A downtown mall will soon see a major upgrade in hopes of alleviating its worsening woes.
Portage Place mall will be “retrofitted” starting in 2021, and replaced with two 20-storey rental residential towers. New shopping and office spaces, as well as a pedestrian-friendly courtyard, are also included in the plans.
In an exclusive interview with Global News and 680 CJOB, Starlight Investments, which bought Portage Place earlier this year, says it’s time the embattled downtown mall gets a major overhaul.
“Well, it’s exciting,” said Glen Hirsh, chief operating officer of Starlight Investments. “We are looking at a meaningful revitalization of the SHED (Sports, Hospitality, Entertainment District) district in Winnipeg.”
The retrofit and addition of the rental housing towers will cost anywhere from $300-400 million and take four to five years, said Hirsh, and the towers will have 500 to 550 rental units of varying sizes. Starlight is also looking at finding a grocery chain for the space, he added.
It’s their hope, he said, that the new development will connect both ends of the mall and bring communities together in a safe environment, said Hirsh.
“We’ve thought about (safety) … I think the first step is to bring eyes everywhere, and you do that by creating glazing around the structure. Right now it’s closed in.”
The glass and glazing effect means that “you have no choice but to see the people around you, walking with you and walking on the street below you,” he said.
The skywalk system attached to the mall will stay, but will be placed on the outside of the structure, said Hirsh.
Other elements, like eliminating closed-off spaces, will make the area safer, he added.
Hirsh said despite the many issues with Portage Place, the mall does not need to be demolished.
“I would say that it needs a lot of work. We’ve got a lot of ideas of how to reconfigure the space, particularly as we look at the interior,” said Hirsch.
“The mall was built in the late ’80s. The utilization of space like that has evolved.”
Portage Place was built in the 1980s as part of a revitalization effort in the area. To build it, the North Portage Development Corporation was established as an arms-length government committee and the group announced the building of the mall in 1984.
The mall is located on the north side of Portage Avenue between Vaughn and Carlton streets and several buildings along the stretch of Portage Avenue were demolished to make way for the three-storey, 439,000 sq. ft. shopping centre and residential apartments.
The cost was $80 million, or $157 million if it were to be built today.
The mall opened to great fanfare by then Manitoba MP Lloyd Axworthy and former mayor Bill Norrie.
However, the mall almost immediately failed to live up to its potential, said local architect Brent Bellamy.
“It brought high-density residential, it had theatres, live theatre, IMAX, office space – it had everything you would think would make it successful, but it really failed along the street,” he told 680 CJOB in July.
“Almost instantly, those stores were closed to the street. They were intended to be shops, just like the shops that were there that it replaced.”
Instead of attracting suburban shoppers downtown, the mall instead remained mostly devoid of customers.
Less than a year after it opened, store owners complained of a lack of foot traffic and asked for reduced rent, according to a news report.
The mall continued to struggle and in 2010, the IMAX theatre closed, followed by the Globe Theatre three years later.
The mall became a magnet for crime, with drug trafficking happening at the mall’s notorious bus shelter, along with several violent incidents.
In 2018, Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth called the shelter a “hot spot for crime.”
In January of 2018, a 17-year-old international student was the target of a random attack.
Surveillance video released by police at the time shows the attacker waiting until all others leave the bus shelter before lunging at the teen and beating him until he couldn’t move. The teen survived, and a 26-year-old man was arrested and charged with aggravated assault.
The shelter was demolished earlier this year.
In August of 2018, a woman allegedly high on meth threatened a Portage Place security guard with a needle.
A new life
In July, the mall was sold to Starlight Investments for $22.9 million for the shopping centre, and $47 million for the land and underground parkade.
At the time, Bellamy said he was glad to see change.
“It’s not going to ever save downtown like it was sort of promised many years ago, but I think it’s exciting to see some change happening, and hopefully it does become a better contributor for the downtown,” he told 680 CJOB.
Josh Kaufman, head of development and construction for Starlight Investments, said there is opportunity with rental apartments in downtown Winnipeg.
“We’re going after a diverse demographic,” said Kaufman. Community consultations will include feedback from various groups that may want to rent the apartments, including students, Indigenous families, downtown workers and more.
That feedback will help the group determine sizes for the apartment buildings and how many bedrooms there will be. As for rent costs, it will depend on sizes and consultation, according to Kaufman.
The latest housing vacancy rate number for downtown Winnipeg was 3.4 per cent in October of 2018, said Len Catling, media relations officer with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
While he couldn’t speak to if that rate was a healthy one for Winnipeg, he did say compared to other large markets like Toronto and Vancouver that have vacancy rates below 1 per cent, it was likely a balanced rate for the downtown.
The numbers for 2019 will be released in early January, said Catling.
Dr. Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, said he was shocked — pleasantly so — to see a proposal of hundreds of millions of private dollars being invested in Winnipeg’s downtown.
“It’s bold, it’s innovative and I think Winnipeggers should really see the long-term good in the transformation of a very under-utilized retail space, into something that … is going to be even more mixed than its ever been,” he said.
Winnipeggers need to come to grips with the fact the downtown is changing dramatically, he added.
“We’ve seen billions of dollars of investment that we haven’t seen in 100 years. We’re probably approaching 200 mega projects over the last 15 years.
“From the Convention Centre to True North (Square) to Bell (MTS place) to Centrepoint and this project and hydro, you have $2 billion in a very small parcel of land. We’ve never seen that before.”
-With files from Richard Cloutier