Portage Place Calling for Creative Fix

Commentary, Municipal Government, Steve Lafleur

Portage Place was dealt a major blow when Landmark Cinemas announced the closure of the Globe Cinema. Having previously lost McNally Robinson as well as the Imax theatre and a few higher-end retailers, this will further the perception the mall is in a death spiral.

This scenario is hardly unique. Downtown malls in many mid-sized North American cities are struggling, and downtown movie theatres have become scarce outside of big cities such as Toronto and New York.

While some look upon the decline of Portage Place with glee, demographic forces will present new opportunities for the mall to thrive over time. The challenge is finding creative ways to attract people in the interim.

Portage Place has always been controversial. Suburban malls such as Polo Park had won over so much retail activity from downtown by the 1980s politicians thought the obvious answer for revitalizing Portage Avenue was to build a mall. This wasn’t a uniquely Winnipeg idea. Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto had all built downtown malls within the preceding decade. Many downtown residents opposed the development, arguing storefront retail was more appropriate. That may have been the case, but Portage Place is what we’ve got. Like it or not, it’s here to stay.

Portage Place has adapted over the years to changing realities. As the suburbs grew and the number of downtown residents with disposable income dwindled, they began to welcome lower-cost retailers and convert some retail space into office space. These strategies seem sensible. Those office workers can also be patrons of other establishments in the mall, and low-end retailers are well-placed to serve low-income local residents. But public perception of the mall as a seedy place remains a challenge.

While things look bleak for Portage Place at the moment, the good news is it has hit bottom — or very nearly so. The city is not going to demolish a functioning mall, and at the very least it provides space that is attractive to low-end retailers. Moreover, its connection to the Skywalk system makes it a convenient destination for office dwellers during the day. The biggest challenge — a lack of local residents with disposable income — is soon to be a thing of the past.

Winnipeg hasn’t been as successful as many other cities in attracting young professional residents downtown. That is largely due to a perception downtown is boring or unsafe. However, gentrification is creeping into the core. That will mean more retail customers beyond office hours. Those residents will be much more likely to patronize Portage Place than suburban office workers, for whom it is often easier to stop into suburban strip malls or big-box stores on the way home.

News last year that downtown Winnipeg’s population had only grown by 700 since 2006 seemed to reconfirm ongoing skepticism about downtown redevelopment. However, three developments slated to open in 2016 — the Glass House across from the MTS Centre as well as condo buildings under construction on each side of the Midtown Bridge on Assiniboine Avenue — will add 515 residential units downtown, which alone will likely eclipse the population growth since 2006. There are many smaller projects underway, and unit sales have begun for the proposed 55-storey Sky City development slated for construction north of Graham Avenue between Smith and Garry streets. More population is coming to the core, which will mean more retail demand. That bodes well for Portage Place.

In the meantime, Portage Place should explore ways of filling empty spaces that increase foot traffic, which would improve the perception of safety and bolster existing retailers. The pop-up shop run by the Downtown BIZ is one example. It has been used as an incubator for small businesses that can’t yet afford their own office space. Graffiti Art Programming’s youth programming in the Skywalk system is another good example. Nearby employers might also consider renting space for daycare facilities along the model of Kids & Company. Perhaps the best idea floating around is using the former Imax theatre as a University of Winnipeg lecture hall.

The proceeds of urban revitalization will become more visible over the next few years. Maybe one day a new theatre and bookstore will open in Portage Place. Filling underutilized space in the interim presents challenges, but also opportunities. It’s time to stop dwelling on decisions made long ago and to embrace what we’ve got. Portage Place is here to stay, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2014