The request from Starlight Investments for an extra $50 million in federal grants and $240 million in federal loans for the redevelopment of Portage Place has prompted concerns over whether the project will ultimately serve the interests of the downtown community.
Starlight Investments, the company that purchased the mall in 2019, claims the Portage Place revitalization will include over 500 rental suites, a grocery store and community spaces. However, Leah Gazan, the MP for Winnipeg Centre, says she is critical of the shopping mall’s proposed redevelopment plans.
“They’re asking for close to 85 per cent of the total projected project cost with all the risk offloaded to the public, and then they get 100 per cent of the profit,” Gazan said in an interview with The Uniter. “I think that’s problematic.”
In other Canadian cities, Starlight Investments has had a questionable track record. Between 2012 and 2019, the investment firm filed the highest number of above-guideline rent-increase applications by any landlord in Toronto, according to a report by RenovictionsTO.
In November 2019, CBC reported on testimonies from members of the Heron Gate community in Ottawa, who claimed the Herongate Mall, purchased by TransGlobe Property Management – a company under the same ownership as Starlight – in 2007, had been poorly managed and hit with a rash of vacancies before it was demolished in 2013.
Owen Toews, a geographer and instructor in the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg, says this phenomenon is not new, nor unique to Portage Place.
“Those aspirations and those demands for social justice will be co-opted by developers that will claim to be meeting those demands, acquire public funding to do so, and then they will not follow through,” Toews says.
Securing funding for downtown community needs has historically been a struggle in the face of redevelopment endeavours. In fact, when Portage Place was first built, the money allocated to the shopping mall was initially supposed to fund the Winnipeg Core Area Initiative (CAI), projected to create affordable housing, daycares and clinics.
For many, Portage Place was – and continues to be – a gathering space for the community. In 2019, members of the downtown community came together in protest of the sale of the mall to Starlight. Though the deal followed through, Toews says the lack of input from people who live in the area remains an issue.
Gazan says she believes ownership of a revitalized Portage Place should ultimately be in the hands of the public.
“I do believe that Portage Place needs to be publicly owned, and I also think it needs to reflect what our community has been asking for,” Gazan says.
She says the main things Winnipeg Centre has been asking for are an investment in affordable housing, a safe space for the community and an accessible place to buy food.
“We do not lack ideas, certainly, in Winnipeg Centre. We have some of the most brilliant frontline organizations that have projects ready to go but lack the resources,” Gazan says.
Published in Volume 75, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 18, 2021)