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Winnipeg's soul got buried

Pedestrian-free iconic intersection cold, uninviting

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/8/2013 (1467 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

An eight-lane intersection, barred to the public by barricades under a 37-year deal to push pedestrians underground, cannot be considered a "great place" by anyone who loves cities.

Great urban spaces are places where human beings congregate. Remove people from the streetscape and all you're left with is concrete and asphalt.

A view of Portage Avenue and Main Street, which for decades was only a multi-lane intersection rather than a streetscape that draws people to it.


A view of Portage Avenue and Main Street, which for decades was only a multi-lane intersection rather than a streetscape that draws people to it.

That's why there's no shortage of subversive genius behind a bid to designate Portage and Main -- off limits to humans for decades -- the greatest street in the nation, as part of a Great Places in Canada contest run by the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Whoever nominated Portage and Main as a 'great place' must have a fantastic sense of humour -- or a knack for inspiring outrage

Back in the early days of the Bill Norrie administration, Portage and Main was barricaded as part of the deal to build the skyscraper now known as 360 Main as well as Winnipeg Square, the underground pedestrian mall.

It was 1979, and Winnipeg was starting to suffer severely from a peculiar form of urban psychosis -- a belief in the revitalizing powers of downtown megaprojects.

A decade earlier, entire blocks of northeastern downtown were razed to make room for the Manitoba Centennial Centre and the Civic Centre complex. This upgraded Winnipeg's institutional infrastructure, but whittled away at downtown's pedestrian streetscape, as small-scale buildings were replaced by concrete plazas.

Unconvinced this was a bad idea, Winnipeg grew addicted to the magical powers of the megaproject. So down went an entire block bounded by Main Street, Portage Avenue, Fort Street and Graham Avenue. In its place, we received a nice skyscraper, a weird underground mall and the roots of a weather-protected walkway system designed to vacuum away what remained of Portage and Main's remaining pedestrians.

It's now been 34 years since the barricades went up. Entire generations have been raised knowing that getting across that intersection without heading underground involves defying the edict of Gandalf: "You cannot pass."

Portage and Main is no longer a streetscape, at least in the conventional sense. It's simply a multi-lane intersection where traffic signals maximize the movement of motor-vehicle traffic.

Sure, there remains an idea of "Portage and Main" as the theoretical centre of the city. But that's a purely abstract sort of place name, used in the same manner international reporters use the term "Moscow" to describe the political machine at the heart of Russia.

The real Portage and Main is a cold and uninviting place. At the southwest corner, you face a wall of the Commodity Exchange Tower complex -- Scotiabank windowglass frosted over with a Winnipeg Jets banner. At the southeast corner stands the stately, 100-year-old Bank of Montreal building, whose front entrance is seldom used.

At the northeast corner stands the Richardson Building, whose wide and slightly more inviting plaza is adorned with Tree Children, a sculpture by Leo Mol. The office tower now known as 201 Portage Ave. graces the northwest corner, offering only a glass facade toward the actual intersection.

On a sunny Tuesday morning in August, only one person stood, sat or walked at any of these four corners. Whoever nominated Portage and Main as a "great place" must have a fantastic sense of humour -- or a knack for inspiring outrage.

Shortly before departing office in 2004, former mayor Glen Murray launched a design contest in the hopes of reopening the intersection in some way. A resulting scheme received the nominal support of six out of seven Portage and Main property owners, but died on the vine in 2006. That's when current Mayor Sam Katz declined to endorse a plan to replace the barricades with movable bollards, which would have been opened on evenings and weekends.

Under the terms of the original agreement, the intersection is slated to remain closed until 2016. Even if it reopens in 2017, pedestrians trained to treat it like a minefield will not suddenly find themselves attracted to the intersection.

Genuine public spaces draw people to them. Portage and Main keeps them away.

It would be lovely to live in Winnipeg where "Portage and Main" is an actual place along with an idea. Instead, the streetlights change like clockwork, ushering cars through a city centre that is quite literally without a soul.

Is it time for Winnipeggers to come up into the sunlight? Should Portage and Main be open to pedestrians? Join the conversation in the comments below.


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Updated on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 6:35 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds questions for discussion

2:12 PM: The Commodity Exchange Tower is now known as 360 Main.

5:17 PM: Links to Robert Galston's story on Portage and Main from SundayXtra.

August 15, 2013 at 10:33 AM: Corrects Gandalf quote

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