Divison of Power #11 Portage Place needs to embrace community, tackle crime

My recent article on the 25th anniversary of Portage Place Shopping Centre shed some light on the mall’s utter failure to fulfil its mandate. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment, it has not revitalized Portage Avenue.

In fact, one can argue Winnipeg’s most famous street is actually worse off than it was when 32 stand-alone businesses occupied five blocks of Portage’s north face prior to 1987.

But regardless of these legitimate critiques, Portage Place Shopping Centre is here to stay. And on that level, there are two phenomena that coexist along side the mall that should be addressed.

The first, which mall manager Dave Stone generously and candidly discussed, is the importance of its services for downtown residents and local families.

Once Cadillac Fairview (the mall’s original private operator) and other retail investors realized they weren’t making money from high-end shopping, Portage Place’s current retail landscape began to take shape.

Over time, it started catering to low-income residents and bargain-hungry students, held down by the crucial Shopper’s Drug Mart and Staples stores.

Portage Place is known for its massive food court. Although an uncomfortable and deliriously hectic place for the average visitor, the food court remains an important gathering place for local residents.

In short, Portage Place has become a community mall.

And if it has any chance at survival, it needs to embrace that identity.

Why not provide incentives to attach rental properties to the mall? Why not provide incentives for IGA or Safeway to open a grocery store, with a street level entrance? These would be laudable projects that could help cure the misguided political interventionism so commonly seen at City Hall.

But the first phenomenon cannot be addressed without tackling the second—the debilitating crime problem.

As a University of Winnipeg student, I frequent the mall travelling from school to work.

Portage Place often appears in the throes of chaos.

Drug dealers openly conduct business, domestic squabbles erupt in violence, theft is common, public intoxication is rampant and the merchants—regular people making a meagre wage—are fearful and wary of their own customers.

The structure of the mall itself is undoubtedly hospitable to crime.

Portage Place is equipped with heavy pedestrian traffic, massive open spaces, multiple entry points and a convoluted sky walk system that leads into other buildings with the same hiding places and criminal advantages.

It’s a wonder anyone is caught dealing drugs or smuggling weapons through this morass of people and products.

These facts have led many—including former Winnipeg police officer James Jewell—to argue for an increase in police presence at the mall and surrounding area.

“I have always detested the overused word of ‘perception’ when it comes to public safety,” Jewell wrote in an e-mail.

“Police executives like to stress how important it is that the public has the perception of feeling safe. I prefer to use the word ‘reality.’ I would like people to be safe in reality. The difference in the two concepts is vast.”

Jewell cited Times Square in New York City, where a large police presence has lead to an increase in safety for everyone. He argues downtown Winnipeg needs “a dedicated team of committed, hard working police officers with only one mandate—-downtown safety.”

I agree.

What Portage Place needs is a re-orientation (which has already begun) toward servicing local residents and bolstering the downtown population through new development.

But it can only do this if downtown residents aren’t bearing witness to drug deals and petty crime while they sip on their morning Tim Horton’s.