Picture it: a thriving downtown community hub, bustling with activity. A place where you could go to access arts, culture and wellness programming, or just hang out. A place where you could even live, if you wanted to.
Could Portage Place be that place?
The beleaguered downtown mall’s future is up for discussion, again. Last week, it was reported that Toronto-based Starlight Investments is prepared to buy the complex from Vancouver-based Peterson Group — as well as acquiring the land it’s built on and the underground parkade, owned separately by North Portage Development Corp. — for close to $70 million. Redevelopment could mean exciting things for the city’s core, but a successful new vision will require a bit of imagination.
People have always had big dreams for Portage Place. When it opened in 1987, it was supposed to be the "salvation of downtown Winnipeg," a way to bring suburban people back downtown. The $92-million shopping complex banked on a familiar formula: shops + restaurants = people.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
Portage Place was a product of 1980s mall culture, and essentially remained stuck there as time marched on. What was once touted as the salvation of downtown Winnipeg quickly became an emblem of its decay. Businesses struggled, and those struggles were exacerbated by the dawn of the Amazon Prime era. Attractions such as IMAX and the Globe Theatre shuttered. Portage Place earned a reputation as being unsafe, rife with drugs and crime.
But perception and reality are not always in lockstep. The downtown mall has also served as a gathering place — a town square, of sorts. It’s where one could find the late Sayisi Dene elder Joseph Meconse most days, holding court in the food court. He used to joke that it was his office; when he was kicked out by mall security in February 2016 for "loitering," many in the community were outraged by his treatment.
So let’s do a little exercise: let’s throw out what we know about Portage Place and, instead, imagine the possibilities. Imagine a craft market taking over the sun-dappled atrium in the winter, an indoor farmers market in the summer. Imagine community classrooms, meeting spaces and affordable studio rentals for artists. Look to the runaway success of the Common at The Forks, and revamp the food court. Create spaces where people can comfortably gather and sit.
Add housing. And a grocery store. Instead of Portage Place saving downtown by attracting suburban customers (the original failed premise), it might enhance the urban experience by supporting the people who already live in and around downtown.
Portage Place is already home to Prairie Theatre Exchange. Why couldn’t it be a centralized arts hub for other cultural institutions? There’s lots of space, goodness knows. Add musical and public-arts programming. Bring back a movie theatre.
We’ve already seen glimpses of what this could look like. The addition of the public piano, for example, which was part of a public art initiative connected to the 2014 Juno Awards. Studio 393, an outpost of Graffiti Art Programming Inc. in the skywalk between Portage Place and the Bay, has been doing incredible work operating a free hip-hop-based after-school program for youth. When the Women’s March took over the mall in 2017, we saw what it looked like packed with thousands of people.
The future of Portage Place can’t look like its past. It won’t be the salvation of anything, but we need to imagine how it could contribute to a revitalized downtown. The existing infrastructure awaits the inspiration.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.