Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The sad state of Portage Place

Imax the latest tenant to say goodbye to mall touted as downtown saviour

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In what seems like an unwritten rule, every step toward the rejuvenation of downtown Winnipeg must be followed by a partial pace back.

For the first time since the late 1980s, new highrise residential towers are in the works. The Winnipeg Jets have made not one but two messianic returns. The Metropolitan Theatre has reopened, the Exchange District is approaching critical mass and downtown is lurching toward respectability, despite ongoing safety concerns associated with too many surface-parking lots, too much public intoxication and too little pedestrian activity.

But just in case anyone gets tempted to become optimistic, one of the city's earlier plans to save downtown -- the megaproject known as Portage Place -- brings us down to earth.

Back in the 1980s, what eventually became the Forks North Portage Partnership flattened entire blocks to pave the way for Portage Place, which opened on Sept. 17, 1987. The first floor was devoted to retail stores, higher-end tenants set up shop on the second, and the third level was set aside for entertainment.

Within a decade, the mall abandoned its original pretense of being a high-end retail destination. The mall's businesses and services, which include a legal aid office and a forthcoming Service Canada outlet, are squarely aimed at inner-city residents and downtown office workers. But the third-floor entertainment concept has endured.

For 26 years, Prairie Theatre Exchange thrived inside the mall. A trio of movie theatres faltered and then reopened under the Globe brand.

But the Imax Theatre, intended to be the mall's premier attraction, never met expectations. Earlier this week, Forks North Portage marketing director Clare MacKay announced its Imax will close at the end of March after enduring several years of "substantial losses."

Forks North Portage has operated the Imax since 1998, after taking it over from Imax. In recent years, the 276-seat theatre lost market share to new digital 3D theatres, failed to secure first-run openings, saw a drop in business from school groups and finally had to compete with a new 433-seat Imax at Polo Park.

"There's still a place for entertainment in this mall," MacKay said Tuesday. "There's a lot of optimism downtown and there are great things happening around here, so I think it's unfortunate this business and this business model isn't working."

The adaptive reuse of an Imax theatre would cost a lot to tear out concrete floors. Portage Place manager David Stone said he has several ideas for the space, all of which would pose an opportunity for property owner Peterson Operations Management. But for now, the plan calls for the Imax to go dark.

The theatre could be converted into a university lecture hall or specialty space for conferences, mused CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan, adding he does not believe the closure will impact his agency's plans to develop a sports, hospitality and entertainment district over 11 nearby blocks of downtown.

"I think it's part of the evolution of the downtown," McGowan told reporters Monday, referring to the Imax closure. "We keep making progress forward, and once in a while you're going to take a little bit of a slip."

The Portage Place Imax sits outside CentreVenture's entertainment zone. The agency's "action plan" for Portage Avenue designates the eastern portion of the mall as a retail district.

Contrary to popular belief, Portage Place does OK from a rental perspective. A survey of the mall's storefronts reveals 12 empty spaces, three of which will soon be reoccupied, said Stone, who estimates the mall's retail vacancy rate at half of its historic low. But the mall has converted some retail space to offices and is not averse to making more conversions.

Uncertainty surrounding the future of the Bay -- where the basement Zellers will close in March -- has made second-floor Portage Place spaces between Kennedy and Vaughan streets less attractive to tenants. "We don't envision that changing in the short term," Stone said.

CentreVenture, meanwhile, has designated the western portion of the mall as a potential expansion area for the University of Winnipeg. But the university has no further expansion plans.

Urban planners say top-down efforts to create education, retail or entertainment zones tend to fail. Under this view, successful downtown-revitalization efforts tend to be small-scale, storefront-by-storefront efforts.

Mega-planning efforts, meanwhile, tend to be no more of a solution than megaprojects such as Portage Place. While the mall is not an abject failure, it is nowhere near a success -- as the impending closure of its Imax demonstrates in vivid 3D, 24-frames-per-second quality.


-- with files from Jen Skerritt


Portage Place has 12 empty retail storefronts, for a total vacancy rate of 7.5 per cent of its overall space. Two of those storefronts will soon reopen and a third is expected to follow. Here's the breakdown:



On the main floor. The former McNally Robinson Booksellers space near the Kennedy Street entrance will reopen later this month as a Service Canada outlet. A vacancy alongside the food court will also be filled shortly, said mall manager David Stone.



Second floor, between fountain overlook and west skywalks.



Second floor, between fountain overlook and centre court.



Second floor, between centre court and east skywalk. One is under renovation and will house an expansion of a neighbouring dental clinic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 A3

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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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