City will hear from Times Square boss about opening Portage and Main
The buzz about reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic is going to get a lot louder in the coming weeks.
That’s because the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ will be hosting a number of events on the topic, and it’s bringing in the New Yorker who was instrumental in reopening Times Square to foot traffic.
Tim Tompkins, who has headed up the business improvement district of perhaps the most famous part of New York City for more than a decade, said transforming an area to accommodate pedestrians can certainly be done and done successfully.
Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown BIZ, said Tompkins will speak to city councillors, the chief planner and the chief administrative officer about his experiences after he arrives in town on Feb. 4. The Downtown and Exchange District BIZs will hold closed-door sessions with area property owners and the public will be invited to sit in on panel discussions with BIZ members.
Mayor Brian Bowman is perhaps the highest-profile champion of reopening Portage and Main to foot traffic as it was one of the planks of his run for mayor in late 2014.
"It can’t be ‘Run! All the best to you!’ " he said on the campaign trail. "Let’s be innovative and let’s make it even more iconic than it is right now."
Today, Bowman continues to work on this campaign commitment.
"I’d like to see it happen sooner than later," he said.
"I’ve heard from some of the property owners in the Portage and Main area that there is increased focus on our plans to open up pedestrian traffic at that intersection. We want to help support the landowners in that area.
"It’s ongoing. There has been talk at council already about some of the efforts that we need to do in order to open it. There is nothing pending in terms of the barriers being removed in the next week or month by any means."
In 2009, New York City’s Broadway Avenue, one of the roadways bordering Times Square, was closed off to vehicle traffic and turned into a pedestrian space, Tompkins explained in an interview with the Free Press.
But before the move became official, Tompkins and other proponents addressed many concerns from local businesses who feared their revenue would plummet and from commuters who were worried about getting to work and back on time.
"There are often common processes and concerns when trying to balance how to nurture economic activity and create great public and civic space in a way that helps, rather than hurts, individual businesses," said Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, a BIZ-like not-for-profit organization.
Winnipeg can learn a lot from the Times Square trailblazers, he said.
New York’s Broadway theatres are in Tompkins’ district and many customers were worried that the drive to their favourite show would be adversely affected while theatre owners were concerned about ticket revenue plunging.
After surveying as many stakeholders as possible and coming up with a solution that was palatable to the vast majority, the transformation has been a great success, he said.
"Three-quarters to four-fifths of business people feel very positive about it. We wanted to take the concerns of the businesses very seriously but try to address them in ways that didn’t make us give up on the bigger vision. We got the facts about what was or wasn’t a threat," he said.
Improving the overall physical environment for pedestrians can make a huge difference in attracting foot traffic and helping convince people to open up their wallets.
"By creating a space where we could put tables and chairs so people could enjoy a nice outdoor day, it really changed the atmosphere," he said.
The changes also included basics such as planters and food kiosks up to small-scale arts and entertainment and even yoga classes.
"Because the environment was nicer, people spent more time in the plazas and advertisers’ signs were seen more. The (economic) pie is getting bigger."
The proof, however, would be in retailers’ tills — they were stuffed.
"That’s reflected in a bunch of different ways, including foot traffic and the rent when there is turnover for business. Over time, the value of the real estate has gone up because retail businesses have done better," he said.
A generation of Winnipeggers have never seen people cross Portage and Main above ground. With the construction of the Trizec building in the late 1970s, an underground connection was made to each of the intersection’s four corners. In an effort to force people into the shops that lined the concourse, a 40-year agreement was signed with the six adjacent property owners that read, "The city agrees that it will not consent to any construction of a pedestrian crossing over or under any street (at Portage and Main)." Concrete barricades adorned with colourful flowers were installed and the intersection was sealed off.
But it may be time for those barriers to come down.
"It’s very clear that direction is coming from city hall and the mayor’s office that we want to start this conversation and get those barriers down," Grande said. "We want to kick-start the conversation, look at best practices from Times Square and how they engaged the stakeholders for a redesign to create more of a pedestrian-friendly environment for people who want to visit this incredible place (at Portage and Main). We think a similar process could be used here. We could learn from them and have a good conversation with our community and businesses and use this as a springboard," Grande said.
Jenny Gerbasi, city councillor for Fort Rouge/East Fort Garry, has been working on the bring-down-the-barriers file for years. She has spent much of her time building public support and she’s optimistic things are moving in the right direction.
"There’s a lot more political momentum now," she said.
Council recently endorsed a motion giving the administration direction to take the specific steps that are needed to make it a reality, including a detailed traffic study.
"We’ve also had legal advice over the last year that has given the city confidence that there won’t be a problem if the public and political will is there," she said.
Gerbasi said Winnipeggers need to take a more worldly view of Portage and Main.
"We’re the exception. You don’t find a bunch of intersections that are closed off to the public (in other cities). We have intersections that are just as busy as this one. The view that we can’t possibly have people at our signature intersection that everybody in the world knows about it absurd," she said.
The city's deal with property owners of the corners of Portage and Main expires in 2019 and while the property owners can renew it for a further 40 years, Gerbasi said the ultimate decision lies with council.
"If the city decides we want to open it up, we can do it. We want to do it in a collaborative way. City council has the ultimate authority," she said.
Gerbasi said the sooner the barriers come down, the better.
"I¹d like to see it happen in time for the Canada Summer Games (in July 2017)," she said.
Bonus: TEDxTimesSquare Talk with Tim Tompkins - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kVbIc5mVCw