Open Portage and Main to pedestrians; bring some life to that historic area

Are Winnipeggers and our annual 4.5 million visitors at The Forks and ballpark, interested in walking to our most famous intersection? Right now it’s an ugly walk without much doing.

Do we want our Portage and Main to be friendly, bustling with people, vibrant – or do we want that important stretch of downtown to remain out of reach and out of bounds?
Do we want our Portage and Main to be friendly, bustling with people, vibrant – or do we want that important stretch of downtown to remain out of reach and out of bounds?
Stefano Grande Downtown
Stefano Grande

The fear of opening Portage and Main is grounded in two perceived issues: the slowing down of vehicular traffic and the fear of losing businesses. But interestingly, perhaps the real fear is putting our city on a new track to a different vision.

The first fear is that Winnipeg motorists will be upset with an additional 40 seconds of waiting as they watch people who live and work downtown go about their daily lives: crossing Portage Avenue and Main Street to get to a meeting, to grab something to eat or to just meander on a warm summer day.

Really? An additional 40 seconds upsets people? I honestly know more people angered at not being able to finish a text or two while waiting at stop lights, because the lights are turning too quickly!

A costly sacrifice?
Secondly, there is a fear that property and business owners may see their rental values plummet and businesses close because a few thousand pedestrians a day three to four months a year will be diverted from the thriving underground world of shops and services to cross Portage and Main above ground.

These perceived issues are worth talking about, not necessarily because they are real, but rather because these fears may be holding our city back, and holding back downtown businesses from potential growth.

Business leaders will need to think deeply and ask themselves about their vision of their downtown.  Is it to simply protect their investment, and hold on to what they’ve been doing? Or should they invest strategically, try to secure a bigger piece of the overall Winnipeg retail market and in doing so build something great for our city and future generations?

As citizens, and stewards of our city for our children, we really need to ask the question: do we want neighbourhoods that are friendly to people, bustling, vibrant, and interactive, allowing people to freely walk around and do things and go places? Or are we fine with driving from point A to point B – on the road to bankrupting ourselves filling potholes and draining our disposable income through the costs of owning a vehicle or three?

Under today’s conditions, are those 4.5 million annual visitors to The Forks and the ballpark, those thousands of new residents on the Waterfront interested in walking to our province’s most famous intersection to grab some food, sit and take in the incredible history? Right now, it’s an ugly walk, and one without much to do along the way.

Bring some life to our streets
What would you do, investors and property owners, to get some of that pedestrian activity to venture to Portage and Main?  And are you happy with the density of office workers and residents in and around Portage and Main? By developing landing pads and surface parking lots, we could line the streets from The Forks to Portage and Main with offices, residents, and storefront after storefront, making the walk a real pleasure.

Pedestrians cross busy streets every day in Winnipeg. Almost a dozen pedestrian crosswalks litter Portage Avenue, with downtown residents, workers, students and visitors safely crossing eight lanes of road daily. Hundreds of cars wait a minute or more every day to make left turns onto new roadways and bridges, while on a warm summer night hundreds of people cross streets with busy traffic in incredible pedestrian neighbourhoods like Corydon and Osborne.

Think about those great walkable cities Montreal, Vancouver, Boston, New York. Is that the pedestrian experience we want to strive for? Or are we content to be a city where people isolate themselves in their cars to ride out to a scattering of retail districts, as they do in Scottsdale, Atlanta and Dallas?

What type of neighbourhoods do we want to create? More Corydons, Osborne Villages and Exchange Districts, or more suburban neighbourhoods where all the homes look the same and you need a car to grab a coffee?  It doesn’t have to be all one or all the other, but we do need better balance.

The opportunities are clear. The end results are even clearer.

The conversation about opening Portage and Main is about much more than people crossing streets and cars travelling quickly downtown. This is a conversation about the type of city we should be.

This conversation should be about the private sector demanding a more dense and vibrant corner that physically connects our history to our emerging districts – The Forks, the Waterfront and the ballpark. It should be about asking politicians to create more effective development policies so affordable multifamily homes can be built in the downtown.

A better setting for offices
It’s about creating an environment that more strongly encourages office development, so that developers are motivated to build more offices downtown than in the cheaper spaces available in far-flung industrial parks.

Such spaces, in the middle of nowhere, cost taxpayers significantly and stifle the worker creativity that comes when individuals interact with their environment and with diverse people.

This is about smart jobs and economic development, leading to a healthier, vibrant and more sustainable city for taxpayers.

Don’t be fooled. The battle of Portage and Main is all about the vision for our city, and nothing less.

Stefano Grande is executive director of Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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