Thursday, May 20, 2010

Portage Place: Coming Alive! (But Not Really)

I've been working away on a couple of things since Monday. This is one of them, but not the one I'd expected to finish first. Such is life!

Monday, as you'll recall, was the day that the Downtown BIZ decided to start posturing; the organization had been cleaning the place up since at least the previous Friday, if that caption on the second picture of the Free Press article is accurate, so they felt really confident in challenging downtown visitors to try and find any vandalism. Executive Director Stefano Grande -- who I really never intend to single out, but who keeps blurting out things he shouldn't -- would later add the claim that "You can walk around downtown for an hour and not see graffiti", to give you some idea of how committed they were to this.

So I popped out after working downtown that day to see if I might happen to come across any graffiti, and... well, I've been weeding photographs ever since, but despite my efforts there's still probably going to be at least a hundred pictures in the eventual album. The blog post about my exploration that evening is obviously still forthcoming, but the estimate I just gave you kind of foreshadows how that walk went.

That's what we've got coming up in the near future, if it sounds like something you might be interested in. But, hey, in the meantime -- let me tell you what I've got for you right now!

You see, going out and about downtown that day also gave me the opportunity to grab the last bits of footage I needed for an entirely different activity, one that I've had in mind since I found this online a while back.

ha ha ha oh wow

A little bit exaggeratory? Well, maybe a little. A little bit over-the-top? Yes, perhaps. (It was the '80s, after all.) But you have to realize, this was legitimately what people expected of Portage Place when it was built; the downtown shopping centre was a major source of excitement for the city, even hailed as the potential "salvation of downtown Winnipeg" when it opened in September of 1987.

(Holy crow, that video is a wayback machine just by itself. The 24Hours News Team! Mayor Bill Norrie! MP Lloyd Axworthy! Urban Affairs Minister Gary Doer! Man, what a trip.)

An estimated 250,000 (!) visitors flocked to the new downtown landmark that day, and the excitement generated by this major revitalization project ushered in a new era of prosperity and prominence for the city's downtown core. I mean, there's no possible way you just lose that kind of momentum without--


Okay, never mind, I guess. Everything fell apart for Portage Place within the first nine months (!!), with blame laid in a few different areas -- including low customer traffic along the skywalks, the absence of nearby businesses open during the evenings, and a clientele base who would just hang around for hours without ever actually spending money.

You know what they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I know I may, occasionally, give the impression that I'm underwhelmed with business advocacy groups like the Downtown BIZ, but really I do try not to be too hard on them. I mean, Jesus, look what they inherited. This is what they get to work with.

Anyway, I just told you all of that to tell you this: straits have been dire for Portage Place since as far back as June of 1988, which means that I'm twenty-two years late to this joke. But sometimes a juxtaposition is just so poignant that you can't help but explore it, and my rigorous commitment to accuracy -- plus the surprise discovery that nobody else has done this yet (I mean, really?) -- finally baited me into updating the information on record.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you: the Winnipeg Portage Place commercial, 2010 Edition.

Kevin McDougald of The View From Seven recently suggested that the reduction or destruction of Portage Place would be a significant contribution towards improving the downtown, but admitted that the idea is considered "think(ing) the unthinkable". All's I'm saying is: maybe we could think about it a little. See what you make of it.


L.L. said...

Portage Place is a cesspool! I've had to go there after six p.m. a few times to pick up parcels and it's full of gross, sketchy people doing gross, sketchy things. And it's not much better during the work day.

Like you said - the idea of downtown revitalization has been going on since 1987 and it's completely failed. Maybe it's time to accept that people don't want to shop downtown, hell, even be downtown and look at the reasons why that is. There is too much public intoxication and too many gangs and no one really wants to address that problem.

Until Downtown Biz gets a clue this will just continue.

Anonymous said...

As long as people like you keep thinking those things the downtown will be just great! Please continue with your ignorance so the rest of us can enjoy it without having to pave it over and build a Ikea to attract you there.

