Winnipeg’s mayor says it’s time to re-open the city’s most famous intersection to pedestrian traffic.
Scott Gillingham spoke to media Friday morning about the future of Portage and Main, and said a city report has found that a much-needed replacement to the waterproof membrane that protects the underground pedestrian concourse would cost upwards of $73 million and require years of disruptive construction.
“The waterproof membrane that keeps the concourse dry has been failing for many years,” Gillingham said.
“We’ve reached the point where the membrane needs to be replaced… and that is a major undertaking. Repairing the membrane would require completely tearing up Portage and Main at street level in sections.”
The projected $73 million cost, he said, could be even higher, depending on the condition of the concrete. The work, he said, could be less disruptive and expensive if the underground concourse is closed.
Which concept best suits a revitalization of Winnipeg’s iconic intersection?
Canada’s coldest and windiest intersection, according to a popular local urban myth, Portage and Main has served as an unofficial meeting site for protests, street parties, parades, and other events throughout the city’s history — from key moments in the Winnipeg general strike of 1919 to the Winnipeg Jets’ signing of star centre Dale Hawerchuk in 1981.
Closed to pedestrians since the development of an underground concourse in the late 1970s, the idea of reopening the intersection has been a pervasive one, with then-mayor Brian Bowman — who had originally campaigned on reopening Portage and Main — issuing a plebiscite on the topic as part of the 2018 civic election.
The results of that plebiscite showed an almost 65/35 split among Winnipeggers in favour of keeping the intersection dedicated to vehicular traffic, although later reports indicated that the vast majority of those who voted ‘no’ on re-opening Portage and Main were commuters who didn’t live in the immediate area.
Gillingham said Friday that much more information about the state of the intersection has become available in the six years since the plebiscite, and suggested many Winnipeggers might have voted differently given the details that are known in 2024.
“People will say, ‘what about the plebiscite?’, and that’s a fair question, but a lot of has changed in the past six years,” the mayor said.
“We didn’t know then that replacing the membrane would disrupt traffic for four to five years. We didn’t know it would cost $73 million. We didn’t know there’d be a global pandemic that would interrupt work patterns.
“I think if voters did have that info in 2018, I think they would have made a different choice. I know I would.”
The mayor said he acknowledges Portage and Main’s cultural importance to the city’s history, but in the end, it’s just one of thousands of intersections in Winnipeg — and the only one that doesn’t have an at-grade pedestrian crossing.
“This is just an intersection, but over the years it’s consumed so much attention and so much energy to the point it’s become distracting.”
The Portage and Main question
Gillingham said property owners on the four corners of the intersection will be consulted and there will be a cost estimate done for permanently closing the underground.
In a statement Friday morning, James Richardson & Sons, owners of the 34-storey Richardson Building at the intersection, said they support the idea of opening Portage & Main to foot traffic.
“James Richardson & Sons, Limited is in favour of improving and revitalizing Winnipeg’s downtown, including taking the step of opening the Portage and Main intersection to pedestrian traffic,” the statement said.
“We understand that the city is considering closing the underground pathway as part of the re-opening of the intersection to above-ground pedestrian traffic, but without time to consider the details of such a plan, it is too early for us to comment further.”
Local architect Brent Bellamy — who was a spokesperson for the ‘yes’ side during the 2018 plebiscite — told 680 CJOB’s Connecting Winnipeg that this move has been a long time coming.
“I feel like maybe I’ve been playing on a hockey team for the last several decades that has lost every game, and we finally got our first win… and it was a forfeit because the other team couldn’t afford their registration fees.
“But… any time you get a crooked number in the win column, it’s a good thing.”
Now, he said, it’s time to move forward and start talking about vision.
The report still has to go on to city council’s property and development committee next Thursday.
Winnipeg wants feedback on replacement for ‘Soviet-era’ concrete barricades at Portage and Main
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