True North Real Estate Development has announced it intends to redevelop Portage Place, a mixed-use shopping mall in downtown Winnipeg.
In its place will be a campus that connects a health care centre, affordable and family housing, a full-size grocery store, neighbourhood services and urban green spaces.
The project will have over two acres of public and outdoor meeting space and more than 1,000 heated underground parking spaces.
Sections of the existing structure (439,600 square feet) will be developed in stages. When the project is completed, plans call for it to be one-third larger than the current building.
Jim Ludlow, president of True North, said the three block-long mall along main drag Portage Avenue will be opened up so that Edmonton Street will run all the way from Ellice Avenue to Graham Avenue, instead of being blocked by Portage Place, as it is now.
The redevelopment will include health services, funded by the Province of Manitoba. A Health Centre for Excellence and the Pan Am Centre for Advanced Musculoskeletal Medicine will provide wellness and community services tailored to the needs of downtown residents.
“This is a made-in-Manitoba solution born by listening to people and understanding their needs,” said Ludlow in an announcement. “This is not a retail play – it is a community play. It is about building with people in mind and we are so excited to enter into the next discussion phase to get feedback on how we might refine it further.”
True North has until Dec. 31 to finalize the purchase of Portage Place from its current owners.
If all goes according to plan, True North said it expects work on the redevelopment will begin in 2024.
“And, in due time, we look forward to unveiling a new name for the campus that will reflect the new community and services,” said Ludlow.
Like the other developments that were built to stop the decline of downtown Winnipeg, Portage Place didn’t work out quite as intended.
When the mall was planned and built almost 40 years ago, it was supposed to be more than your average suburban mall dropped onto Portage Avenue. It was going to reinvent and reinvigorate the western end of downtown Winnipeg.
Portage Place had 153 stores, a massive food court, state-of-the-art cinemas and an IMAX theatre.
“When Portage Place was conceived in the early 1980s, the north side of Portage Avenue was in sad shape and the city was looking for a way to make it a mecca for shopping,” said Christopher Adams, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Some high-end retailers went there in the beginning, but most of them couldn’t make a go of it.
“The main problem with Portage Place is that it’s in a low-income neighbourhood that has been in long-term decline,” said Adams. “For the redevelopment to work, it needs more people living in the area, with a range of different income levels. The redeveloped Portage Place can’t be an oasis in a desert of poverty and decline.”
Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, said she thought Portage Place was going to fail even before construction because it was built as a suburban mall in downtown.
“Shoppers who go to suburban malls want free parking so they can shop all day without worrying about the parking meter and Portage Place didn’t have free parking,” said Tugwell. “Winnipeg already had plenty of malls. Portage Place should be a case study of what not to do downtown.”
What the True North redevelopment needs, she said, is lots of different uses.
“Not just retail, but office, health, and residential, too,” said Tugwell. “Whatever gets built must satisfy a real need. True North needs to consult with the locals and take time to figure out what needs to be there.”
Jino Distasio, professor of urban geography at the University of Winnipeg, which is just a few blocks from Portage Place, said the downtown mall concept is a poor fit for mid-sized North American cities like Winnipeg that don’t have enough people or sufficient population density to make them successful.
“Downtown retail is in transformation and the page on retail in mid-sized cities is still being written,” said Distasio. “What’s going to be the next iteration of downtown?”
Portage Place and downtown Winnipeg in general need more people and a range of different people – students, workers and full-time residents.
“True North has been doing its due diligence,” said Distasio. “It’s on the right path.”