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Portage and Main reopening clears another hurdle at Winnipeg city council

Mayor Scott Gillingham's plan to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians came before EPC Tuesday morning. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)
Mayor Scott Gillingham's plan to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians came before EPC Tuesday morning. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)

Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham's plan to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians cleared another hurdle on Tuesday, despite concerns raised on behalf of businesses who rent space below the intersection from the city.

City council's executive policy committee voted 5-1 to approve a Gillingham motion to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians by July 1, 2025.

Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) voted in opposition.

Gillingham moved the motion in the wake of a property department report that estimated the repairs required at Portage and Main to protect the circular walkway below the intersection would require four to five years of traffic disruptions, delay the start of a new Winnipeg Transit system and cost $73 million.

Gillingham's plan would close the city-owned Portage & Main Circus, the circular walkway below the intersection, which requires additional funds for repairs of its own.

After the mayor unveiled his plans earlier in March, Portage and Main property owners Richardson and Sons, which owns the Richardson Building, and Harvard Developments, which owns 201 Portage Ave., both expressed support for reopening the intersection above ground to pedestrians but reserved comment on closing the pedestrian crossing below it.

Kate Fenske, the executive director of the downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, told executive policy committee that while many downtown business owners support reopening the intersection above ground, at least five out of the six businesses that rent space in the city-owned underground walkway are concerned.

"The majority have been running their shops in what the city calls the circus for years, some of them for decades," Fenske said as she appeared in delegation at city hall on Tuesday morning.

"Decommissioning the underground would have a huge impact on their livelihoods and could also impact the success of other businesses connected to the city owned portion of the underground.

"I've also heard from employers and employees who rely on the connected underground and skywalk to get between meetings and events during the winter and as a result, make up the valuable customer base supporting the small businesses in the network that was created by the city."

Fenske said she understands she is asking to have a cake and eat it as well.

"But it's worth an ask," she said. "Opening the intersection at Portage and Main to pedestrians is absolutely a priority, but Winnipeg's Underground is so much more than just an intersection."

The reopening of Portage and Main would close the walkway below it.
The reopening of Portage and Main would close the walkway below it.

The reopening of Portage and Main would close the walkway below it. (Tyson Koschik/CBC News)

Gillingham said there is no timeline for closing the Portage and Main circus and said he's open to hearing further from them as well as Portage and Main property owners.

"Part of our commitment is to be in discussion with the property owners and businesses to try to find a way to assist them," the mayor said during a break in Tuesday's EPC meeting.

"Again, the decommissioning wouldn't happen immediately. It would take time for that to play out, so it's time for dialogue with businesses."

The mayor's office said the six property owners in the city-owned concourse — five retail stores and one office — generate a combined $111,000 in annual rental revenue for the city. The total cost of operating the circus is just over $1 million, for an annual operating loss of $965,000, Gillingham spokesperson Colin Fast said.

Progress on Bay revitalization

EPC also received an update on Tuesday from the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which is in the process of transforming the former Bay building in downtown Winnipeg into a mixed-use project called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn.

SCO chief operating officer Jennifer Rattray said the removal of hazardous waste is proceeding within the building and the public should be able to see signs of progress this spring.

"We have less asbestos than one could anticipate with the building of that size, but still it's in some pretty tricky places," Rattray said during a delegation to EPC Tuesday morning.

"So that work is a little bit time consuming, but we do believe that there will be a visible representation of the next phase of work in May, June and our hope is to have a celebration around the 100th anniversary of the building."

Rattray is a CBC board member, currently on leave.

EPC voted to waive an estimated $257,000 worth of disposal fees on hazardous materials removed during the Bay's redevelopment.

An architect's conception of the atrium at Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn.
An architect's conception of the atrium at Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn.

An architect's conception of the atrium at Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn. (Southern Chiefs' Organization)