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Winnipeg council votes to open pedestrian crossing at Portage and Main

Peter Caulfield
Winnipeg council votes to open pedestrian crossing at Portage and Main

After 45 years of being blocked by concrete barriers, Winnipeg pedestrians will be able to emerge from an underground passageway and cross the downtown intersection of Portage and Main at street level again.

The intersection is slated to open July 1, 2025.

On March 21, city council voted 11 to 3 to open the intersection and to close the underground concourse pedestrians have had to use.

“We can now declare turning Portage and Main into a thoroughfare has been a failure as an urban experiment,” says Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

“As the mayor says, it’s just an intersection. Winnipeg has 10,000 of them and Portage and Main is the only one that’s blocked off.

“Reopening the intersection is an important step in humanizing the Winnipeg urban experience.”

The vote came after a city report estimated it would cost $73 million and disrupt traffic there for up to five years to replace the leaking membrane that protects the underground concourse and keep it open.

Mayor Scott Gillingham says the numbers clinch the argument for closing the concourse.

Most Winnipeggers agree with the mayor.

According to an online poll, 61 per cent says they strongly or somewhat strongly support restoring pedestrian access; 39 per cent are strongly or somewhat strongly against it.

That’s a switch from the results of a 2018 non-binding plebiscite.

In that vote, 65 per cent of voters were against removing the barriers and reopening the junction to foot traffic, while 35 per cent were in favour.

Winnipeggers have been debating pedestrian access at the intersection for years.

Although Portage and Main is only the sixth-busiest intersection in Winnipeg, it occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of the city’s residents.

In addition to its reputation as the coldest (-40 C) and windiest corner in Canada, Portage and Main is where Winnipeggers gather almost by instinct whenever there is a victory by one of its sports teams to celebrate or a political decision to denounce.

The intersection has been closed to pedestrian traffic since 1979. 

In that year the city signed a deal with a developer whereby the latter agreed to build two office towers, a hotel, a bank and an underground mall at the corner.

The city’s quid for the developer’s quo was to close the intersection to pedestrians, so that anyone who wanted to cross the street had to go below the surface to do so, a boon to the merchants of Winnipeg Square, an underground shopping mall. 

The Journal of Commerce spoke to some Winnipeggers who work near Portage and Main for their reaction to council’s decision.

Sasa Radulovic, founding partner of 5468796 Architecture Inc., says the decision was pragmatic.

“I’ve always been in favour of keeping the intersection open to pedestrians,” says Radulovic. “It never made any sense to close it down.”

Susan Algie, board president of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, says the decision to reopen Portage and Main is long overdue.

“It will take some time to see the long-term impact of opening the intersection,” says Algie. “But for visitors to the city, as well as downtown residents, there will be the immediate impact of direct access between the Exchange District and downtown.”

Aaron Moore, University of Winnipeg professor of political science, is glad the intersection is opening, but says it should be functional for people in the suburbs too.

“To make it work and to get everyone’s support, it needs good signage and traffic lights and a design that works for everyone,” says Moore.

Christopher Adams, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, says what happens to the underground concourse is important. 

“It’s the hub of the network that takes people in the office buildings at Portage and Main and to the retail stores and restaurants in Winnipeg Square,” says Adams.

Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ (Business Improvement Zone) says more street level activity increases vibrancy and safety downtown.

“An iconic intersection in our city should be inclusive of and accessible to all Winnipeggers,” says Fenske.

At the same time, she hopes the city-owned portion of the concourse that connects the underground and the city’s skywalk system remains open.

“We don’t yet know what decommissioning the Circus (concourse) would look like but we know it would have a significant impact on businesses there,” she says.

The mayor says he’s committed to consulting with the trucking industry, property owners at the intersection and businesses in the underground concourse about the changes.

Any spending to actually close the concourse requires city council’s approval.


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