CAO recommends Winnipeg spend $3.5M this year to get ball rolling on Portage and Main reopening

Winnipeg's top public servant says the city ought to spend up to $3.5 million this year to begin the complex process of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians.

No timeframe or total cost of project yet known; consultant pegged simple removal of barricades at $6.1M

Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians since 1979. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Winnipeg's top public servant says the city ought to spend up to $3.5 million this year to begin the complex process of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians.

In a draft report to city council's executive policy committee, obtained by CBC News, chief administrative officer Doug McNeil says Winnipeg should reintroduce pedestrian activity to the city's most famous intersection in concert with Portage and Main property owners who are already improving private spaces both above and below the ground.

"Private investment is underway at Portage and Main," McNeil writes in a report dated Oct. 10, which recommends the city get started this year on a $3.5-million project that would officially wind up on the books in 2018.

"To ensure the alignment with City of Winnipeg interests, investment in the maintenance of city-owned assets at the intersection requires authorization by council."

Portage and Main was closed to pedestrians in 1979. Since then, people on foot must cross the intersection using subterranean tunnels that are part of Winnipeg's weather-protected walkway system.

The living maple leaf at Portage and Main on Canada Day, 2017. (Submitted/Dan Harper Photography)
Brian Bowman promised to reopen the intersection to pedestrians when he ran for mayor in 2014. Two years later, he announced his intention to see the intersection reopen in time for the 2017 Canada Summer Games, which were held in Winnipeg in July and August.

When former public works director Lester Deane stated that would not be possible, Bowman called his claims inaccurate and told reporters McNeil was in charge of the project.

The CAO's report, expected to published in some form on Friday, does not lay out a specific timeframe for reopening the intersection. Instead, McNeil recommends a "phased approach, ensuring all corners of the intersection work together with a priority to move people, however they chose to move, and is done in conjunction with private-sector improvements in the area."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman made a campaign commitment to reopen the intersection. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
The city paid Dillon Consulting $116,000 to study the traffic implication of the reopening and come up with a cost estimate. That study, completed in 2016, pegged the cost of reintroducing pedestrians to all corners of the intersection while preserving transit service at $6.1 million, McNeil writes.

But that estimate only took into account the cost of removing barricades without considering the broader planning, land-use and design implications of a complete makeover of the intersection.

Spending recommended soon

McNeil's report does not estimate the total cost of the project. Instead, he recommends the city spend up to $3.5 million on this year on three separate Portage and Main projects:

  • Up to $1.5 million for architectural and engineering services, obtained through a competitive bidding process, to develop a more accurate cost estimate for reopening Portage and Main, a detailed design study, a phased construction schedule and a traffic staging plan.
  • Up to $500,000 on new sidewalks, curbs, paving bands and trees connected to the Richardson plaza at the northeast corner of the building. 
  • Up to $1.5 million to improve city property in the underground concourse, consisting of work below the 201 Portage Avenue office tower at the northwest corner of the intersection, removing the bunker at the Richardson plaza and concourse evaluations, assessments and studies.

The CAO noted Harvard Properties is in the midst of improving the concourse below 201 Portage Avenue and has permission to work on city-owned property. The reimbursement costs for this work are subject to negotiation, he stated.

McNeil also noted the Richardson Corporation is planning to repair and upgrade its plaza above the ground as soon as 2018 and would like to see the city remove its bunker in time for the private work to proceed. 

CAO recommends Winnipeg spend $3.5M this year to get ball rolling on Portage and Main reopening

5 years ago
Duration 2:17
Winnipeg's top public servant says the city ought to spend up to $3.5 million this year to begin the complex process of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians.

The CAO also noted Artis Real Estate Investment Trust is planning a 400-unit residential tower on the south pad of its Winnipeg Square property. 

The Dillon study recommended reducing the eastbound portion of Portage Avenue East from two lanes to one lane to accommodate future changes to the southeast corner of the intersection, at the Bank of Montreal building.

Opening the east crosswalk could be the first phase of reopening the intersection, McNeil stated.

He recommended diverting $2 million from the regional streets renewal reserve for the project and using $1.5 million worth of existing spending authorizations to cover the project cost this year.

No comment from mayor, finance chair

The mayor's office declined to comment on the recommendation to spend $3.5 million. Bowman spokesperson Jeremy Davis said the mayor will address the report when it's made public.

Council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston) also said he would not comment until the report is published.

North Kildonan Coun. Browaty opposes the reopening. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty, who opposes the reopening of Portage and Main to pedestrians, said he would not support the diversion of funds from the streets-renewal reserve.

"Taking money from that account toward the mayor's vanity project of reopening Portage and Main, I believe, is not consistent with what Winnipeggers are looking for," Browaty said. 

Browaty said he still wants to know the traffic implications of reopening Portage and Main. The Dillon study is expected to be published Friday, along with a $70,000 design vision conducted by Vancouver firm Perkins+Will.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.