Portage Place’s 25th anniversary uncelebrated, but still significant for Winnipeg

Rest assured, there will be no piano music and no waiters in white shirts and black bow-ties serving drinks to dignitaries in the Portage Place food court this evening to celebrate the mall’s 25th anniversary today, as there were at the exclusive pre-opening-day party held there on the evening of Sept. 16, 1987.

There will be no 25th anniversary promotions on fine china at Lawley’s of London, jewelry at Breslauer and Warren, books at McNally Robinson or imported fashions at Escada, all of which are long-gone and would be unimaginable at Portage Place today.

For Portage Place, Sept. 17, 2012 will be just another business day, nothing too special about it, aside from a low-key mid-afternoon cake serving.

That stands in sharp contrast to the scene precisely a quarter-century ago when mayor Bill Norrie, premier Howard Pawley, and Pawley’s young Urban Affairs minister Gary Doer — a man destined for greater things as premier and, now, the Canadian ambassador in Washington — symbolically cut the ribbon that declared Portage Place open for business.

Then, there was real hope that the opening of the mall was a turning point for downtown Winnipeg, which had been in gradual decline since the opening of Polo Park Shopping Centre nearly thirty years earlier.

The answer, it seemed at the time, was to have a large downtown shopping mall that would compete directly with suburban malls, connected to offices, hotels and apartments by skywalks that would eliminate the need to go out into the cold winter air.

The small businesses that lined the rather seedy north side of Portage Ave. would have to go in a controversial expropriation that would compensate owners for what they left behind, but not for the costs of re-starting their businesses in a new location with a comparable amount of foot traffic.

But those in charge hoped it would all be worth it.

Portage Place

Portage Place early in the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012

It quickly became obvious that the promised revitalization wasn’t going to happen. Just four months after opening, Picasso’s Restaurant was forced to close after cash flow turned out to be far worse than expected.

By the summer of 1988, retailers were in open revolt against mall owner Cadillac Fairview over the requirement to stay open late on Monday and Tuesday nights, even though some retailers were making less than $100 in sales during the evening shift. Their assertiveness paid off in a relaxation of evening opening rules that took effect that August.

The south side of Portage Avenue went into decline as the mall and its skywalks re-routed foot traffic away from those businesses. This didn’t prevent one city councilor from perversely blaming the south side merchants for their own misery, claiming that they hadn’t invested enough in renovations or marketing. (How they were supposed to do so on a sharply reduced cash flow was a question on which the councilor could provide no insight.)

Mario Carvalho, a University of Manitoba city planning professor, was more likely accurate in diagnosing South Portage’s deterioration as the result of “a big monolith in the downtown that alienates everything else” in an August 1988 interview.

On the opposite side of the mall, the “European lifestyle including sidewalk cafes”, which the Winnipeg Real Estate News had confidently predicted in October 1987 would within a year flourish on The Promenade, never materialized.

As the mall’s first anniversary passed in September 1988, public confidence in the whole Portage Place revitalization scheme was beginning to suffer, not just because of businesses closing, but also because of a much more serious concern — violent crime.

In August 1988, a man tried to sexually assault a woman in full view of shoppers on a Wednesday afternoon before being tackled by security guards. Six months later, a 16-year-old was hospitalized after being stabbed in the chest and abdomen in an unprovoked attack on the third floor; the same perpetrator being suspected of a similar random attack at nearby Eaton Place.

The loss of customers was devastating. Launched in 1987 for $92 million, the mall was sold to Consolidated Properties in 1997 for just $43 million. When the mall was sold again to Peterson Investment Group in 2005, after a disappointing attempt to re-brand Portage Place as a factory outlet mall, its market value was estimated to be just $15 million.

Today, the mall continues to operate in a strange middle state where it neither thrives nor is so close to death as to warrant a serious look at post-demolition options.

The sidewalk-oriented businesses with apartments or offices above that might have succeeded in revitalizing North (and South) Portage where Portage Place failed will clearly have to wait.

If turning the mall into something else isn’t a serious option, then are there at least lessons that can be learned?


The first is that Winnipeggers need to be wary of those who slickly promise megaprojects as the cure to what ails Winnipeg.

