“Diplomatic” solution

Fifteen years. That’s how long discussions have been in the works to remove the concrete barriers to pedestrian traffic across Winnipeg’s famous corner of Portage and Main. And it may be another 12 years before people will finally be able to cross the windy intersection with the sun beating upon their heads.

Over the course of 15 years, city hall has convinced six of seven property holders on the corner to forego their objections. The only holdout is Oxford Properties, the owner of the concourse where pedestrian traffic is now redirected to underground retail shops from the two streets above.

There’s quite a bit of history behind  Winnipeg’s most famous corner; this alone should be the strongest argument in favour of removing the barriers. 

The corner of Portage and Main began in the fertile mind of Winnipeg businessman Henry McKenney, who in 1862 decided to build the first structure that would dictate the further shape of the city. 

McKenney had noticed a trend. He had purchased a store from fellow entrepreneur Andrew McDermott and converted it into a hotel. The trend he noticed was that his Royal Hotel, despite being off the beaten track of the old Portage Trail, was a magnet for thirsty travellers, who made a bee-line directly to his hotel when coming from the west instead of following the meandering trail along the Assiniboine River. It was the proverbial, “build it and they will come,” and they did. 

McKenney purposely built a store at a right angle to the crossroads, thereby ensuring that his establishment would become the hub of an axis of streets fanning out in all directions. His vision ensured Portage and Main became one of Winnipeg’s best known landmarks throughout Canada and beyond. 

By the 1970s, the original vision of McKenney had waned — how quickly we forget the historical importance of something — to the point that city council cast its gaze beyond the sentimental and tourist value of the corner. One of its plans was to duplicate the rising skyscrapers that had dotted other downtowns across North America. 

Enter the Trizec Tower. Prior to the construction of the 31-storey edifice, an agreement was reached between the area building owners, including the Richardson family and four banks and the Calgary-based Trizec Corporation. The agreement was that the city would close Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic by erecting concrete barriers. Pedestrian traffic was rerouted underground into what became known as Winnipeg Square, a concourse of businesses owned and managed by Oxford Properties. To commit to the concourse, a lease was signed with the city which doesn’t expire until 2019. 

Through the years, many Winnipeggers have dreamed about once again traversing the historic corner above ground. 

When first elected, Katz said the 1979 agreement makes this impossible. He was reacting to former Mayor Glen Murray’s idea  to remove the barriers that arose when Toronto-based Janet Rosenberg & Associates and Corbett Cibinel Architects of Winnipeg won an international contest to redesign  Portage and Main into a people-friendly corner. City Crossing 2004, as the contest was called, attracted designs from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. 

What the city at the time failed to outline was how they would be able to tear up the contract. Most of the businesses in the area have indicated they were willing to re-open the corner, but Oxford was a holdout, sticking to the the original terms that sent them underground in the first place. 

The new mayor said that city hall was acting foolishly by holding the design contest. Katz pointed out that “a deal is a deal.” 

It can also be argued that it wasn’t so much a case of foolishness as wishful thinking.  

Yet, a few months later, Katz has become more favourable to re-opening the corner. He initiated a $130,000 study of the feasibility of returning the corner to pedestrian traffic. He even convinced Oxford to contribute to the study’s cost. 

The original contest-winning design of creating an “urban light forest” — now known as Light Forest —was under consideration, a $10.5-million intersection re-design that was again the topic of debate at city hall last week. 

Last Monday, CentreVenture was asked by the city to revisit the issue with a mandate to try to convince the sole hold-out  to reconsider, through “diplomatic” negotiations, any objection to re-opening the corner. CentreVenture is armed with the argument that the barriers would only be removed in the evenings and on weekends when the concourse shops are closed and traffic on the two streets is light. During these hours, no concourse shop owner would actually miss the underground pedestrian traffic because their doors are shut.

It’s a strong selling point that needs to be stressed. At the minimum, CentreVenture may be able to convince the concourse owner to at least consider a trial removal of the concrete barriers. Perhaps in the summer at the height of the tourist season.

“I don’t know of any city in the world that does not let people cross its busiest corners,” CentreVenture co-president Ida Albo told Free Press reporter Bartley Kives, while expressing optimism that the seventh property owner would come on-side.

CentreVenture happens to be the best agency to be leading the charge. Its mandate is to promote and develop the city’s flagging downtown through public-private partnerships and a public-private partnership is exactly what is needed to have the barriers removed, even if just on a temporary basis. It also helps that the Downtown BIZ and Exchange District BIZ both support the barrier removal cause.

Meanwhile, the barriers have created in the mind of today’s Winnipeggers the belief that it is merely a throughway. People in vehicles whiz by without any apparent knowledge that the corner was once the hub of a thriving business district where thousands walked the streets to and from work or downtown shops. 

Even if the corner is re-opened to pedestrian traffic, a generation of Winnipeggers — who have never experienced first-hand “walking”across the intersection — will have to be re-educated on the sentimental and historic value of the corner.