The Portage & Main Debate

Debate surrounding the referendum to reopen the Portage & Main intersection to pedestrians has been dominating my social media so much so that I feel compelled to comment.

My feeds are filled entirely with #VoteOpenWPG proponent and in my humble opinion they could be doing a much better job. I’m not even strongly opposed to opening the intersection. Yet I’m not finding the arguments very compelling at all.

Here’s Why

I’ve organized the main points I’ve seen online into a few categories and put on my contrarian hat to illustrate how they could be seen as flimsy and irrelevant.

History

“The intersection was open to pedestrians for much longer than it has been closed.”

This argument has little weight because change is the inherent nature of history. A lot has changed since the intersection was founded in the 19th century. Modes of transportation are vastly different, horses and buggies are nowhere to be seen, streetcars have come and gone; skyscraper exist, etc. The fact that the intersection was once packed with pedestrians 50 years ago has little baring on what might or might not happen if the intersection was open again in 2019.

Accessibility

“People with mobility issues cannot cross the street because they can’t access the underground.”

This is true, but the argument is not compelling. Winnipeg’s downtown is relatively small. Taking a route that does not cross Portage & Main does not add significant distance to the trip. (Unless you need to get directly between the 3 buildings directly at the corner of Portage Ave E.)

The Underground Sucks

“The underground feels unsafe, poorly lit, the entrances smell like urine, etc.”

Again, this may be true, but if true it’s just not a compelling argument for opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic. It is an argument for spending resources on improving the underground.

“Good for business”

Making the argument that opening the intersection will be good for business automatically lumps this issue in with many other downtown revitalization projects that have been presented as magic bullets to “fix” downtown. With arguable success.

It’s also one of the only points that seems objectively false. For one, the intersection is dominated by office towers, there are literally no street-level businesses within the scope of that block. For another, if pedestrians stay above ground, the underground concourse would certainly suffer. If more pedestrians travel above ground, fewer will travel underground.

Future of the city

“It’s about what kind of city we want to be in the future.”

Do we we want a city that’s progressive and pedestrian friendly? Or do we want to live General Motors Utopia of the 1950s? As someone who grew up in the suburbs, current lives and works in the far flung reaches of St James, I get the sense that a vast majority of Winnipeggers are perfectly happy living in an autopia. If this is the argument the “yes” side is depending on, I am afraid they will be disappointed.


I think that sums up just about everything I’ve see in favour of re-opening the intersection. And to be fair (as Alyson Shane points out in her post for a few weeks ago) the arguments against opening the intersection are quite weak as well.

However, we are not being asked to vote in favour of not doing something. We are voting on investing tax dollars in a project that many Winnipeggers see as frivolous or of dubious value at best.

Status Quo Is Free!

Unless it’s not.

According to a July 24th, article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Dan Lett

All told, the city is committed to spending about $3.5 million on street-level upgrades and planning the re-opening of the intersection. We do not know the final cost of tearing down the barriers. However, the existing barriers are falling apart and removing them could very likely be less expensive than rebuilding them.

If true, this is the only point that matters. People of all political persuasions are motivated by dollars and cents. If it’s going to cost more money to keep the barricades up, taking them down should be a nobrainer. Moreover, $3.5M is well under 1% of Winnipeg $1B+ operating budget.

Lett goes to point out:

There is also the fact that private land owners at Portage and Main need to do repairs to the underground infrastructure that supports Winnipeg Square, the underground shopping mall. That work will require the removal of some of the barriers. Rebuilding them seems a pointless endeavour.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that we’re debating this, let a lone having a referendum is the most Winnipeg thing ever.

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