Time to open up Portage and Main

By: Jeffrey Thorsteinson


In 2017, the agreement that closed the corner of Portage and Main to pedestrians ends. With this in mind, city council has directed staff to study re-opening the intersection to foot traffic.

It's admirable the city is taking this step. The arguments that have been made in favour of turning Portage and Main into a more pedestrian-friendly urban space are all correct. But it's important to remember we've been here before, without results.

Only eight years ago a large competition calling for a re-design of the site was held. The winning scheme, by local architecture firm Corbett Cibinel, viewed the corner as a pedestrian hub with plans to improve the subterranean realm below. The proposal opened the intersection to foot traffic for evenings and weekends or entirely. But progress halted when then-mayor Glen Murray stepped out of civic politics and into an ill-fated federal election campaign.

The meantime hasn't been all bad. The words "Portage and Main" still have an evocative power. It's here that crowds gathered when the Jets' return was announced. It's here that you find local treasures by prominent international firms: McKim Mead and White's Beaux-Arts Bank of Montreal and Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Richardson Building. Recent gestures add life and point in the right direction: a Starbucks at the base of the RBC tower and Hy's Steakhouse anchoring the Richardson building. New art has also appeared, paid for by building owners.

The potential is clear, but we're still left largely with emptiness and barricades.

Why? There is, of course, the agreement. But this document's language and legality is unclear. It leaves room for surface-level pedestrian crossings of the intersection as long as they "tie-in to the concourse." And with the assent of the corner's property owners, it could certainly be scrapped.

In 2007, six out of seven owners agreed to this plan. The seventh, Oxford Properties, has since been replaced by Crown Realty, whose opinion on the matter is unknown. What's missing is leadership. In his 2010 re-election campaign Mayor Sam Katz stated that "Evenings and weekends are a reasonable compromise," but nothing's changed.

Unmotivated politicians are just part of the picture. The larger reason behind the current state of affairs is a widespread conviction the corner must remain closed to avoid traffic headaches. More than any other, it's this notion that motivates keeping the corner closed. And it's an idea that hasn't yet received the critique it's due.

Happily, it's easily refutable. If you take the time to look at the city's traffic map, it's clear Portage and Main isn't even Winnipeg's busiest corner. Regent and Lagimodiere, which is open to pedestrians, has approximately 189,500 cars pass through on a typical day. In contrast, Portage and Main gets 154,000. If you add up the streets feeding into Confusion Corner, whose name indicates its difficulty to navigate, you'll see that it too gets more traffic than Portage and Main. And yet I've never heard it suggested these corners be shut down to foot traffic.

In fact, it's obvious countless cities around the world allow pedestrians to cross intersections with far higher traffic volumes than Portage and Main and that problems do not arise. If these cities adopted our route, Manhattan and Paris would be dominated by shady underground malls. Sites such as New York's Times Square, Herald Square and Columbus Circle are all busier than Portage and Main and all are open to foot traffic. Recently, New York City has given more space to pedestrians and amenities and has found traffic delays have gone down.

Portage and Main was not shut to pedestrians because of the difficulty of mixing foot traffic and cars. The concourse was sold to Winnipeggers by the city mostly on the notion that a climate-controlled connection would greatly enhance life downtown. This has not been the case. We don't need to live by the mistaken assumptions of the past. And, importantly, even if pedestrians are allowed to cross above, if you like the concourse, its warm halls will still be there for you.

These, hopefully, are the type of findings the city report will come to. When the day the agreement's end arrives, let's open the corner up and invite people back to Winnipeg's central landmark site. Or, better yet: don't wait.

Jeffrey Thorsteinson is a Winnipeg architectural historian and writer with an interest in urban planning.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2013 A9