There’s much to like about the development plans for Portage Place 2.0 unveiled recently by its new investors. There are also many questions that remain unanswered.
An initial thumbs-up — and a hearty welcome to Winnipeg — is extended to Skylight Investments of Toronto.
It plans to finance a retrofit that is vitally important to the economy of Winnipeg’s downtown core, with a plan that calls for two residential towers with a mix of student and family housing options, an elevated skywalk, renewed commercial space, a child-care centre and possibly a grocery store.
The development is particularly appealing because the expected $300 to $400 million cost will be borne privately, a refreshing change from public investment by three levels of government that has helped support the Portage Place mall during its 35-year history.
At the same time, private corporations generally do not share governments’ obligation to meet the social needs of citizens if it means diminishing the bottom line financially. The for-profit reality of the business world worries some Winnipeggers who currently rely on the mall as it is.
Their concerns are outlined on a Facebook page called Humans of Portage Place. They hope the private developer won’t forget about the people who depend on the mall’s spaces, including a well-used food court and offices for social services and legal assistance. They wonder if the planned grocery store will have prices that are affordable for the mall’s current patrons, many of whom have lower incomes.
These often-asked questions were not addressed by Skylight’s recent broad-strokes announcement of the forthcoming development. With construction not expected to begin until 2021, it’s understandable the company hasn’t yet sketched in complete details.
It’s also understandable that the people who currently value Portage Place are worried they will lose a hub that is vital because this area of Winipeg doesn’t have other spaces for social gathering, such as community centres.
As a major international venture capital company that grew out of a well-known Chinese investment company called Taiyou Investment, Skylight undoubtedly did its research before committing to finance the Portage Place reconstruction.
It will be aware that the mall failed in its initial 1980s ambition to help revitalize Winnipeg’s core by attracting affluent customers to the section of Portage Avenue between the Bay and the former Eaton’s store.
Has that changed? Is the time right for downtown to go upscale?
There are signs of optimism. The area has been boosted economically in the past decade or so by substantial developments including Bell MTS Place, True North Square, the RBC Convention Centre, Manitoba Hydro’s headquarters, Centrepoint and branch campuses of the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.
It’s true that on most evenings — especially when the rink is not hosting a hockey game or concert — the downtown core depopulates noticeably at the end of the business day, but not as much as it did when the mall was created to save downtown in the 1980s.
The population of residents who live downtown has steadily crept up and now numbers almost 20,000. This population of downtown dwellers will only increase with Skylight’s plans to bookend the new Portage Place with two 20-storey residential towers.
It’s understandable that businesses need to attract consumers with middle and upper incomes, but history shows the mall is also a hub for recent immigrants, students, homeless people and others with scant money to spend.
In urban planning jargon, Portage Place has been a mixed-use development. The new owners of the mall will find their prospective patrons are a mixed bunch, indeed.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.