Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg's soul got buried

Pedestrian-free iconic intersection cold, uninviting

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A view of Portage Avenue and Main Street, which for decades was only a multi-lane intersection rather than a streetscape that draws people to it.


A view of Portage Avenue and Main Street, which for decades was only a multi-lane intersection rather than a streetscape that draws people to it. Photo Store

An eight-lane intersection, barred to the public by barricades under a 37-year deal to push pedestrians underground, cannot be considered a "great place" by anyone who loves cities.

Great urban spaces are places where human beings congregate. Remove people from the streetscape and all you're left with is concrete and asphalt.

That's why there's no shortage of subversive genius behind a bid to designate Portage and Main -- off limits to humans for decades -- the greatest street in the nation, as part of a Great Places in Canada contest run by the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Back in the early days of the Bill Norrie administration, Portage and Main was barricaded as part of the deal to build the skyscraper now known as 360 Main as well as Winnipeg Square, the underground pedestrian mall.

Whoever nominated Portage and Main as a 'great place' must have a fantastic sense of humour -- or a knack for inspiring outrage

It was 1979, and Winnipeg was starting to suffer severely from a peculiar form of urban psychosis -- a belief in the revitalizing powers of downtown megaprojects.

A decade earlier, entire blocks of northeastern downtown were razed to make room for the Manitoba Centennial Centre and the Civic Centre complex. This upgraded Winnipeg's institutional infrastructure, but whittled away at downtown's pedestrian streetscape, as small-scale buildings were replaced by concrete plazas.

Unconvinced this was a bad idea, Winnipeg grew addicted to the magical powers of the megaproject. So down went an entire block bounded by Main Street, Portage Avenue, Fort Street and Graham Avenue. In its place, we received a nice skyscraper, a weird underground mall and the roots of a weather-protected walkway system designed to vacuum away what remained of Portage and Main's remaining pedestrians.

It's now been 34 years since the barricades went up. Entire generations have been raised knowing that getting across that intersection without heading underground involves defying the edict of Gandalf: "You cannot pass."

Portage and Main is no longer a streetscape, at least in the conventional sense. It's simply a multi-lane intersection where traffic signals maximize the movement of motor-vehicle traffic.

Sure, there remains an idea of "Portage and Main" as the theoretical centre of the city. But that's a purely abstract sort of place name, used in the same manner international reporters use the term "Moscow" to describe the political machine at the heart of Russia.

The real Portage and Main is a cold and uninviting place. At the southwest corner, you face a wall of the Commodity Exchange Tower complex -- Scotiabank windowglass frosted over with a Winnipeg Jets banner. At the southeast corner stands the stately, 100-year-old Bank of Montreal building, whose front entrance is seldom used.

At the northeast corner stands the Richardson Building, whose wide and slightly more inviting plaza is adorned with Tree Children, a sculpture by Leo Mol. The office tower now known as 201 Portage Ave. graces the northwest corner, offering only a glass facade toward the actual intersection.

On a sunny Tuesday morning in August, only one person stood, sat or walked at any of these four corners. Whoever nominated Portage and Main as a "great place" must have a fantastic sense of humour -- or a knack for inspiring outrage.

Shortly before departing office in 2004, former mayor Glen Murray launched a design contest in the hopes of reopening the intersection in some way. A resulting scheme received the nominal support of six out of seven Portage and Main property owners, but died on the vine in 2006. That's when current Mayor Sam Katz declined to endorse a plan to replace the barricades with movable bollards, which would have been opened on evenings and weekends.

Under the terms of the original agreement, the intersection is slated to remain closed until 2016. Even if it reopens in 2017, pedestrians trained to treat it like a minefield will not suddenly find themselves attracted to the intersection.

Genuine public spaces draw people to them. Portage and Main keeps them away.

It would be lovely to live in Winnipeg where "Portage and Main" is an actual place along with an idea. Instead, the streetlights change like clockwork, ushering cars through a city centre that is quite literally without a soul.

Is it time for Winnipeggers to come up into the sunlight? Should Portage and Main be open to pedestrians? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2013 B1


Updated on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 6:35 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds questions for discussion

2:12 PM: The Commodity Exchange Tower is now known as 360 Main.

5:17 PM: Links to Robert Galston's story on Portage and Main from SundayXtra.

August 15, 2013 at 10:33 AM: Corrects Gandalf quote

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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