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Tuesday 18 September 2012

Portage Place at 25


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

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.

Portage Place

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

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.

Portage Place Clock

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.

Around Downtown

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


Anonymous said...

Good article. I too have tried to come to terms with this "Berlin Mall" on Portage.

I think Mr Slurpees & Murder did the best commentary on this mall's success when he re-edited an original Portage Place ad to reflect current realities there. Quite funny and worth a google for those Winnipeggers who have not seen the clip.

I only use Portage Place to stay warm en route to my local gymnasium tucked in at the back.

A stroll through the food court inspires many thoughts of thanksgiving. There are many people in apparent storage in that food court that look lost, aimless, and with no purpose. Quite depressing.

Anonymous said...

Portage Place food court makes me feel good about myself. It's like a motivational speech in physical form. If I'm ever feeling down in the dumps about myself; I take a stroll through Portage Place & say to myself "At least I'm not those assholes! I'm making all the right moves in life. I'm very handsome. I have the majority of teeth still." And so on & so forth.

John Dobbin said...

Christian: I also remember Portage Place when it went up and thought at the time, how it was going to nearby Forks development which had talked about a market to take place two years later.

Well, in that battle, The Forks won.

Too many malls in such a short time during a recession.

Polo Park 1959, enclosed 1963, second floor added in 1986
Grant Park Shopping Centre 1962
Garden City Shopping Centre 1970
Unicity 1975
Winnipeg Square 1979
Eaton Place (Cityplace) 1979
St. Vital Shopping Centre 1979
Kildonan Place 1980
Portage Place 1987
Forks Market, Johnston Terminal 1989 - 1993

It is a wonder more of them didn't fail.

Anonymous said...

I've watched the youtube videos on the opening of PP, and I believe one of them says the mall is actually on leased land for 75 years, (something like that) and it can be bought for $1 by the province or city after the term.

Wonder what will happen if this is true? 50 years to go...

Christian Cassidy said...

Yes, I believe it is 75 years. The countdown has begun !

Noni Mausa said...

I would like to find photos of the strip of North Portage before the PP mall was built. I lived here beginning 1974, but do you think I can remember the look of that strip? Where is a good place to look? I've had very little luck so far.

Christian Cassidy said...

The best place for photos is Russ Gourluk's book "Portage Avenue"

For online sources, there are photos out there but are not in one place. The Trib Photo archives has some glimpses of the street http://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/tribune/photographs/photo_search.php if you search things like "Portage Avenue" and "Winnipeg Streets."

The Thompson and Pope Building can be found in The year past http://www.winnipeg.ca/PPD/historic/yearpast/1982YearPast.pdf (p 41)

The Winnipeg Building index, has little on "old" Portage but you can sometimes get a glimpse by searching side streets. http://wbi.lib.umanitoba.ca/WinnipegBuildings/

I did a bit of a write up on the Scientific Building here http://westenddumplings.blogspot.ca/2009/06/history-dumplings-portage-avenue.html

Noni Mausa said...

Thank you!

Gerald H. said...

I worked security there when it first opened. Instead of the 'undesirables' being an issue, it was the geriatrics staring at the clock and taking a header down the stairs into the sunken area.

Two months later they were ripping up the floor tiles and installing poles and alternate ccolored tiles at the edge. Didn't help...