Urban expert staying out of Portage and Main fray as new city planning, property, development director
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A once-vocal advocate for reopening Portage and Main to pedestrian traffic will be staying out of the debate on the future of the historic intersection in her new position.
The city announced Wednesday that urban planning expert Hazel Borys will become director of planning property and development at the end of July.
Borys, an engineer with an MBA and president of Placemakers, an international city planning firm, was a leading voice for the Yes side in the campaign to remove the concrete barriers before the 2018 municipal election, where the issue appeared as a non-binding plebiscite question on the ballot.
“Keeping this corner closed signals to Winnipeggers and the world that we are a car city,” she told the Free Press at the time. “Keeping the intersection closed hurts our economy and well-being.”
A majority of residents disagreed, voting to leave things as they are.
Borys intends to leave advocacy to others when she begins her new role.
“My past opinion hasn’t changed at all, but what has changed is Portage and Main is a political decision now,” she said Thursday.
“For it to change, it would be a political decision.”
Earlier this week, the city released a discussion paper outlining the issues surrounding the intersection, including a massive project to repair the membrane under the street protecting the Winnipeg Square concourse, which has been in place since the underground mall opened in 1979.
The paper also revealed several concepts for improving pedestrian movement and the area’s physical appearance.
The city has asked for public input.
Borys said the planning department will help city council get the information it requires during public consultations and, eventually, arrive at a decision.
Mayor Scott Gillingham said Thursday he wasn’t concerned that the department will be led by someone who advocated to open the intersection.
“I think hiring Hazel Borys is good for our downtown development plans,” he said, noting her reputation as “an innovator.”
“She has an extensive record of working with cities across North America and working on densification… I think the work she has done will serve us well.”
Borys, who is married to Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq director and CEO Stephen Borys, has helped cities reduce red tape in order to make development processes easier, while also assisting in guiding governments through zoning reforms.
She said she will be able to do both in her new position, just from a different vantage point.
“I’ve spent the last 19 years on the other side of the desk,” she said. “I’m super-excited. I’m looking forward to going much deeper than on my consultant side.”
Coun. Jeff Browaty, who helped lead the battle to keep Portage and Main closed to pedestrians, said he’s looking forward to working with the new planning department head.
“While we clearly disagree on the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrian crossings, I actually support a lot of the planning principles she has been involved with,” Browaty said.
“I came to respect her work many years ago when she successfully lead the public consultation for the private developer of the controversial Edgewood Estates towers at Chief Peguis Trail and the Red River. While the majority of the time elected officials and public servants see eye to eye on issues, when we don’t, it’s understood council’s direction needs to be implemented.”
Browaty also noted, as an aside, he is partially responsible for getting Borys to Winnipeg.
“I was the city rep on the Winnipeg Art Gallery board of governors when we hired her husband… as director,” he said.
Borys said she will be mothballing her company and expects the first weeks and months in her new position to be part of a “big learning curve.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I can’t wait.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.