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Portage Place revamp hopes to keep community ‘that’s desperately needed’

Can Portage Place revamp improve safety in downtown Winnipeg?
Global's Joe Scarpelli looks at how proposed changes coming to Portage Place might affect the area.

The developers behind an announced $300-$400-million revamp of Portage Place say their new design will still allow groups and people to congregate — and hope it becomes a destination for the surrounding community.

In an exclusive interview with Global News and 680 CJOB, Starlight Investments Chief Operating Officer Glen Hirsh said making sure the proposed retrofit for Portage Place would include ways for the community to come together was important.

READ MORE: Portage Place to undergo up to $400-M retrofit, multi-income residential towers added

“We are endeavouring to create an environment where many communities come together and they gather,” said Hirsh, “and create a community that’s desperately needed in downtown Winnipeg.

“And our plan is … to actually create a thoroughfare and punch through the mall, through Edmonton Street, so that we’re connecting the north and the south,” he added, “not have this, this wall effectively blocking off the north side.”

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The courtyard at Edmonton Street for the proposed new development at Portage Place.
The courtyard at Edmonton Street for the proposed new development at Portage Place. Starlight Investments

Over the years, Portage Place has become a gathering space for some of Winnipeg’s more vulnerable citizens, many of whom gather in the food court to stay warm and connect with others.

“It is an important gathering place for many people who in some ways, on a day like today, have to get out of the cold, huddle over a cup of coffee and conversation,” said Dr. Jino Distasio, a professor and urban planning expert with the University of Winnipeg.

“It’s become an international meeting space,” he added, noting the city and province has grown by 150,000 people in the past 15 years.

“The downtown is much more diverse. Portage Place has become an international gathering spot. So I’m not surprised that people are concerned.”

READ MORE: Sayisi Dene Elder Joseph Meconse dead at 77

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There have been clashes with Portage Place security over the years, the most prominent occurring in 2016, when a Sayisi Dene Elder was asked to leave the food court just after he had sat down.

Joseph Meconse, an Order of Manitoba recipient, went public after being asked to leave the mall’s food court by Portage Place security. At the time, the mall had a half-hour rule for people to eat their lunch in the food court. He had just sat down.

The incident sparked a protest and drum ceremony, and the mall apologized and held a ceremony. There were calls for a boycott of the mall, but Meconse said he wanted to be part of the solution.

“Aboriginal people have been condemned for quite a while and it’s about time somebody spoke up,” he told media at the time.

“And that’s exactly what I did. And now this is the result of it.”

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After that incident, Portage Place rescinded the lunch time rule and agreed to have mandatory sensitivity training for their security guards.

READ MORE: Portage Place honours indigenous elder after being kicked out 

Hirsch said Starlight Industries is aware that Portage Place caters partly to a community of vulnerable people, including the city’s homeless and refugee population, and said he wants to make sure their voices are heard.

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“We are not this developer that comes in and has disregard for the people that are currently in the space,” he said.

“If we come in and we renovate and there is a displacement, let’s talk about that. Let’s see what options are available. Let’s get it all out there on the table. But we’re going to need people to be involved.

“Let’s see how we can work together and work towards improving quality of life for everybody on the site.”

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The retrofit

The retrofit will include removing the atrium and include a courtyard that will essentially continue Edmonton Street, although for pedestrians only, said Josh Kaufman, Starlight’s head of development.

“That space will be activated, both with patios for restaurants, farmers markets on the weekends, pop-up shops, kiosks and accessible by all,” he said.

The goal is to more easily connect the downtown neighbourhood south of Portage Avenue with the residential buildings just north of the mall. Right now, the mall is a barrier dividing the neighbourhood, he added.

Starlight Investments’ Josh Kaufman on a new pedestrian walkway
Starlight Investments’ Josh Kaufman on a new pedestrian walkway

“My experience, in a market like especially downtown, you have to be diverse,” said Kaufman.

“You have to make sure that you’re offering to everyone … It has to be a community element in mind. It has to ensure that you’ve got the product offering that’s going to appeal to the multicultural environment that that exists.

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That being said, no structure is going to end poverty and vulnerability for some of Winnipeg’s population, said Distasio.

“Shopping centeres and malls, and housing doesn’t necessarily end homelessness on its own. So we can’t, again, look at a new structure as being the social safety net for the city.”

-With files from Brittany Greenslade and Richard Cloutier

Jino Distasio on Portage Place
Jino Distasio on Portage Place