We remained vulnerable to such sales pitches long after Portage Place opened, as the grand promises made in connection with the arena and the still-to-be-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights demonstrate. Yes, they have added (or will add) a bit of muscle strength to the city and the downtown core, but no one should expect miracles.

Encouragingly, though, Winnipeggers do appear to be becoming more skeptical of such projects. When pressure was applied to skeptical Winnipeggers to stop asking perfectly good questions about a proposed water park that would supposedly draw tourists from far and wide and make Winnipeg a “world-class destination”, many saw through the blatant manipulation and stiffened their resolve, giving city councilors cold feet about the project.*

That, in itself, might be a useful outcome from our disappointments over Portage Place and other revitalization megaprojects whose expected benefits were often wildly overestimated.

The other lesson is that an exciting and vibrant neighbourhood must include an equally exciting and vibrant sidewalk life.

Portage Place was, in theory, supportive of this principle by outfitting individual main-floor shops with doors directly out on to Portage Avenue. Many of these doors have doubtlessly not seen a customer walk through them in over 20 years.

In practice, public policy since the ’80s has more often than not treated sidewalks and pedestrians as an afterthought at best, and at worst as an impediment to speeding up the city’s already short commute times, which ironically undermines downtown living as an economical alternative to commuting.

Osborne Village and Corydon Avenue, by contrast, have followed very different paths. They intensified sidewalk life, avoided building monolithic buildings and continue to experience the sluggish traffic and parking shortages that are emblematic of great neighbourhoods the world over.

Both streets remain treasures to Winnipeggers.

Portage Avenue was once such a treasure, and might someday be once again on par with Osborne Village and Corydon Ave. if we learn the lessons from the high hopes of 25 years ago today that turned out not to be.

Portage Place opening day as covered by CBC Manitoba’s 24 Hours, Sept. 17, 1987.

See also West End Dumplings and Slurpees and Murders on Portage Place.

* – As a travel buff who is always on the lookout for good urban holiday options, I found the whole idea of a water park as the key ingredient of a “world-class destination” completely absurd. A world-class urban destination must have a vibrant, never-dull street life. This is something that Winnipeg lacks, and which a water park would do nothing to change.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

12 Responses to Portage Place’s 25th anniversary uncelebrated, but still significant for Winnipeg

  1. Yer Pal says:

    Most informative!

  2. W. Krawec says:

    I wonder where Portage Place will be in 15 years time? At the moment, it appears that there is just enough business to keep mall tenants interested, but PP is reaching the point in its life where major capital upgrades will soon be necessary. If it’s barely treading water as it is, it’s hard to imagine anyone will be dumping tens of millions of dollars into the place to fix it up. Perhaps at that time Winnipeg will be faced with the prospect of PP being converted into an office building (or even knocked down altogether), which would effectively be the end of downtown Winnipeg as a shopping destination.

  3. @YWGger says:

    Portage Place is gang territory. Blinded downtown boosters, of course, claim that it is merely a coincidence that so many young aboriginal males wearing black and white (and usually with NY Yankee hats) populate the mall in significant numbers. Vagrants loitering around the entrances and small armies of ‘downtown stroller moms’ changing diapers on foodcourt tables and screaming at FASD toddlers doesn’t help its image either.

    Poor city planning, for sure, but crime and vagrancy hasn’t helped, nor do these problems seem to be getting better.

  4. John Dobbin says:

    Shopping hours across the city were till 9:30 pm. The recession took its toll in 1980s and every mall…every mall…shaved off a half hour or more in the evening. Moreover, there was a lot of adjustment in 1988 to Sunday shopping.

    There were only two stores that really tried both street and mall entrance. Keeping two tills open on Sunday when the restriction was for 4 employees only was not feasible. Many stores with two entrances closed their doors. Bassey’s Pharmacy on Academy Road had two entrances and shut one down. Movie Village closed their second entrance as well and turned their back on Osborne.

    Two entrances was a flawed strategy for Portage Place. Multiple entrances can only work for places with the staff to keep them secure.

    Picasso’s collapse was unfortunate and an example of why a restaurant *needs* two entrances when they are in a mall. Contrast this with 1987’s opening of Polo Park’s second floor where Pete and Marty’s restaurant had entrances inside and outside the mall and succeeded. Moxie’s does the same thing now.

