True North considering transformation of Portage Place to ‘mixed-use community’ Development arm of company that owns Jets seek option to purchase mostly vacant downtown mall; plan would require government funding
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The company that owns the Winnipeg Jets is considering the purchase of Portage Place to transform the rundown downtown shopping mall into a “mixed-used community” with housing, services and programs to better fit the area’s social and economic needs.
Jim Ludlow, president of True North Real Estate Development — a division of True North Sports and Entertainment — said Monday the mostly vacant 36-year-old shopping centre on the north side of the city’s main thoroughfare sets a negative tone for the area.
“(This is) a massive, large cumbersome asset…. (It) is mostly vacant and on its way to vacancy,” he said. “It’s big and it’s difficult and you will never see it again in the incarnation of a retail mall.”
A City of Winnipeg staff report seeks council approval to give the company an option to purchase. If that happens, it would provide the company “the right, but not the obligation” to buy the property and parkade assets through to Dec. 31, 2023, with multiple conditions,.
“Key terms… include an asset purchase price of not less than $34.5 million, a requirement for (True North) to undertake community consultations on its plans to redevelop the mall, as well as a requirement for (True North) to maintain public access to the skywalks as part of a future purchase and sale agreement,” the report states.
The sale price would not include the mall itself, which is under different ownership.
Mayor Scott Gillingham, who promised to push for the mall’s redevelopment during his election campaign, said there is a clear need to enhance the “under-performing” property.
“For the downtown to do well, that site and others need to be redeveloped, need to be vibrant and attractive,” he said, adding while True North hasn’t shared details of a new development,the area needs more housing to attract residents.
“We need more people living in the downtown, calling downtown home 24/7,” he said.
True North has previously made substantial investments downtown, including Canada Life Centre and True North Square.
The future of Portage Place was left up in the air two years ago, after a Toronto developer cancelled a mixed-use proposal for the site. Starlight Investments had planned a $400 million project with more than 550 housing units, nearly 500,000 square feet of office and retail space, a grocery store and a 10,000-square-foot community space with public washrooms.
In 2021, however, city councillors were told Starlight “was unable to proceed.”
The city report notes True North has submitted the only formal proposal for the site since the Starlight deal fell through.
Ludlow said the potential True North development would require government funding and would exceed the financial magnitude of Starlight’s plan. He expects it would also open up the area around Portage Place, stating the bulky mall currently acts as “a major dividing line in downtown Winnipeg.”
A community advocate says past consultations called for an Indigenous-led reimagining of the site.
Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said that should include a 24/7 community space with a washroom, shower, laundry facilities and social supports.
“That idea of a destination mall doesn’t hold water. We need to have a livable, walkable downtown community,” said Kehler. “Let’s create that community space, let’s create the place where people are always welcome and they can get very basic needs met.”
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba is calling on governments to reject the agreement, arguing it lacks Indigenous leadership.
“The City of Winnipeg, Government of Manitoba and federal government should decline this offer and move forward in meaningful partnership with First Nations, Métis and Indigenous community leadership on the redevelopment of Portage Place,” the organization said, in a statement.
The property has a complex ownership structure that will add extra steps to any sale.
Spruceland Mall Limited Partnership owns the mall itself, while The Forks North Portage Partnership owns the land and parking at the site. The Forks partnership includes the governments of Winnipeg, Manitoba and Canada.
Clare MacKay, chief communities officer with The Forks, said extensive community consultation is needed to guide any development.
“What’s important to us it that there’s robust community consultation that goes into… what the next phase or the next chapter… looks like.”–Clare MacKay
“What’s important to us it that there’s robust community consultation that goes into… what the next phase or the next chapter… looks like,” she said, adding the province and feds are also moving the proposal forward, while The Forks is aware of separate discussions taking place with the mall owner.
Manitoba Finance Minister Cliff Cullen said the provincial government is excited about the potential investment from a proven company.
“True North certainly have shown that they can take on challenges like this. They’ve been very successful,” said Cullen.
Several city councillors said the site is a key redevelopment priority.
“We desperately need to figure out and work with partners to see improvements to the Portage Place development,” said Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West). “It’s been on the market for a long time.”
Coun. Sherri Rollins, council’s property and development chairwoman, said True North’s attempt to “kick the tires” on the property is encouraging.
“Today is, hopefully, a good step in a long chain of events for the downtown that are going to be really positive,” said Rollins (Fort Rouge — East Fort Garry).
Council is expected to cast the final vote on the project on March 23.
— With files from Danielle Da Silva
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.