Q&A: Bunker-like Portage and Main concourse needs makeover, expert says

As the discussion over opening Winnipeg's Portage and Main to pedestrians reignites this week, CBC's Chris Read took a walk with Institute of Urban Studies director Jino Distasio through the underground concourse to get a sense of how the Manitoba landmark could be transformed.

Get jackhammers at Portage and Main by June 1, Institute of Urban Studies director says

"Let's get rid of the bunkers and let's think about engaging pedestrians and providing an experience," Institute of Urban Studies director Jino Distasio says. (Google Street View)

As the discussion about opening Portage and Main to pedestrians reignites this week, CBC's Chris Read took a walk through the underground concourse with Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, to get a sense of how the Manitoba landmark could be transformed.

Currently the only way to cross Portage and Main is through the underground concourse.

Chris Read: What do you think of how they implemented the current setup?

Jino Distasio: In the era when they were planning the corner, it was partly to manage traffic and also to get people down into the underground, into the shops, into the concourse, buying lunch and really taking advantage of that space, which on its own is a hidden space. I do think you can get the corner back to pedestrians, you can still accommodate traffic. We do it all over the place. 
Archive footage of Winnipeg's Portage and Main through the years, from 1960-1977. 1:45

What are your least favourite aspects of what they've done to the concourse? 

My least favourite aspects are always the bunker architecture that we use with the concrete boundaries and barriers. We really put a lot of concrete on the street. Here we're looking at a stairway going down and it's really not favourable — there's a broken window, there's particle board in the window. It's a bunker. I don't know if I have to go down there for a bomb blast, but that's really not a pedestrian environment. 

To come down here, if I'm a person with mobility issues, this is now an even greater barrier. It's impossible. 

We're in the concourse — is there anything you want to say about where we're at?

The greatest part of this is the art on the wall, which again is concrete, but a stark contrast from when you come to the bunker and into the underground. 

This is a real almost '70s, '80s style of architecture, where it's very dark and it's not overly inviting. How we navigate now becomes kind of complicated. I walk around the beautiful artwork. I don't know which corner I'm at. I may pop up by Bank of Montreal, I may pop up by the Richardson Building, I may pop up elsewhere.

How would opening Portage and Main affect how people experience this intersection?

To be able to have the choice of, do I want to come down, see the art, get a coffee, find a building, go to an appointment, or do I want to quickly cross the street? 

People actually want to experience Portage and Main. That's already there. There's something symbolic about it, but now we actually have to deliver something. Let's get rid of the bunkers, and let's think about engaging pedestrians and providing an experience that not only supports Winnipeggers and office workers that we see passing by with their lunch bags, but the tourist who's got a camera and a couple hours to kill. 
CBC News asked some people at Winnipeg's Portage and Main if the famous intersection should be reopened to pedestrians, as a council committee starts re-examining the issue. 1:07

What's the next step?

We've talked and talked and talked about barricades, we've talked about design, we've had international competitions to really get creative juices flowing. Let's hope this is the year we actually do something, and the first step is to say definitively, June 1 of 2016, the jackhammers at Portage and Main. By end of year, people will walk across the street, and we've got a three-year vision for how this space is going to be a world destination, or at least a space in which people from around the world can come experience and say, "I went to Portage and Main in Winnipeg. Kind of cool," and we'll see Twitter images, we'll see Instagram shots. Right now I don't know what we would see if we looked at social media and people experiencing Portage and Main.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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