A proposal to buy Portage Place shopping centre has people talking — and they may all be allowed to speak at city council today.
By Wednesday afternoon, Coun. Cindy Gilroy said she had heard from 11 people wanting to speak on Toronto-based Starlight Investments’ proposal to buy the downtown Winnipeg mall, underground parkade and the land it sits on.
She will move to waive council’s normal limit of two speakers per side to let people voice their concerns, Gilroy said.
"I want to make sure that the community is engaged, that they can take ownership in the property," she said. "It’s a place where people gather and the people don’t want to lose that, so I’m just hoping that we could have a shared vision moving forward — if the project goes forward."
The city, province and federal government are all stakeholders in the land and parkade below Portage Place; the mall is owned by a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Peterson Group.
Starlight has offered $22.9 million for the shopping centre and a further $47 million for its land and underground parkade (owned by North Portage Development Corp.). The city’s approval is also required to transfer ownership of the attached skywalks.
While the proposal is still in preliminary stages, and the city alone won’t make the ultimate decision, Gilroy said today is the only opportunity for citizens to speak on it at city hall.
The councillor for Daniel Mclntyre said she supports the proposal thus far, particularly because Starlight’s redevelopment plan could offer more student housing and density downtown.
But some mall-goers are worried about the future of the gathering space.
Tammy Owen said she is at Portage Place for coffee two or three times a week because it’s a great place to meet people.
"It’s like Cheers — everybody knows your name," said Owen, who’s originally from Pauingassi First Nation but now lives downtown. Sometimes she bakes bannock or other traditional foods for friends and meets them at the mall to deliver it.
"People think it’s a bad place, but it’s not true," added Gail Walker, who was sitting with Owen.
"Any negative image of this mall will always come from people who never step foot in this mall," Urban 101 manager Omar Kinnarath said. He said the clothing retailer has been a Portage Place tenant for seven years even though foot traffic is low because clients can find it and the price is right.
"There should be consultation and it should be fast," he said. "It almost seems like it’s a bad business deal for the City of Winnipeg to make and a good deal for Starlight."
Kinnarath said, whatever happens, getting traffic downtown is key. He suggested an urban reserve or social enterprise, "something to bring people in... increase the tenancy rate, and kind of vibe with the overall culture of downtown."
Owen Toews researched the area’s history for his book, Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg, tracing it back to citizens organizing in the late 1970s to stop a rail overpass in the Sherbrook and McGregor streets area, which begat the Core Area Initiative — and Portage Place.
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"Portage Place represents resources for inner-city housing, daycares and clinics that were stolen from the inner city and given to developers," he said Wednesday.
Starlight’s plan includes building housing towers originally planned in the 1980s, but Toews noted there’s no indication such units will be affordable.
Though such a sale has been discussed internally since 2015, according to city documents, community organizer Kate Sjoberg said it’s now being presented to Winnipeggers on a tight timeline — and with no alternatives.
"Have we had a proper debate about whether we should be selling Portage Place? About how it could best serve the community?" Sjoberg said.
Who can speak at city hall?
To speak in favour or against an issue before city council, would-be delegations should contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or 311 by 4:30 p.m. the day before the meeting.
Normally, delegates are limited to two in favour of the subject and two against. In each case, the first speaker gets 10 minutes, while the second speaker gets five.
By Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., both opposition spots were taken on the Portage Place file. No one had registered to speak in support, a City of Winnipeg spokesperson said.