Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Take back Portage & Main

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It's often said the big-box developments in Winnipeg's suburbs are symbols of a city that has surrendered to the culture of King Car.

Maybe so, but the worst example of Winnipeg's automobile mentality is Portage and Main.

The famous intersection was closed to pedestrians in 1979 as part of an agreement with the owners of the businesses at the four corners to direct human traffic underground and into the shops of Winnipeg Square.

There have been cries of protest ever since, and even a few demonstrations led by the likes of activist Nick Ternette and former city councillor Joe Zuken, who illegally crossed the intersection to draw attention to the issue.

The official reason it has remained behind hideous concrete barricades all these years is the legal agreement designed to support subterranean commercial activity, but civic traffic planners and others have disliked the idea of mixing pedestrians and cars at the busy intersection.

One civic study even said it would be dangerous for pedestrians to cross in some places because of turning lanes and the rapid movement of cars.

Architectural historian Jeffrey Thorsteinson, however, has debunked this excuse for eliminating humanity from the intersection.

As Mr. Thorsteinson explained on these pages recently, there are busier and seemingly more dangerous intersections in Winnipeg where pedestrians are allowed to cross the street.

About 154,000 cars navigate Portage and Main every day, while nearly 190,000 vehicles pass through Regent Avenue and Lagimodiere Boulevard, where people are welcome.

Confusion Corner also witnesses more traffic than Portage and Main, Mr. Thorsteinson said, yet no one has seen fit to ban those who walk on two feet in favour of those who move on four wheels.

As for the famous legal agreement, always touted as the reason nothing can be changed until it expires in 2017, well, the city has a legal opinion that it can easily be broken.

That's because it was written in the form of a bylaw, and not a contract that implies penalties and redress if broken. Bylaws are passed by council, and they can be rescinded the same way, the city was told in a legal analysis prepared for CentreVenture Development Corp.

The agreement with the property owners apparently also permits pedestrian surface crossings, provided they can enter the concourse at the four corners.

Of the seven property owners affected, six have said they are not opposed to reopening the intersection to pedestrians. The seventh has since been replaced by another company, whose opinion has not been disclosed.

The bottom line is there seems to be very little stopping the city from demolishing the barricades and allowing pedestrians to once again cross the windy corner.

Council recently passed a motion asking administrators to prepare a study on what the city would have to do if an opportunity arose for removing the barricades.

What the city really needs to do, however, is pass a motion to take back the corner, starting with the removal of the barricades and the erection of the proper traffic and pedestrian signals. It should set a date, say June 1, to get the ball rolling.

A deadline would then force the city to determine the costs and other requirements that would be needed to make it work.

The city could also re-examine some design options for improving the intersection, but it shouldn't postpone the process of reopening Portage and Main to people.

If cars have to wait an extra few minutes, well, that's the price of vibrancy.

The heart of the city currently looks dead, but that would change if people were actually allowed to take back the street.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 A8

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