'Underground Garden of Eden': Portage and Main concourse celebrates 38 years

The underground crossing at Winnipeg's iconic intersection opened on Feb. 24, 1979, 38 years ago today.

Move part of broader trend during 1960s, '70s, architect says

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      Happy birthday, Portage and Main concourse.

      The underground crossing at Winnipeg's iconic intersection opened on Feb. 24, 1979, 38 years ago today.

      The pedestrian crossings on the streets above were closed at the same time — and a city-wide debate about the wisdom of the decision from a traffic flow and economic development standpoint was launched.

      Nearly four decades later, the future of the spot is still unclear, as city councillors and Winnipeggers remain divided over what should happen at the intersection.

      So how did it all get started?

      Original images 'spectacular'

      The Portage and Main intersection dates back to 1862, but its subterranean component wasn't set in motion until 1976, when the city signed an agreement with private developers to open a concourse envisioned as a vibrant social hub that would link shopping malls under the intersection.

      "The city at the time was not in great economic straits. They were looking for development very much, and there was a big developer that came in that promised to do two towers and a big, Garden of Eden-type underground development," said Brent Bellamy, creative director at Number Ten Architecture in Winnipeg.

      "If you see the original images, it's quite spectacular," he said.

      The original drawings depicted an underground gathering area several levels deep, with overhanging, interconnected spaces featuring bowling alleys, theatres and high-end restaurants, Bellamy said.

      It was presented as "a wonderful, underground Nirvana," he said, connected to a 30-storey skyscraper and a ritzy new hotel promised by the developer.

      "The city was just salivating over that," Bellamy said.

      To make it happen, the city signed an agreement with the developer that included a long-term deal to close the street-level crossing that existed before 1979.

      But only part of the promised space materialized.

      "The underground Garden of Eden doesn't really exist," Bellamy said. "And the hotel was never built."

      'Cars were reigning supreme'

      The move underground was part of a larger trend at the time, Bellamy said.

      "In the late '60s, if you actually go back to, I think it's the 1968 municipal plan, they lay it out very clearly what the future will be, and it's sort of where the underground thing came from," he said.

      "There's all kinds of drawings of putting glass arcades over downtown streets, driving people underground. Graham Avenue in that plan was the same. Everyone was going to be shuttled underground and the cars were going to reign above," he said.

      Some drawings depict an Exchange District full of streets encased in glass, Bellamy said.

      "It was a real thing back in the '60s and early '70s to not embrace the climate and the city, and you know, cars were reigning supreme at the time," he said. "That was what it was all about."

      With files from CBC Manitoba's Information Radio