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This article was published 4/2/2016 (475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If the experience in Times Square is any indication, pedestrians and businesses alike would benefit from demolishing the barriers at Portage and Main.
But Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance in New York City – essentially the equivalent of a BIZ, or Business Improvement Zone – said every urban situation that could change pedestrian and vehicular traffic is different and needs to be treated as such.
"One of the great risks in urban planning is someone sees a good idea in one city and says ‘this is automatically what we should do here,’" Tompkins said.
He was quick to note it’s not his place to make a judgment on a final decision regarding the barriers, which have kept pedestrians from crossing Winnipeg’s most famous intersections for nearly 40 years, only to pass on what he learned back in 2009 when one of the streets surrounding Times Square was cut off from traffic and turned into a pedestrian area.
It’s important to realize that cities are constantly changing and evolving, he said, and few places have undergone the transformation that downtown Winnipeg has over the past 15 years.
"The No. 1 issue in Times Square 25 years ago was you couldn't get through it without getting mugged or killed. Ten years ago, you couldn’t get through it because it was so crowded because it had become so successful. Our facts had changed. We said, ‘we’ve got to make more space for pedestrians because we have more people,’" he said.
All that traffic has meant overflowing registers for businesses both at the street level and underground.
Tompkins said if you look around Portage and Main and without changing an inch of roadway, there are some great plazas and public spaces nearby.
"How do they serve as assets for this intersection? Everybody seems interested in having a conversation," he said.
Tompkins had a whirlwind day on Thursday that started before the crack of dawn with officials from the Downtown BIZ and continued with closed-door meetings with city councillors, public officials and downtown property owners and wrapped up with members of the public.
Nils Vik, owner of Parlour Coffee, which is a stone’s throw from Portage and Main to the north, said he believes it’s time to knock the barriers down.
"We should have a city that is open and friendly to pedestrians. I’m a motorist, a cyclist and a pedestrian and I understand the need for traffic to run smoothly as a motorist, safely as a cyclist and logically as a pedestrian," he said.
Removing the barriers could untap a new market for business owners in all directions both above and below ground.
"People who work downtown are only here for eight or nine hours a day. That’s upwards of 70,000 people a day coming downtown during business hours. Their time is limited. When you make it tricky to navigate the neighbourhood they’re in, that’s an impediment for business," he said.
Vik said he doesn’t believe opening up the intersection will pose a significant risk to underground retailers as there will always be a core group of people who will prefer convenience, particular during the winter months.
"If the businesses underground at Portage and Main are worried about taking down the barriers harming their businesses, they should really have a ban on all bagged lunches in all of the office towers," he said.