Manitoba

Sale of Portage Place officially approved — so now what?

The sale of Winnipeg's downtown mall is nearly complete, but one city planning expert says there are still plenty of questions swirling around the future of Portage Place Shopping Centre.

Attempt to turn downtown mall into destination shopping location would be 'unlikely to work': planning expert

The mall opened its doors for the first time on Sept. 17, 1987, built through a partnership between the city, province and the federal governments. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

The sale of Winnipeg's downtown mall is nearly complete, but one city planning expert says there are still plenty of questions swirling around the future of Portage Place Shopping Centre. 

All three levels of government have signed off on the sale to Toronto-based Starlight Investments, which is now finishing up its final review of what it wants to do with the 439,600-square-foot building.

Richard Milgrom, head of the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba, says little is known about the deal or the plans.

"We don't know very much at all. They've said that it might include housing [but] these things are always very contingent," he said in a Friday interview with CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.

The hope was it that Portage Place would compete with suburban malls and draw shoppers back downtown, helping to revitalize the city's core. But it has struggled to attract and keep tenants. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"Developers often come in and say 'we want to do X, Y, and Z,' and then they do their due diligence and discover that doesn't make sense economically and then they don't do it.

"So, you know, everything seems to be very up in the air right now, [and] if the attempt is going to be to turn Portage Place into a destination shopping location again, that's unlikely to work, in my opinion."

The mall, which opened its doors for the first time on Sept. 17, 1987, was built through a partnership between the city, provincial and the federal governments, and was conceived as a cure for Winnipeg's downtown decay.

The hope was it would compete with suburban malls and draw shoppers back downtown, helping to revitalize the city's core. For its construction, three city blocks of Portage Avenue buildings were demolished between Colony and Carlton streets. 

Its promise never materialized, however, as it has struggled to keep and attract tenants. Many of its storefronts today are vacant.

There needs to be a steady, solid population base that lives in the core in order for a downtown to be healthy and supported, says Richard Milgrom. Many of the storefronts in Portage Place are vacant. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Milgrom believes one of the reasons the plan failed is that the downtown emptied when the business crowd left at 5:30 p.m., returning to their suburban homes.

There needs to be a steady, solid population base that lives in the core in order for a downtown to be healthy and supported, he said — that's what has helped similar renewal projects work in other cities' downtowns.

Design flawed

There was also a flaw with Portage Place's design, in that it was disconnected from street activity, Milgrom said. The storefronts were all inside the mall, rather than facing the sidewalk and engaging more with the public.

For the construction of Portage Place, three city blocks of buildings were demolished between Colony and Carlton streets. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"I think that there were proposals when the development was originally done, from other developers and other designers, to have a shopping centre that fronted more on Portage. That might have had some better potential," he said.

"This sort of internalization of the shopping — taking people off the street — is something that has, I think, contributed to the feelings of lack of safety downtown."

Some of the discussion around the future use of Portage Place has been on creating residential spaces, focused on student housing. That's a start, but Milgrom said the downtown needs more people who live there on a long-term basis — not just students, who may be transient.

Students, he said, are "not necessarily invested in the downtown."

While the sale does once again provide some optimism for the downtown, Milgrom laments the fact that a large chunk of land is now going to be privately owned.

"This was public land … with controlled interest from three levels of government. I always think it's a shame when we give up on a public asset that quickly."

With files from Information Radio

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