September 18 1987, Winnipeg Free Press
So, Portage Place is 25 years old. Nothing makes you feel older than when a building you watched go up hits a milestone like this.
As teenager my Saturday routine was to get my allowance and head downtown on the bus to see a movie and buy hockey cards or 45s. I got to watch the space transform from vacant land to a massive hole to a massive mall. Portage Place opened in my first year of university at the U of W.
Downtown malls had been the latest and greatest thing in the U.S. for almost a decade and we were desperate to jump on board.the trend. Designed by an American firm, Portage Place boasted 153 stores, a massive food court, state of the art cinemas and an IMAX. It was not your average suburban mall dropped into the middle of downtown, it offered more than even nearby Polo Park did.
Portage Place was to be more than merely a shopping and entertainment destination, it was going to reinvent and reinvigorate the downtown. Sure, previous mega-projects like the Civic Centre, Manitoba Centennial development and Trizec Building / Concourse development failed in their respective sections of the downtown, but this would be different because of all that the project had going for it.
Portage Place was already in a high traffic area, made higher by the fact that a downtown-wide enclosed skywalk system would be funnelled through it. It came with two already-built, massive anchors in Eaton's and The Bay. The multi-level underground parkade meant that walking a half block in minus 40 temperatures to get to a mall entrance was a thing of the past.
Rather than being a one-trick pony, this project came with hundreds of new housing units attached to it and at nearby Central Park. New office developments like the Air Canada building and coming Investors Building would bolster daytime traffic and when things reached a fever pitch there were towers ready to be built atop each end of the mall.
I remember being less than impressed. The size of the mall was off, like someone plunked the wrong scale of building, an airport warehouse at that, into a model railway town. Then there were those awful skywalks, bigger than some of the individual stores that the mall replaced, that blotted out the skyline.
The "boutique entrances" that opened onto Portage Avenue and promised sidewalk shopping and patios were soon shuttered. Combined with the skywalks, this drained the street of pedestrian life and starved the south side of Portage Avenue and its side streets of shoppers.
Portage Place was, and many would argue still is, the wrong "fit" for downtown and I don't mean just physically.
It was the product of the mindset that if downtowns were losing ground to the suburbs, you simply had to replicate part of the suburbs downtown. Forgotten in this equation was the fact that the population that the mall would need to rely on for the bulk of its custom were area residents who tended to be lower income, single or single parents, university students and seniors citizens - all of which would not be that interested in Holt Renfrew or Le Chateau as destinations.
Many of these initial problems with Portage Place (and perhaps with the coming SHED development) have continued to hobble it. It has never been comfortable serving the community around it, opting instead to hold out for ever more suburban office workers and tony condo dwellers to materialize and be its saviour. That wait continues.
I have to admit that the mall has grown on me in recent years.
As someone who has lived in or around the downtown for 20 years I have walked its halls and shopped its stores thousands of times. It is a significant part of the downtown, regardless of how flawed the thinking behind it was 25-plus years ago. Should anything happen to it, the vast majority of tenants would not relocate or build new premises downtown, they would simply leave and downtown would be poorer for it.
Despite turning 25, Portage Place is still in its awkward teenager phase trying to fit in while many of its closest friends have grown old. Some, such as Eatons, McNally Robinson, The Met and Zellers have died and The Bay is on life support.
The mall has made some adjustments for this in recent years. More local retailers fill its halls than before and services like Shoppers and Staples better serve the community around it than upscale clothing retailers and shoe stores did. It even had (has ?) a kids art drop-in centre on the second floor.
Still, one can't help but feel that Portage Place is stubbornly biding its time, holding out for suburbanites to storm its doors and save it. It's time that it finally grew up.
Portage Place U of M Building Index
Portage Place’s 25th anniversary uncelebrated, but still significant for Winnipeg The View from Seven