Green space, housing, shift from retail all on the table for potential Portage Place redevelopment: president

Residential and affordable housing, a shift from shopping to services and a greenway running through what’s now a mall are among options being considered by the possible redeveloper of downtown Winnipeg’s Portage Place.

Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development — a division of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets — said the company’s plan will both diverge from and mirror the one pitched by the Toronto developer that previously struck a deal to revamp the beleaguered mall.

For example, True North’s plan will likely include a residential component and affordable housing in the 440,000-square-foot property.

But it won’t be as “residential-centric” as the idea proposed by Starlight Investments — which included building two 20-storey residential towers above the mall — before the developer pulled out of its deal in 2021, Ludlow said.

In other ways, the new plan would also borrow from the one pitched by Starlight by potentially taking the roof off part of the building to make way for green space to run through it, Ludlow said in an interview on Monday.

“Particularly in a state of vacancy, Portage Place is a real dividing line in downtown Winnipeg. So we see ways to let that breathe materially,” he said.

“I think Edmonton Street from Central Park to Graham Avenue becomes a pedestrianized component.”

Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development, speaks to a reporter while standing in True North Square in downtown Winnipeg.
Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development, said the company’s plan will both diverge from and mirror the one pitched by the Toronto developer that previously struck a deal to revamp the beleaguered mall. (Darin Morash/CBC)

Ludlow said his company’s plan will include a focus on services instead of continuing as a retail mall — which he said he doesn’t think will ever work again in the location.

When asked whether those services would include ones related to health or addictions treatment, Ludlow would only hint that may be the case.

“I think if you were looking under a spectrum of things like that, you’d probably be touching on very many things that would be valuable,” he said.

Over the past two decades, True North has made hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investments into downtown Winnipeg through the construction of the Canada Life Centre, the Centrepoint development to the north of the hockey arena and the True North Square development to the west.

True North executive chairman Mark Chipman has also repeatedly expressed a desire to alleviate homelessness and addictions in the area.

1 year to develop plan if approved

The company is seeking an option to purchase the 36-year-old property by the end of 2023.

The purchase option requires True North to conduct community consultations on the redevelopment, keep the skywalks connecting the mall to the rest of downtown open from 7 a.m. until midnight, and pay The Forks North Portage Partnership no less than $34.5 million for its stake in the mall — which includes the land, the parkade below the mall and the air rights above it.

The option would also give True North a one-year period to develop a plan to redevelop the mall and surrounding area, Winnipeg economic development manager Matt Dryburgh wrote in a report that will come before council’s executive policy committee.

Portage Place, currently owned by Vancouver’s Peterson Group, was built in 1987 by the North Portage Development Corporation, a predecessor of today’s Forks North Portage Partnership. 

Ludlow said the part of the deal between True North and Peterson Group is done, but would not disclose what number was agreed on for the building itself. He added there will be some form of financial ask of all three levels of government.

Mall ‘underperforming,’ says mayor

While the mall opened with the hopes of bringing more foot traffic downtown, some tenants departed amid complaints of low sales within a year. Over the next three decades, most of the original tenants also left, while major amenities — including an IMAX theatre and a movie multiplex — shuttered.

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said he’s pleased to see a local company interested in redeveloping the mall and underscored the importance of reviving the site for the entire city.

A man with short hair, glasses in a grey plaid suit stands behind a microphone.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said a strong downtown is key to a strong city — and getting more people to live downtown is a big part of that. (Warren Kay/CBC)

“You can’t have a strong and healthy city without a strong and healthy downtown, so we need that piece of property redeveloped,” he told reporters on Monday, adding that a key to that is getting more people to live downtown.

“I think everybody in Winnipeg understands that in its current state … the property’s underperforming.”

Some social advocates, meanwhile, called for features such as community space to be included in the plans and said True North doesn’t have a track record of serving the community.

Ludlow said there’s no logistical or financial reason True North would choose not to go ahead with the deal, hinting only that intangible obstacles such as potential community opposition may stand in the way.

“It’s not whether capital exists. It’s not whether you can create a vision. It’s whether you can align as a group on what it takes to drive the city forward,” he said.

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