Allen Mankewich was leaving city hall in his wheelchair last week when he tried to cross Portage and Main.
He wheeled to the entrance of the 201 Portage Ave. building and went down into the concourse to the lift, a small elevator with just enough room for a person in a wheelchair — and perhaps a companion.
"Out of service," a sign said.
"It’s been down for all of February," said Mankewich, employed at the Independent Living Resource Centre in Portage Place.
To get where he wanted to go, Mankewich had to go out on the street again, make his way to Fort Street and cross Portage Avenue at the Royal Bank building to get into the skywalk.
Travelling outdoors an extra block may not seem like a big matter, but it can be a huge challenge for people with disabilities.
"It takes twice as much energy to push a wheelchair over snow," Mankewich said.
It’s not just people with disabilities who are inconvenienced, but also mothers with strollers, for example, said Mankewich, who favours opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic.
The city said Sunday the lift has been inoperable since Feb. 4 due to vandalism. The repair requires replacement of a part that does not normally wear out and therefore isn’t stocked by manufacturers.
The city is working with the manufacturer to make that part, a spokesperson said.
"They don’t really have parts in stock, so they have to basically build a part from scratch, and it leads to situations like this where don’t have an elevator available for a long time," Mankewich said.
"The whole issue with Portage and Main is people with disabilities are required to use mechanical interventions like ramps and lifts to cross Portage and Main rather than being able to cross at grade due to the barricades."
When there is so much reliance on aging equipment, the intersection is never going to be as accessible as an at-grade crossing, he said.
Marieke Gruwel, who is studying for her masters in architectural history, said the situation underlines her contention that opening Portage and Main is a matter of accessibility and should never have been put to a plebiscite, especially as it pertains to people with disabilities.
Gruwel doesn’t have a physical disability but works in the Exchange District and navigates the underground crossing and notices the elevator is often out of order.
"I think it’s appalling. Frequently, the lifts are broken. It doesn’t seem like a priority to fix them," she said.
She believes the pedestrian barriers are a violation of human rights, at least from a moral perspective, if not a legal one, although she can’t speak from a legal background.
"We shouldn’t allow the public to decide accessibility issues. It should be a right for people to navigate their city," she said.
A plebiscite was held during municipal elections last October and Winnipeggers voted two-to-one against removing the pedestrian barriers.
The public vote was non-binding, unlike a referendum, but Mayor Brian Bowman said he will honour the results.
The city hopes the elevator can be re-opened by the middle of this week.
Updated on Sunday, March 3, 2019 at 10:31 PM CST: Edited