Friday, November 21, 2008

Portage Avenue Part 2

First picture of the former Mitchell Copps jewelery building from the Free Press, Second picture from Winnipeg Love and Hate.

The north side of Portage Avenue has been suffering for many years while the south side always benefited from having The Bay and other strong retailers as anchors. Even after Eaton's closed in 1999, the street still had considerable vitality.

North Portage has never had the same attractions as what lay across the street from it. Subsequently, as suburbia grew, the north side started to see some deterioration through the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

As mentioned in my post on Portage Place, many people believed something needed to be done about the proliferation of for lease signs and general seediness the street was acquiring.

In the very early 1980s, the north side appeared blighted with an adult movie theatre and a few video arcades indicating how far things had slipped. Aside from a few gems such as Kennedy Street where some shops and restaurants such as Stage West dinner theatre continued to succeed, the area was crying for something bold.

In 1981, Lloyd Axworthy introduced the Core Area Initiative as an encompassing program to help revitalize the downtown. The debate about what the centerpiece of the program should be was intense. Axworthy thought an arena was the best idea. The Winnipeg Jets even then were angling for a new facility and many people forget that Axworthy was one of the early advocates.

As most know, the arena option found no support and in 1996, the Winnipeg Jets headed for Phoenix. Had they moved downtown in 1987 into a new facility, one wonders if they would still be in the city.

The idea that found widespread support was a downtown mall. And thus Portage Place was born in 1987.

However, this post isn't about Portage Place. It is about the rest of Portage Avenue and what resulted after the mall was built.

I think it is safe to say that Portage Place has been a mixed success. True, it brought some new commercial and residential development to the north side but the area immediately in front of the mall was not people friendly. Essentially, the mall turned its back on the street and access was controlled moreso through portals like a traditional mall. There were few retailers that had doors out to the street. Also, the overpasses that loomed across the street made many people bypass the street below altogether.

The interconnected second story links from building to building had an effect on the street level retailers below. Some opted to go the mall rather than stand alone by themselves.

Eaton's closed in 1999, the result of mismanagement over many years. The collapse of the store was not isolated to Winnipeg and closures were national. The Winnipeg store closure was notable for the sheer size of the store that closed. For the first time, it took the focus off north side rehabilitation. The idea of this large, hulking empty store was too much for government of business to contemplate.

Voila, the arena idea re-emerged and as you know, the MTS Centre was built in 2004. All things considered, the project from done with remarkable speed and haste. We will touch again on what has been achieved with the MTS Centre.

The areas farther east of the Portage Place Mall continued to deteriorate and many went idle in the 1990s and 2000s. We will touch on this later on as well.

Let's focus on what has happened west of Portage Place:

The area west of the mall faced fewer problems because it had a major office building and a hotel rather than numerous street level retailers. The Investors Group building, the Holiday Inn Express (formally the Relax Inn) and the bus station/Rice Building all stood between the mall and the University of Winnipeg. The Investors Tower and Holiday Inn were built at the same time as Portage Place. The Investors building took over some retail and the old Colony movie theatre. The Holiday Inn took over the scary Mall Hotel.

Of all the things that many appreciated, it was the removal of the Mall Hotel and its fortress-like architecture and violent reputation. The area considerably improved once it was gone.

in 2008, the University of Winnipeg has begun muscling its way into the block now that the bus station has indicated it is moving to the airport.

The plan is for the university to renovate 37,000 square feet for admissions and counselling. The Salisbury House might be turned into the campus' first student pub and the newsstand and east and west surface parking will all be leased out.

It will be interesting to see how the loading area of the bus station will be developed. It is an ugly, dark place at the moment.

The issue of the United Army Surplus building seems to have been resolved. It is too foregone to redevelop and will come down in 2009. I suspect that some developers will approach the university about how to make use of the site for the university and for others.

I don't think I am the only who believes that the site would be ideal for a much expanded university book store. Now that McNally has left the downtown, the area is devoid of a major new bookseller. The downtown could stand to benefit from a bookstore of the quality the University of Manitoba has at its Fort Garry campus.

(to be continued)

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Xtoval said...

Good little history. But the north side of Portage Avenue before Lloyd Axworthy wanted to make his name as the savior of Winnipeg was alive and grittily urban. Kennedy Street had massage parlors, Autumn Stone records, Benjamin's night club. Porn cinema across from Eaton's only matched what Eaton's in Montreal and Toronto faced on Ste Catherine's Street and Yonge Street, respectively. As a teenager the north side was the place to go, arcades, record stores, Dominion News. Sure the area could have been improved but on the back of the existing foundation of small, local businesses. Not a Cadillac Fairview mall. The best proposal for the arena was made in the early 1990s, the parking lots in front of the Convention Centre. Oh well. Winnipeg doesn't make more mistakes than other cities, it just has to live with them longer.

John Dobbin said...

Don't forget the tremendous pressure there was on Axworthy to do something about the area. It was the local businesses that wanted him to something about north Portage. In 1980, Winnipeg was hit with some wounding losses with the closure of the Tribune, Swift's and Canada Packers. There were large gaps on north Portage with the only vitality really being seen on Kennedy with Benjamin's, StageWest Dinner Theatre and a few dress shops.

It was local businesses that wanted that mall.

My personal view is that Axworthy should had opened it up to a public consultation like he did with The Forks. The differences in how that developed are stark when contrasted to Portage Place.