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This article was published 24/6/2020 (294 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Improvements needed to bring the underground concourse at Portage Avenue and Main Street up to code for accessibility have stalled beneath the traffic above.
A condition assessment report of the 40-year-old pedestrian structure beneath the iconic downtown intersection lists a number of deficiencies in the built environment, and failure to meet both the City of Winnipeg’s Accessible Design Standards and some accessibility requirements under the 2010 Manitoba Building Code.
"The underground concourse has remained relatively unchanged since its inception, and as such... no upgrades have been provided to the barrier-free access requirements of the concourse," according to the "Portage & Main Underground Concourse Facility Condition Assessment" report prepared by SMS Engineering Ltd.
The report was commissioned by the city in August 2018, and received at the end of May 2019. The report has not been released publicly in full, but a redacted version of the 200-plus page document was obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press through a freedom of information request.
"With regard to compliance with locally sanctioned standards for universal design and safety... the Portage and Main underground concourse is largely non-compliant with current Winnipeg codes and guidelines," the report’s authors noted.
With the exception of some recently renovated areas, most of the underground pedestrian network is not in line with best practices of universal design and barrier-free access throughout the space is "cumbersome."
As long concrete barriers prevent pedestrians from crossing the intersection remain above ground, the city ought to focus its attention on creating barrier-free access below the surface, advocates say.
"If your plan is not to open Portage and Main, then it has to be a priority, because how else do you cross the street?" David Kron, a steering committee member of Barrier Free Manitoba, said Wednesday.
"You have to have egress for everybody — you can’t have it for just some people."
The concourse suffers from poor lighting that makes navigation of stairways and corridors challenging for people with visual impairment, lacks high-contrast staircase edgings or detectable warning surfaces at landings, has inconsistent wayfinding and tactile signs, as well as insufficient clearance for elevators and lifts, which are becoming difficult to service, the report notes.
Barrier-free access to the concourse also depends on elevator access being available at commercial properties at the intersection, and is limited to business hours.
"With regard to compliance with locally sanctioned standards for universal design and safety... the Portage and Main underground concourse is largely non–compliant with current Winnipeg codes and guidelines." – Portage & Main Underground Concourse Facility Condition Assessment report
Costs to bring the concourse up to accessible design standards were not included in the report, as it requires "a holistic concept to be developed for the entire concourse which is not within the scope," the authors said.
Rosalie Best, accessibility services co-ordinator with Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, said it’s not surprising the concourse failed to meet the most current universal design standards.
"We’re not seeing a lot of movement at all with making our city more accessible," Best said. "I think it should be one of the top priorities... You hear about money being invested in all kinds of different infrastructure projects, which is important — however, can we focus on allowing everyone to just the basic access that they need?
"It’s not a big ask."
Best said downtown Winnipeg has become more accessible in some ways, adding the skywalk system is a noteworthy asset, but the current state of the underground tarnishes progress made so far.
"You could go down into the concourse and get halfway to where you need to go, only to be met with a stalled elevator," she said.
City of Winnipeg property, planning and development director John Kiernan said more than a year after receiving the SMS report, recommendations related to barrier-free access through the concourse have not been acted on.
"Our public spaces should be the most inclusive, and that’s a challenge when something was designed 40 years ago," Kiernan said in an interview. "The simple fact of what (the underground concourse) is creates those ongoing mobility challenges.
"It’s a facility of its era."
A planned request for proposals will include in its scope how to update the concourse to current accessibility standards, Kiernan said, but any future design changes also need to involve property owners at the intersection to co-ordinate consistent wayfinding and access throughout.
Kiernan did not have a timeline for the RFP to be released.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.