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.

Cause and Effect and IKEA

With the fervor surrounding the grand opening of IKEA’s Winnipeg store (their first new market in Canada since 1982, btw), the media, Twitter, bloggers, internet-trolls, your mom are all giving IKEA way to much credit.  They are confusing cause and effect.

IKEA this year and The Jets return last year are not revitalizing our fair city. They are proof that we are once again a thriving “world class” city. A city Winnipeggers can be proud of, a city that is once again One Great City.

Obviously IKEA and The Jets are two huge milestones. But there is a lot of other developments underway. Almost 2 years ago I wrote a post on /r/Winnipeg about how great I thought 2013 would be. As examples of the city’s progress I listed:

  • IKEA
  • 5 Target stores
  • An NHL team (cross your fingers)
  • Canadian Human rights museum
  • At least, two more awesome buildings downtown (Avenue building and Royal Bank renovations)
  • New Airport
  • A bunch of completed infrastructure projects (Disraeli, Osborne St Bridge, West Perimeter upgrades)
  • Phase 1 of BRT
  • alcohol in grocery stores (hopefully)
  • New Bombers stadium at the U of M
  • Renovated Children’s Museum
  • New area code (431)

I’m sure there are tonnes and tonnes of smaller projects that could be added to the list.

The classic Winnipeg apathy and self-loathing that has been such a part of the Winnipeg zeitgeist for as long as I can remember is no longer relevant.  The proof is in the lingonberry pudding.

Winnipeg is a Freelance Town

After being laid-off from my job as an interaction designer at Think Shift earlier this year, I exchanged some emo IMs with a good friend and former-Winnipegger. I told him that I was looking at getting into freelance full-time, to which he replied “Winnipeg is a freelance town.”

He was right.

I’ve spent the majority of my 10+ year career working as a remote freelancer. I’ve spent less time at “real jobs” in “real offices” than I have spent working in my “home office.” I took the interaction design job at Think Shift partially to see what I had been missing and partially because I believed the myth of job security.

I’m sure some people would be unhappy working from home without co-workers or face-to-face interaction; and others would be inherently unhappy working for a boss in an office. I’m not one of those people. I don’t know whether I prefer one to the other. There are pros and cons to each. But most of these factors could be lumped into a “soft” category: offices have face-to-face interaction, group collaboration. Home offices have more time with families, optional clothing, shorter commutes, better coffee. With the exception of health benefits and different tax rules, none of major differences have much of an affect my bottom line. They don’t affect my ability to pay the bills, which after-all is the whole point of a job.

When it comes to salary, “real jobs” in Winnipeg cannot compete with freelance. Based on my limited experience most Winnipeg employers live in a stereotypical Winnipeg bubble. They seem to worry endlessly about dealing with stereotypically “cheap” Winnipeg clients. They’re more likely to try to compete on price than quality and seek out clients who are more interested in price than quality (or vice versa, maybe it’s chicken and egg). Even the larger web shops seem hesitant (with typical Winnipeg insecurity) to compete for work nationally, let alone internationally. For all these reasons, Winnipeg web shops are completely unable to compete for salaries nationally.

(And for the most part that’s seems to be OK with Winnipeggers.)

The hourly rates I’m able to charge are completely unreasonable for any full-time salaried position in town – I know because I’ve had job placement agents (that’s the PC name for “headhunters” right?) tell me as much. At the same time, my rates are entirely acceptable to clients in larger markets. Local businesses are also willing to pay my rates because they are still significantly lower than the hourly rates a full on web shops needs to charge to pay the bills.

Some of the most talented designers and developers I know run successful freelance businesses or work remotely for companies like Automattic,  Shopify (I believe Shopify has a local office now) and Black Pixel.