August 17, 2019

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Council greenlights Portage Place sale despite calls for community consultation

Winnipeg city council has unanimously endorsed the sale of the Portage Place land and the underground parkade to Toronto-based development firm Starlight Investments — despite pleas from several residents and organizations to delay the vote to allow for community consultations.

In a vote Thursday, council signed off on the deal that will see Starlight pay North Portage Development Corp – the public agency that owns the land underneath the downtown mall and The Forks and is owned by the three levels of government -- $47 million.

“Portage Place is a blight on our downtown and on our city,” Coun. Jeff Browaty said as he explained why he was voting for the sale. “It’s not safe.”

There was some urgency to today’s vote. A term of the sale agreement with Starlight stated consent has to be provided by council, as well as Ottawa and the provincial government, by July 19.

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Winnipeg city council has unanimously endorsed the sale of the Portage Place land and the underground parkade to Toronto-based development firm Starlight Investments — despite pleas from several residents and organizations to delay the vote to allow for community consultations.

In a vote Thursday, council signed off on the deal that will see Starlight pay North Portage Development Corp – the public agency that owns the land underneath the downtown mall and The Forks and is owned by the three levels of government — $47 million.

"Portage Place is a blight on our downtown and on our city," Coun. Jeff Browaty said as he explained why he was voting for the sale. "It’s not safe."

There was some urgency to today’s vote. A term of the sale agreement with Starlight stated consent has to be provided by council, as well as Ottawa and the provincial government, by July 19.

The purchase and sale agreement also includes a $1.5 million financial penalty to be paid by The Forks to Starlight if all the conditions of the agreement are met but the deal doesn't close by the deadline.

It’s not known if the federal and provincial governments have approved the sale but Premier Brian Pallister told reporters earlier Thursday that he is leaning towards approving it and the province would give its support "in due course."

Starlight has also offered $22.9 million to buy the mall from its current owner, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Peterson Group.

The deal gives Starlight two months to conduct its due diligence before deciding if it will proceed with the sale and a further two months for the closing sale deadline.

Starlight Investments is prepared to buy Portage Place.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Starlight Investments is prepared to buy Portage Place.

The council vote came despite questions earlier from several individuals and organizations – Knox United Church, Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, Central Neighbourhoods Winnipeg – who questioned the urgency and who wondered why Starlight has so far refused to publicly disclose its plans for the property.

'I've had confrontational situations' downtown: premier

Premier Brian Pallister voiced his support for the redevelopment of Portage Place in a wide-ranging press conference Thursday afternoon that also touched on downtown safety.

"I've had reports from so many Manitobans about uncomfortable situations at Portage Place -- inside, outside, at the bus stop. After awhile, you start to recognize that it's got problems associated with it. People in Winnipeg, people in Manitoba know that... as far as Portage Place itself, look: we've all had concerns about it for a long, long time. So it's hard not to welcome the opportunity to see some conversion for some other use.

Premier Brian Pallister voiced his support for the redevelopment of Portage Place in a wide-ranging press conference Thursday afternoon that also touched on downtown safety.

"I've had reports from so many Manitobans about uncomfortable situations at Portage Place -- inside, outside, at the bus stop. After awhile, you start to recognize that it's got problems associated with it. People in Winnipeg, people in Manitoba know that... as far as Portage Place itself, look: we've all had concerns about it for a long, long time. So it's hard not to welcome the opportunity to see some conversion for some other use.

"That being said, the challenges of making downtown Winnipeg an attractive and safer place are challenges we're ready to meet. In fact, the mayor and I at our last discussion had, I think, a really productive talk about just that."

Asked about his specific concerns regarding downtown, Pallister said, "Public safety (is) always number one. Look, if people are concerned about their safety or that of their family members. They're not going to come down and frequent the place to do trade there. Come on. You're not going to want to do that.

"Look, I'm six foot eight and I like to go to Mountain Equipment Co-op... But I can tell you, I've had confrontational situations as a six foot eight man in that area. And that's an indication of how other people might be treated and an indication of what we have to address. Some of these situations have to be addressed head on and we'll have more to say on this in the next few weeks."

Concerns were raised that the sale would result in the loss of a gathering place for a diverse group of community residents including seniors, youth, refugees and newcomers, and Indigenous people.

"Government should be acting for the best interests of its citizens and in order for that to happen we have to listen," Angie Herrera told council, adding city hall should have consulted the community before taking the vote. "Slow down this process and listen and consult with constituents."

Jenna Wirch, an Indigenous person, said Portage Place provided a safe haven to her as she was growing up and she's concerned how it might change through the sale.

"Portage Place mall is a place where I grew up. Portage Place mall is a place where I was kept off the street. Portage Place mall is a place where Indigenous people and newcomers gather," Wirch said. "We gather to share food, to share stories, to share experiences with one another. If that is taken away from us, then what do we have."

Lesley Harrison, minister at the nearby Knox United Church, said city hall has not determined the need Portage Place has filled in the community and the lack of resources the area has continued to go without.

"If we take this feeder of life away and replace it with something which meets only one need, all other needs will not go away, they will find themselves met easily and in healthy ways or desperately and in unhealthy ways," Harrison said. "We are simply asking today, that council take a step back and take some time to talk, to consult, to observe, to take in the picture of this highly important place within our city and take some time to carefully plan what would be a vital community asset in this part of the city."

Despite the comments from the delegates who said they valued the mall as a meeting place, councillors said the mall hasn’t met its potential.

Jenna Wirch speaks to City Council against the sale of Portage Place on Thursday.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jenna Wirch speaks to City Council against the sale of Portage Place on Thursday.

During the noon hour break, several councillors – Jeff Browaty, Shawn Nason, Cindy Gilroy and Scott Gillingham – told reporters they would vote to approve the sale, explaining that it was a good opportunity to turn around the financial fortunes of the downtown mall.

"The current model I don’t think is working for Winnipeggers. It’s not really the downtown amenity people are looking for," Browaty said. "It is providing a role for people who are using it today but it’s not what was contemplated."

The councillors said they believed commitments made by Starlight for community consultations will occur.

Gilroy said she’s convinced that city hall will still have some sort of control over any design changes or new development that Starlight plans for the property.

Couns. Browaty and Shawn Nason proposed an amendment that would have required council to review the Forks business plan but it was defeated in a 14-2 vote.

The deal with Starlight will see The Forks invest the $47 million sale proceeds with the Winnipeg Foundation, which will provide it with annuity of about $3 million to offset operational losses at the Forks, which had been covered by revenue from the Portage Place parkade.

Browaty and Nason said that they’re not certain if The Forks should retain the $47 million, adding it's generating additional revenue through paid parking and more upscale developments at the historic site.

Coun. John Orlikow said that reviewing the Forks business plan is a good idea but it shouldn’t be linked to the Portage Place sale, adding any change in the Forks financing has to be agreed by all three levels of government.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin
Reporter

Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.

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History

Updated on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at 7:35 PM CDT: Fixes typo

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