Anonymous said...

jesus christ why are people so fucking scared of portage place? sketchy people doing sketchy things? if by that you mean people with brown skin or poor people then by all means continue thinking its a cesspool and stay the fuck away. i'm talking to you LL. i like portage place, but after 6pm, it isn't full of anything.

re: graffiti, i'm curious - all the graffiti you found, was it along portage avenue/high traffic areas, or did you go down back alleys and behind buildings to find it?

Anonymous said...

OH those commercials are hilarious. I actually remember the opening, I was so excited but I only wanted to come and see the clock.

James Hope Howard said...

"all the graffiti you found, was it along portage avenue/high traffic areas, or did you go down back alleys and behind buildings to find it?"

Yes, and yes.

Not to give away the whole article ahead of time, but there was really no shortage of examples in either climate. This includes a few places and a few materials that you wouldn't normally expect, either; the people responsible for the graffiti tend to be jerks, but they're surprisingly creative jerks.

The View from Seven said...

Thanks, James, for the mention!

While there have been some cosmetic improvements downtown that have taken place due to marketing efforts by Downtown BIZ, CentreVenture and others, there are still unresolved structural issues that continue to hinder downtown revitalization.

Portage Place is one of them -- an attempt at urban renewal that's now widely accepted as a mistake. Of its original anchor stores -- Eaton's and The Bay -- the former is gone and has never really been replaced, and the other has been seriously weakened. Portage Place is too close to Polo Park (which has more buzz and better selection), too pricey for the kinds of independent businesses that make Corydon and Osborne villages interesting alternatives to the suburban malls, and it clings to businesses that if they were lined up and down Portage Avenue and the side streets just off it would make downtown a vastly more interesting place to walk around.

Regrettably, as long as Portage Place remains even marginally viable, the easier political option will be to try to work around it than to start over. The same goes for Cityplace, which has been slowly dying for two-thirds of its 31-year existence. Few call for it to be put out of its misery, even though it would be better for downtown if its remaining businesses were to be re-established as street level businesses elsewhere downtown instead of remaining inside a shabby mall so grim that could be easily marketed as the World's Biggest Coffin.

Winnipeg Square was also a boo-boo that discouraged pedestrian traffic and street-level retail in its part of downtown, but is still doing a brisk enough trade to avoid being tarred with the same brush as Portage Place and Cityplace.

Finally, there was the skywalk mistake. Like anyone else, I can't object to having a warm place to walk when it's -25 Celsuis outside. But, as the American Planning Association noted in 2006, skywalks are not compatible with a lively downtown:

"A number of cities have developed second-level walkways, often claiming that climate generates the need for this solution. Unfortunately, virtually no North American downtown has enough intensity to support retail on both the street level and the skywalk level... In some selective instances, pedestrian overpasses are workable, such as between a department store and a parking structure, or between two parts of a civic building. Such elements do not generally contribute positively to economic health and vitality of a downtown, however, and should be discouraged." (American Planning Association, "Planning and urban design standards". Available on Google Books.)

Again, the cosmetic improvements that would not have happened without marketing effort are appreciated; but our downtown still has underlying structural flaws that need to be addressed at a higher level, yet won't be addressed as long as easier options remain available.

(Sorry about the long blab; it's a subject I'm passionate about.)

Graham said...

"jesus christ why are people so fucking scared of portage place? sketchy people doing sketchy things? if by that you mean people with brown skin or poor people then by all means continue thinking its a cesspool and stay the fuck away. i'm talking to you LL. i like portage place, but after 6pm, it isn't full of anything."


You say tomatoe, I say tomata. You say cesspool, I say "the one place that isn't dominated by wealthy white people from suburbs."

Portage Place foodcourt has got to be the most interesting place in Winnipeg. It's full of all kinds of people. You can see immigrants, people who clearly are immigrants by the way, first generation immigrants. Add the downtown aboriginal population into that and, presto, cesspool?

Winnipeg might just be the most racist city in Canada. Jesus Christ indeed. Wake up to reality, the majority of the world are not white people living in middle class suburbs 20 minutes away from a city centre.

