Revamp Portage Avenue

Nicholas Friesen

How could Winnipeg be improved? The Uniter put together a list of ideas… To view the next article click here.

James Hope Howard is a local blogger (Slurpees & Murder, Winnipeg Cat), a panelist on UMFM 101.5’s Internet Pundits and a librarian. He’s immersed himself in politics, pop culture and the bargainization of Winnipeg - so naturally The Uniter felt it should get his opinion on one of our city’s biggest cultural disappointments - the downtown stretch of Portage Avenue.

The Uniter: What is your general opinion of Portage Avenue?

James Hope Howard: Portage Place is always kind of hanging on for dear life. If you look at the larger buildings like the MTS Centre, that’s something that obviously seems to be doing all right for itself. We’re waiting to see how the condos turn out, instead of having that god awful A&B Sound Building that’s been sitting there forever.

U: What would Portage have to do differently to compete with Montreal’s Mont-Royal or Toronto’s Kensington Market?

JHH: It really seems they’d have to offer something unique, some sort of experience and services that aren’t available in the rest of the city. The problem with downtown Winnipeg isn’t that it has to compete with Montreal or Toronto, it’s that it has to compete with the rest of Winnipeg. The things Winnipeggers complain about largely are parking and hours of availability. Knowing that there are already those handicaps in place, that people have to suck it up and pay $2 an hour now for parking, then you have to go above and beyond those perceived difficulties.

U: Do you think it would change with less traffic and more pedestrian/cycling paths?

JHH: I don’t think traffic is as much of a problem as people think it is. The places people consider these big successes, being Corydon and Osborne, are both a nightmare. People perceive downtown as more difficult because it has that negative association to it. Osborne is not a crime free zone. Occasionally they do the colour-coded graph by area of severity and Osborne’s always up there in the dark red along with downtown, but because it has all of these nice, independent, walkable places people are willing to overlook the panhandling and the crime and the bar fights and whatever else. On the other hand, I like the idea of a pedestrian corridor or a nice little closed off street because it would be nice to see us try something. We’ve had enough problems closing off streets downtown as it is. If you look at the four or five blocks it took to make Portage Place, the last thing we need downtown is to have fewer ways to get through it.

U: Another thing I’ve heard from people is a demand for more upscale stores like H&M peppered with independent boutiques along the Dollarama-stretch. Do you think these new condos will help to bring that in?

JHH: The Dollarama-stretch is a pretty astute way of putting it, isn’t it? That’s always been the weird part. Across from the single most successful arena in North America for the past 10 years you look around and there’s a bargain store and a Money Mart and a place to pick up magazines and cigarettes and porn. Condos are expected to be a much larger, richer investment and it’s tricky to navigate that balance. If it has the sort of asking price that a newly built condo deserves then they can probably just as easily buy a house in 90 per cent of the city. It has to be someone committed to the idea of downtown. It’s not harder than ever, because downtown’s never really been a prize, but with the recent stories of downtown that there’s nowhere to eat and everything closes at 6 p.m., it’s a hard sell. Like technology, it always punishes the early adopters. I’m reasonably certain that the original plans for those apartment towers would have had them up last year and that would have been the influx of what everyone seems to agree downtown needs and that’s people living downtown. It creates vibrancy. It creates the eyes on the street to lower crime rate. It creates the demand for services and businesses. But all levels of government were like, “Ummm… naaaah.”

U: Portage Avenue is such a mishmash, it feels like someone took six different puzzles, mixed all the pieces together and dumped it downtown.

JHH: Here’s a ‘30s Chicago puzzle up here and the Millennium Falcon down here and some ponies over there. We’ve got the Exchange District, which is puttering along and which everyone claims to love, with its little shops and the walkability and the festivals that run from April to September. Somewhere behind this massive, grey wall of Portage Avenue is a lot of cool stuff that a lot of people aren’t willing to go try and find.

U: It would seem that everything is barricaded in.

JHH: If we, the civic leaders of Winnipeg would just storm down and pay attention to a decision at the time it’s being made then we would have decades worth of prosperity and increased growth. Look at the decision made a few years ago, a couple business guys got together - “You know what, to bolster the underground Winnipeg Square we’ll close off Portage and Main for how long? 40 years?” That is a lifetime of never being able to walk on Portage and Main unless the mayor throws a parade or a hockey team returns.

U: What I found interesting was that a lot of people were talking about how small business were hurting and how tickets sales for the ballet and MTC went down when the Jets returned home, but no one would really talk about it.

JHH: No one wanted to be that guy, the “I, for one, hate hockey. Put that in the paper, put that in print.” Once the first cycle of season tickets ends after that three- to five-year period, it would be interesting to poll for data from MTC or the ballet and see how it behaves against Jets renewal time. It’s weird that there’s this devaluing of the arts because the arts never went away. We have a royal ballet and it seems a lot more important when you put it that way, it’s not just this thing that’s been here forever. It’s not just tiny people jumping to music.

U: And who could forget Portage’s little sister, Broadway.

JHH: Portage gets all the attention. To get to one tiny, charming sustainable place from another you’ve gotta walk past the law courts and a massive call centre tower. Food trucks are one way to open up otherwise scary places. Another thing to think about is those bears on Broadway. They are just a bunch of painted-ass bears and yet people were willing to overlook how frightening Broadway is and were more than happy to bounce around with little Max going, “There’s a bear, there’s a bear.” If we could combine bears and food trucks somehow into a more vibrant, healthy downtown, that’d be the way forward.

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2013

Published in Volume 67, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 28, 2013)

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