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Winnipeg council approves plan to open Portage and Main to pedestrians

An overhead view of the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg on Friday, March 1, 2024. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)
An overhead view of the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg on Friday, March 1, 2024. (Jaison Empson/CBC - image credit)

Winnipeg city council has approved a plan to reopen Portage Avenue and Main Street to pedestrians, marking a turning point in the long-running debate over what to do with the city's most famous intersection.

In a vote of 11 in favour and three against, the decision sets in motion a process that aims to open the intersection to foot traffic at street level for the first time in more than four decades, with a target date of July 1, 2025.

The vote came weeks after a report said it would cost $73 million to replace the waterproof membrane protecting the underground concourse, and cause up to five years of traffic delays.

That report led Mayor Scott Gillingham to say he favours removing the barricades blocking pedestrian access, and decommission the city-owned portion of the underground circus.

Speaking to reporters before the vote, Gillingham said he favours closing the concourse — which city staff roughly estimates will cost $20 million to $50 million — although further study is needed.

"There's more conversation about what the intersection will look like that needs to happen," he said.

"That's always been part of the motion and part of the plan."

Tyson Koschik/CBC News
Tyson Koschik/CBC News

At city hall, few speakers opposed letting pedestrians cross the intersection. Some, like Judy Waytiuk, questioned the speed at which the city was making the decision to shutter the concourse.

"This motion says you'll get public input, after you agree to close the concourse. Isn't that kind of putting the cart before the horse?" she said, speaking as a delegation at the council meeting.

Waytiuk's husband, Bruce Head, designed the massive circular concrete wall sculpture in the concourse. She says closing the concourse would condemn her husband's signature work to being buried.

WATCH | Artist's widow worries about fate of concourse:

Aaron Dolyniuk, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, worried about the impact the redesign of the intersection could have on truck traffic through the intersection.

"The renderings that we've seen show a transit station on Portage Avenue East," he told reporters .

"And in the rendering, there's no cars, there's no trucks. There's nothing else but transit on Portage Avenue East."

Gillingham said the trucking association would also be a stakeholder consulted on the future design of the intersection.

Others, such as the Building Owners and Managers Association of Manitoba, have warned the loss of the connection to the circus could hurt the businesses in the surrounding towers.

Patrick Stewart, a consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said opening the intersection at street level is important for people living with disabilities. Closing the concourse, however, would take away a choice for those people about how they want to get around.

Coun. Ross Eadie shared those concerns.

"I'm not opposed to opening up Portage and Main but I'm definitely not for closing the concourse. It's existing infrastructure," he told reporters.

The vote comes six years after a plebiscite, in which two-thirds of voters favoured keeping the intersection closed to pedestrians.

The chief proponent of that plebiscite, Coun. Jeff Browaty, said he would vote for the mayor's motion if it was changed to explicitly call for a traffic study.

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt said the city should respect the result of that plebiscite, and have known repairing the concourse would carry a heavy cost.

"We knew we were going to have to maintain that concourse. We knew there were going to be costs involved with maintaining the pipes under the road. None of that should be a surprise."

Gillingham and councillors Devi Sharma, Matt Allard, Browaty, Shawn Dobson, Evan Duncan, Cindy Gilroy, Janice Lukes, Brian Mayes, Sherri Rollins, and Vivian Santos all voted in favour of the motion.

Wyatt, Eadie, and Jason Schreyer voted in opposition.

Markus Chambers and John Orlikow were absent.