter followers to remember the current scenario the next time there’s a Portage and Main debate.

“Some comments and responses to my original tweet seem to indicate that ‘Buddy, there’s a pandemic going on. Why are you tweeting about this?’ Kind of implying that concerns around accessibility should take a back seat to the pandemic. (The pandemic) has got us all sick with worry, but my argument would be the stakes are even higher during emergencies like this pandemic when it comes to accessibility.”

In the 2018 civic election, opening up Portage and Main was put to a vote. The answer was a resounding “no” with 65 per cent of voters wanting to leave the downtown hub as is.

“The people most impacted by the barriers, whether it be people with disabilities, or people who live downtown, for the most part, were pretty clear about how they felt about opening it up,” Backstrom said.

“But it was put to a vote for all Winnipeggers, including those who are not directly impacted by that negatively on a day-to-day basis.

So, I look forward to the day when a leader reassesses and makes the right decision and makes Portage and Main accessible.” Twitter: @TaylorAllen31