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Councillor fears Portage and Main could remain closed to pedestrians for decades

WINNIPEG – Winnipeg’s iconic Portage Avenue and Main Street intersection could be closed to pedestrians for decades to come.

A city council committee reviewed a report Thursday on reopening Portage and Main to foot traffic in 2019, when a 40-year contract with area businesses that’s kept pedestrians underground expires.

But councillors heard that contract could be extended another 40 years if just one of the businesses surrounding the intersection decides it wants to keep things the way they are.

“They can extend for 40 years and once one party has the ability to extend for 40 years, any party has the ability to extend for 40 years,” said Coun. Justin Swandel.

“It’s clearly a very, very, frightening situation to be in a situation where our city could have another 40 years of our most important corner being closed to pedestrians,” said Coun. Jenny Gerbasi.

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City traffic manager Luis Escobar presented a report to a council committee showing 200,000 vehicles travel through the intersection daily; if it were open to pedestrians about 1,000 would cross on foot every day.

The city’s hands will be tied and it will legally have to honour the 40-year extension if one of the companies decides to keep the street closed to pedestrians, forcing them to continue using the underground concourse, council was told.

Artis REIT, the owner of the underground Shops of Winnipeg Square and one of the buildings surrounding the intersection, has said it is not in a position to comment.

The other three properties, Bank of Montreal, Creswin Properties and Richardson Centre, were not available for comment Thursday. But the Richardson Centre was on record in 2013 saying it “wants things to stay the same.”

By planning five years in advance, Gerbasi is hoping the extension won’t happen.

“People are very concerned that if we haven’t done the planning and we haven’t sorted all these issues as much as we can that we could be locked in for another 40 years, and I think we want to prevent that,” said Gerbasi.

A representative of Winnipeg’s Downtown Business Improvement Zone said removing the barricades around Portage and Main would benefit businesses above and below ground.

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“Portage and Main needs to be treated as an important public space for animating city life instead of simply a thoroughfare for motor vehicles,” said Stephanie Voyce of Downtown BIZ.

With 70,000 Winnipeggers working downtown every day and $2 billion invested downtown since 2005, BIZ is hoping for a one-year pedestrian pilot project.

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