Last year’s announcement of the proposed sale of Portage Place to Toronto-based Starlight Investments raised concerns about what the downtown mall would become and how its status as a gathering place for Winnipeg’s inner-city population might be affected by a $300-million-plus redevelopment.
While Portage Place’s appeal as a retail space has essentially bottomed out after decades of decline and dwindling public interest, the mall has become a de facto town square that provides shelter, warmth and spaces for social interaction to a segment of Winnipeg’s population that has little inclination and limited means to support the "shopping" portion of the centre’s original colloquial identifier.
It has also, however, become a downtown destination many Winnipeggers avoid, citing concerns about safety amid ongoing issues related to crime and gang activity. Any new owner who seeks to transform Portage Place will face multi-faceted challenges as it seeks to make the mall relevant and welcoming in a city whose downtown has endured more than its share of desolate disappointments.
Early reaction to the proposed sale and redevelopment included worries that redefining Portage Place might effectively push out many of its most frequent users, and that the new owners might lack an understanding of what a mall in downtown Winnipeg must be.
At least some of those concerns were addressed on Thursday when Starlight issued a news release outlining plans for a 10,000-square-foot community space, complete with public washrooms, that would be accessible 24 hours a day. In the release, Starlight said the "community hub," dubbed P3Commons, was included in the redevelopment plan after discussions with relevant local parties.
"It has been made clear to us, through extensive stakeholder consultations, that an inclusive, complete community must include a place that ensures all constituents of the current mall will continue to benefit from the site’s future plans," Starlight chief operating officer Glen Hirsh said in the release.
Starlight also said it would seek input from "various groups and organizations for programming and outfitting of the centre," and will launch an interactive website to allow community members to offer comments and suggestions.
Thursday’s announcement is an encouraging sign; further clarification is required, however, and there is much more work to be done. The plan for a 24-hour public space is laudable, but it must fully address the complex logistics of operating — and funding — a facility that will be confronted daily with the issues and challenges of marginalized individuals whose basic desire for shelter is often complicated by addiction, the need for intervention and treatment, and the potential for violence that often accompanies it.
It’s also essential that Starlight’s pursuit of community input reaches deep into the intermingled communities that make up Winnipeg’s urban centre — downtown residents, transients, newcomers and the various cultural groups that make the Portage Place catchment one of the city’s most diverse and in-need areas.
"It needs to be a meeting space for all communities," said Social Planning Council of Winnipeg executive director Kate Kehler, who added she’s aware of several inner-city groups that have not yet been contacted by Starlight. "We need all of the stakeholders to be included."
Winnipeggers will, as is their wont, be skeptical. And rightly so, as the mall’s original incarnation fell far short of its promise to revitalize the city’s once vibrant downtown avenue.
But properly executed, the redevelopment of Portage Place could contribute to a growing residential, commercial and recreational momentum that might eventually inspire Winnipeggers to view downtown as a place to go rather than one to avoid.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.