This is why making downtown for everybody or "revitalizing" downtown is a lost cause the moment you start asking yourself how to answer that question. The question isn't "how to revitalize downtown," rather the question SHOULD be "how do we make downtown a place that is attractive to people who want to live in an urban environment. and fuck everyone in the suburbs, they can go to their malls and their shopping centres."

Anonymous said...

Great post as always. Got a real kick out of the 2010 video you put together. Even noticed you sneaked in a half second photo of the BIZ Patrols attending to a passed-out vagrant.

After the Red River Ex, Portage Place has some of the nastiest crowds that Winnipeg has to offer. Wonder why the suburbanites would stay away?!

ThinkinDowntown said...

Portage Place is an adequate mall that happens to have a higher percentage of working-class or Aboriginal shoppers than at other malls. It's not some super-scary wasteland. You are reminded that there are poor people in the world and that if you do not have to endure the daily struggle that is their lives, then you are very, very lucky indeed. The managers keep it clean and orderly. It's a convenient, if unremarkable, place to shop.

One of downtown's selling points as a neighbourhood is that, for many people, it still offers enough shopping and entertainment options to make owning a car unnecessary (and Zellers is on its way!). Winters being what they are, a mall isn't such a bad thing to have, though maybe Portage Place could be reconfigured a bit to meet current retail demands. Something should be done about City Place, though. It's a mix of success around the edges and emptiness in the middle; it needs a re-think.

Here's something I can't quite understand: Why is there so little in the downtown core that appeals to people with a bohemian vibe? A couple of funky, non-chain restaurants with good music and reasonable prices could add some life. Places with some personality. There needs to be more of a draw for people who appreciate style, folks who can value what city life has to offer without the whole 'ZOMG, poor people!' crap. You have to go to the Village, the Exchange or West Broadway for that. Maybe retail rents downtown are being propped up to the point that boho entrepreneurs can't afford them.

C. Beresford Tipton said...

It seems that 20-30 years ago was a dark time for architecture and urban planning, a time when people underwent a sort of Cultural Revolution and attacked their own history and anything beautiful.
The result, much like the actual Cultural Revolution, was an appalling loss of potential.

I live in Brandon. We still labour under a municipal government that thinks the way yours did 20 years ago -- ignore the downtown and maybe it'll just go away. And bulldoze something once in a while to make it look like you're doing something.

I think it's a reach to accuse LL of racism. Our respective downtowns are full of sketchy people -- yeah, I said it -- because our government have made downtowns an attractive place for them. Maybe when they start to make downtown an attractive place for artists, young professionals, students, etc. then you'll see a real change.

I read this blog entry and what I see is the inevitable result of decades of people wishing the downtown would just go away.

Muncipal elections are this October. Let's remember these things then, m'kay?

cherenkov said...

A while back I was talking to the proprietor of a little store called Glassini that operated out of the east skywalk. She said that the PP management was forcing them to move to the west skywalk because they had plans for her spot on the east skywalk. The west skywalk has less traffic, but the rent would be the same.

One year later: Glassini is gone, and their old spot in the east skywalk is empty.

vidstudent said...

See, this is where I talk about the Winnepeg of Ohio, Toledo. See, when I was a kid - just old enough to use a phone to call in for free tickets to Fox and the Hound - there was this big downtown project called Seagate. Its headline piece was a mall called Portside, and that link will tell you quite a bit about how that went. Of course, it stops after saying that they then tried putting a Center of Science and Industry there; just before I left to return to OSU, it ran out of money and *that* closed.

So, here's your lesson for the day: If they don't want to be in your city, making a piece of your downtown prettier isn't going to work. You have a better chance of hoping for climate change to make the place palatable. (Note: will not happen in either Winnepeg or Toledo.)

urbandude said...

I have read most of the BIZes blog on the downtown.

I would suggest they get it. Better then most.

And I don’t see anyone else challenging government policies and advocating for things.

Except they are more professionally polite, as opposed to bloggers that seem to have venom for anyone associated with government and business, and find the negative everywhere.

I am dying to see all the graffiti photo’s. I work on Portage and cannot find a single one.

Why attack groups that are cleaning the downtown and advocating for improvements, the same one’s your talking about?

Sorry I don’t get it…