March 20, 2019

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Winnipeggers vote resounding 'no' on reopening Portage and Main

It was one of the most divisive issues of the 2018 civic campaign, a public debate that was exhausting, bruising, stubborn.

Now, a key chapter in the Portage and Main saga is over. By a nearly 2-1 margin, Winnipeggers voted Wednesday against reopening the city's famous intersection to pedestrians. The final tally: 65 per cent "no" to 35 per cent "yes."

At Team Open's election-night party at Bailey's Lounge, news of the defeat was met with scattered jokes and tired, self-aware smiles. It is not the result advocates wanted — but it is the one they were prepared for, and expected.

"We knew it was a tough hill to climb," co-chairman Adam Dooley said. "Opinions were pretty entrenched. We did our best to try and move them, and tried to run a positive campaign. It's too bad we weren't able to persuade more people."

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It was one of the most divisive issues of the 2018 civic campaign, a public debate that was exhausting, bruising, stubborn.

Now, a key chapter in the Portage and Main saga is over. By a nearly 2-1 margin, Winnipeggers voted Wednesday against reopening the city's famous intersection to pedestrians. The final tally: 65 per cent "no" to 35 per cent "yes."

At Team Open's election-night party at Bailey's Lounge, news of the defeat was met with scattered jokes and tired, self-aware smiles. It is not the result advocates wanted — but it is the one they were prepared for, and expected.

"We knew it was a tough hill to climb," co-chairman Adam Dooley said. "Opinions were pretty entrenched. We did our best to try and move them, and tried to run a positive campaign. It's too bad we weren't able to persuade more people."

The final percentages looked more or less exactly like opinion polls earlier in the campaign predicted. In the end, weeks of pro-open advocacy, and discussions about accessibility and safety, left Winnipeggers unconvinced.

Cost and traffic. Those were the twin pillars of objection, Dooley said, that volunteers heard from the public.

Pedestrians and traffic don't mix at Winnipeg's major and historic intersection of Portage and Main, and pedestrians cross the street by using an underground concourse. Winnipeggers are considering opening the intersection to pedestrians by voting in a plebiscite included on today's election ballot.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Pedestrians and traffic don't mix at Winnipeg's major and historic intersection of Portage and Main, and pedestrians cross the street by using an underground concourse. Winnipeggers are considering opening the intersection to pedestrians by voting in a plebiscite included on today's election ballot.

"People are very frustrated with downtown traffic now," he said. "The next city council has to work on that. That is something that they need to take away and get busy on, because there are things we can do to improve traffic."

As the results flashed on the lounge's television, Zanna Joyce, a disability rights activist with Physical Access Now, issued a disappointed sigh. One silver lining, she said: the public debate had brought accessibility to the fore.

"I think people really became aware of that issue," Joyce said. "On (Portage and Main) for sure, and general issues with planning and intersections. If we were to vote again in six months, we'd have such an informed electorate.

"Not that anybody wants to right now," she quickly added.

Still, the dream of reopening Portage Avenue and Main Street to pedestrians was not born in the run-up to this election. It will not die in its wake.

The plebiscite is non-binding, but Mayor Brian Bowman — who championed the open cause in his 2014 mayoral campaign, and was elected to a second term Wednesday — has said he will respect the result.

Returning the intersection to its pedestrian-friendly state has been a vision-board item for urbanists since 1979, when the City of Winnipeg closed the crossing, part of a deal struck with developers of the new underground mall.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Over the years, various politicians promoted reopening it, including former mayor Glen Murray (1998-2004). It seemed to edge closer to reality in 2014, when Bowman stood at Portage and Main and made the issue a campaign plank.

However, Bowman ran into hurdles, both on the planning side and the political.

Earlier this year, Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan, re-elected Wednesday) and Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert, acclaimed in new ward Waverley West) pushed for the rare plebiscite to decide the issue.

It passed council by 14-1 margin; only outgoing Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor Jenny Gerbasi voted against it. Meanwhile, Bowman, going into his first re-election campaign, appeared to distance himself from the divisive issue.

That left a core of advocates, including architect and Winnipeg Free Press columnist Brent Bellamy and public relations professional Dooley, facing an uphill battle to sell Winnipeggers on their vision, under the Team Open banner.

The group, which was launched in August, is led by a steering committee of 26 people, and rounded out by about 50 volunteers. Since its creation, Team Open raised $60,000 for its campaign through private and online donations.

With the plebiscite in the rear-view mirror, Team Open will keep the dream alive in some form, Dooley said.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

"We're going to take a much-needed rest," he said. "The city needs a rest from this debate right now. But we're going to stay together, and try to influence future city councils on this issue. It's something that isn't going to go away.

"That intersection needs a lot of work. We've identified major accessibility issues. It simply is not up to standard."

At his election-night shindig, Browaty — who had been the most visible opponent of reopening the intersection — said he believes the "perceptions and realities" of late-night safety could be improved at the underground mall, however, "The results seemed, to me, to be dead-on accurate."

"There wasn't really a need for much of a 'no' campaign, despite the fact the 'yes' people have really been out there, but I do feel both sides' passion for downtown," Browaty said. "But, in terms of our transportation network, transit, passenger vehicles, keeping Portage and Main closed to pedestrians is the best option right now."

The new city councillor for the Transcona ward, Shawn Nason, also weighed in on the issue: "I voted to keep it closed, but we need to address accessibility needs. We, as a community, need to do better."

At his election-night headquarters, Coun. John Orlikow (re-elected in River Heights-Fort Garry), who has been chairman of the city's property development committee, said he will respect the vote of Winnipeggers to keep the intersection closed.

"I'm fine with that," Orlikow said. "We'll work on the Concourse and the transit issues. There are definitely transit and traffic issues there — it is not an easy problem.

"But Winnipeg's downtown is not the downtown of the past — it is the downtown of the future. We have to look forward."

— with files from Ashley Prest, Kevin Rollason, Sheldon Birnie

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 9:00 PM CDT: fixes name

10:05 PM: Writethrough

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