'Weird, wonderful space' underground largely forgotten in Portage and Main debate

What has been largely forgotten in the debate over reopening Portage and Main is that below the street and away from traffic is a weird and wonderful space that needs to be positioned within the discussion, says Jino Distasio.

Concourse will remain regardless of outcome of vote and must be made safe, accessible: Jino Distasio

The concourse under Winnipeg's Portage and Main intersection is 'an eclectic mix of shops, mostly used by office workers who have been able to decode the maze of entrances and exit points,' says Jino Distasio. (

In the early '80s, there were only a handful of places to rent a movie in Winnipeg. For me, that meant hopping the No. 16 bus downtown to Winnipeg Square, where Adi's Video had opened in the still new underground shopping concourse beneath the now-contentious intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street.

It was like a mystery, making my way under the streets and perhaps popping some quarters in the video arcade that was near the food court. I love to admit that I got lost, bewildered and often confused by the mix of banks and shops, and the strange twists, turns and escalators that took me from the Graham entrance all the way to the video store. But it never stopped me from going. 

Today, most have forgotten about the journey to the video store. As well, many have forgotten the downtown and the experience of shopping on a weekend, or simply exploring the area and hangouts that used to drive the retail and entertainment economy and were the heart of our city for decades.

The battle over Portage and Main rages on today as it has for decades, fuelled currently by debate over the non-binding vote attached to the upcoming civic election, with two camps clearly entrenched on either keeping the corner closed to pedestrian traffic or bringing down the barriers. 

Distasio supports reopening the above-ground intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians, but says that doesn't mean we should ignore the concourse beneath the intersection. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

While I support the idea of opening the corner, what has been largely forgotten is that below the street and away from traffic is a weird and wonderful space that needs to be positioned within the discussion.

A love-hate relationship

If we want to truly redevelop the intersection as comprehensively as possible, let's do so above and below the street to ensure we create a range of options focused on enhancing the overall experience, while strengthening the draw to the famous corner. 

My own love-hate relationship with the underground for the last 30-plus years resurfaced with a flood of video store memories this past weekend we bid farewell to our venerable 1980s VHS player. While few would argue that Portage and Main was or is a retail destination, for me it holds something of my youth that is long gone but not forgotten.

Though Adi's Video is gone, Winnipeg's underground is still an eclectic mix of shops, mostly used by office workers who have been able to decode the maze of entrances and exit points.

The concourse itself is centred on a roundabout that often disorients visitors who become lost in a wayfinding nightmare. This has resulted in persons trying to cross the street only to hopelessly re-emerge on the very same corner where they descended.

The underground also serves to connect the four corners of the intersection and links into the skywalk system. This makes it possible to walk from The Bay all the way to the Grain Exchange Building in one meandering adventure.

Underappreciated art, architectural gems

For the underground, there are still many shop owners trying to make a living and with more residential development on the way, there are increased opportunities above and below the street.

Taking the escalator up from the modernist concourse to the historic Bank of Montreal building reveals an architectural gem, says Distasio. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Apart from my memories of renting movies, my favourite experiences were enjoying the underappreciated concrete art by Bruce Head — which really is an amazing treasure that makes the roundabout an attraction — and taking the escalator up from the modernist concourse to the historic Bank of Montreal building, which is stunning architectural gem.

Making a better underground

Which is not to say the underground doesn't have its problems. A gap in the current debate is the limited discussion on creating better access points to the underground, which are in dire need of a facelift. The present access points are hidden in concrete bunkers that are not friendly, nor accessible.

I think we can open the corner while enhancing the uniqueness of the underground.

It could start with better lighting and improving the look and feel of the bunker entrances to make them more attractive, while ensuring they are fully accessible. 

While there is certainly a cost factor to this, we must remember that regardless of the outcome on the vote, the underground will remain. Ensuring safe and equitable access is just as important as whether we open the corner or don't.

If you do head underground, be forewarned that you might get lost — but, like me, you might enjoy the journey.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Institute of Urban Studies.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?