The first thing tourists notice when they visit Portage and Main is they can't cross the city's most famous intersection.

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This article was published 25/6/2012 (3379 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The first thing tourists notice when they visit Portage and Main is they can't cross the city's most famous intersection.

That's curious enough.

Also puzzling is how a gravel surface-parking lot can exist only half a block to the north, within barricade-vaulting distance of Winnipeg's commercial centre.

The property known as 416 Main St. is one of dozens of downtown surface lots that occupy seemingly valuable real estate -- chunks of a revitalizing downtown that could be put to better use, say planners and politicians.

A recent city parking strategy called surface lots the worst use of downtown land, suggesting Winnipeg should redevelop some and get owners of others to spruce them up with landscaping and lighting.

But little has happened since the report's release and urbanists say it's time Winnipeg took a hard look at doing something with the acres and acres of parking lots in the city's core.

"You really don't want to see something like that," said Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. He joked that Winnipeg has so much downtown surface parking he could "leapfrog" from lot to lot all the way from the university to The Forks.

Distasio said redeveloping surface lots is a challenge, since Winnipeggers complain they need parking and market forces have yet to convince many lot owners their land would be more valuable if they develop upwards.

While downtown has seen a recent surge in new projects, most have been initiated by the public sector and they have yet to spark any kind of investment "domino effect," Distasio noted.

The province and its affiliated corporations, including Manitoba Public Insurance, own 11 surface parking lots in downtown. During last year's provincial election, the Selinger government pledged to redevelop some of these lots into a mix of housing, retail, office and entertainment spaces. A review of potential developments is still ongoing, said a cabinet spokeswoman.

The city owns surface lots, too, including Parcel Four, the 5.7-acre lot adjacent to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which was briefly slated to be the home of the now-abandoned water park proposal.

During the 2010 civic election campaign, Mayor Sam Katz -- who has called surface lots a blight -- introduced the idea of a tax-incentive plan to develop upwards on these empty spaces. But a formal incentive program has yet to come forward and the notion of adding some form of punitive stick to complement the incentive carrot doesn't seem to have much traction in his office.

A long list of private businesses and individuals own downtown Winnipeg surface lots, including seemingly disinterested out-of-towners in cities as far removed as Baltimore and Boca Raton, Fla. But some are owned by some of Winnipeg's biggest boosters.

For example, 416 Main St. co-owner David Asper said it's taken time to identify the right kind of development for the lot. He initially hoped the site would be home to the Hydro building and would still like to place something significant on the property to bring more pedestrian traffic to the area.

Part of the problem, Asper said, is downtown Winnipeg's enormous size, relative to the city. The cost of building a new highrise, for example, outstrips the amount of rent you can charge to recoup the investment, he said.

Distasio said the vast amount of available downtown land in prime locations shows Winnipeg is still struggling to get more private businesses to invest in the area.

"It sends a signal we are still dealing with the challenges of infill projects in our downtown and attracting a significant number of new businesses," Distasio said.

Sending signals aside, the fact remains that property owners can still make a pretty penny from leaving their surface lots the way they are -- empty and occasionally full of passenger vehicles.

The map below shows surface lots that are 11 of the biggest contributors to downtown blight, in terms of the sheer space they take up, or are primed for redevelopment given their strategic location.