The iconic corner of Portage and Main is nearing a turning point, and some city councillors are speaking in favour of taking down the barricades that block pedestrians from crossing above ground. Coun. Jenny Gerbasi is nervous about whether it will happen.
"There is a real risk that we could be stuck with this corner closed for another 40 years," said Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry).
"To have the most iconic intersection and to have it closed to pedestrians -- it doesn't make sense to anybody. Find me another place in the world that does this."
The city's deal with property owners on the corners of Portage and Main, which keeps the famous intersection closed to pedestrians, expires in 2019. It drives pedestrians underground to businesses in a concourse below street level. Each of the property owners can renew its agreement for a further term of 40 years in 2019.
On Thursday, an analysis of the Portage and Main crossing will be presented to Gerbasi and other councillors at a meeting of the city's standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works.
'To have the most iconic intersection and to have it closed to pedestrians -- it doesn't make sense to anybody. Find me another place in the world that does this'
"We asked them to look at new options," said Gerbasi.
One option is a scramble corner, in which all traffic stops and pedestrians can cross any which way through the intersection once signalled.
"A scramble corner would slow down traffic massively; that's what the engineers are saying," Gerbasi said.
A more viable option would be to reduce the number of vehicles turning where pedestrians are crossing, the report says.
The analysis says more study is needed if the city wants to go ahead with reopening the corner to pedestrian traffic.
"I think it would be nothing but positive," said Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface). "People on the street is what is needed, especially downtown," to make it more vibrant and safe with "more eyes and ears on the street." Removing the pedestrian barricades would be a good thing, he said.
"The barriers look like barriers -- they're not the most attractive look for downtown," said Vandal.
Making the area more accessible and attractive should be good for businesses above and below ground, said Gerbasi.
"The expectation is that if you bring a whole bunch more people to that part of the city, more are going to go down to the businesses (underground)."
The city is in the process of studying how opening Portage and Main to pedestrians would affect business owners in the underground concourse.
The last time the matter was considered nearly a decade ago, all but one of the owners was on board with opening the corner to pedestrians. The owner opposed no longer owns the property, said Gerbasi.
"I don't think businesses are barriers," said Gerbasi. "What's been a barrier is the political will to sort this out and make it happen," she said.
"It's a barrier that's dividing our downtown into sections that people don't go near and avoid on purpose -- from The Forks to the Exchange, they're blocked."
Shovelling melting snow away from the statues and benches in front of the Richardson Building every day has made Chris Hay a believer in reopening the corner to foot traffic.
The 24-year-old said people approach him with the same question all the time -- how to cross the road.
"Every day it happens," he smiled.
He directs them to the stairs down to the underground concourse, where the escalator wasn't working on Sunday.
"There's issues with the underground system as well," Gerbasi said.
"Some people find it very confusing -- especially the visually impaired or blind trying to navigate it," Gerbasi said of the underground system.