    Portage Place and Eaton Place combined had more stores than most malls in the city. However, the draw of free parking was and has been a siren call for people in across Canada. the building of Silver City theatres in St. Vital in the 1980s eliminated one of the last major draws for people downtown: movies.

    Crime is an ever present issue for downtown. It isn’t like there aren’t problems in other malls though. Polo Park has had assaults and pepper spray in the last year. St. Vital had a poor usher beaten up by a theater goer. However, like some people are quick to point out, there are low income people, gangs and panhandler’s present around Portage Place.

    After 25 years, Portage Place is due a multi-million makeover like Polo Park just went under and What St. Vital is going though now.

    So with all the negatives things said about Portage Place, what are the positives?

    In no particular order:

    -Large parkade
    -Skywalk access to MTS Center and other buildings
    – Apartments behind it
    -Movie theatres
    -Prairie Theatre Exchange

    What is the future? The parkade will be central to any changes.

  5. cherenkov says:

    I’ve heard about plans to turn the second level into all office space.

    Perhaps the Alt Hotel and new condo tower near by will give it a small boost, though maybe just enough to delay the inevitable.

  6. John Dobbin says:

    Cherenkov: more people definitely equals more traffic. My feeling is that the food court should be shut down in favour of sit down restaurants. Imagine what that east side of the mall would be like on game day if, for example, there was a Swiss Chalet, an Olive Garden and the Tim Horton’s. It would be busy and totally unattractive to those just hanging out.

    The focus should be on table service or take out service with little or no seating.

    The upstairs corridor leading towards the MTS Centre should look to attract a retailer like Liquor Mart from nearby City Place. Seems to me that a lot more people live near Portage Place than the even more woeful City Place. In fact, it seems to that all the stores on the north side of City Place could migrate to Portage Place to allow for two floors of restaurants right by the MTS Centre.

    Coles, Asia Gift Shop, Accents and Stitch City Tailor could all move. Marlin Travel might be a better fit that a skywalk kiosk travel agency.

    I think Portage Place can be better managed as an asset. You can’t tell me that having a restaurant like Swiss Chalet inside won’t create traffic.

  7. TRex says:

    Citizens, families, the consuming public are interested in security. Visible and effective security. So are businesses. Safe bus stops. No gang flags. Quick police response times when required. If you can’t provide that basic metric it doesn’t matter what city you live in, your public spaces will fail.

  8. Yer Pal says:

    John Dobbin LOVES Swiss Chalet. The Bigwigs @ the Chalet should give Mr. Dobbin free meals @ all Swiss Chalet locations. (I read his blog on the reg & he often toots the Chalet horn! Keep up the good work Dobs!)

  9. John Dobbin says:

    Yer Play: Think I have pointed out on my blog that the worst meal I have had in the last several years was at a Swiss Chalet. However, I do know that many in Winnipeg love this restaurant as can attest to the huge traffic around the one location on Kenaston and how many hits that the Swiss Chalet post gets every single day on my blog.

    I am utterly convinced that a location across from the MTS Centre would be busy and a complete turn off for gangs.

    Of course, equal success or better might come from having Famous Dave’s located there. The review in the Free Press said it was excellent and hoped for more locations.

    What is not needed is the food court which has attracted crowds the mall probably doesn’t need.

  10. theviewfromseven says:

    Ah, the Portage Place food court. Haven’t been there in years, but memorable as the only time someone tried to sell me a pair of shoes at a food court.

    With regard to the Portage Place food court, a few thoughts come to mind:

    a.) It seems to figure quite prominently in their promotions (e.g., “Breaks Happen Here”). As grim as that place is, it’s probably a good source of revenue in a mall where the rent revenue per square foot of leaseable space must be disastrously low. So they might be cautious about tinkering with one of the few parts of the mall that (sort of) works.

    b.) In the absence of more affluent shoppers, could Portage Place even sign up a new sit-down restaurant without an extremely deep rent discount — so deep that they would be drawing in less revenue than they are from the existing food court?

    c.) Is it even in the public interest to revitalize Portage Place? There’s an old saying that the three ways to deal with a business in trouble are to “fix it, sell it or kill it”. Over the years, the owners have tried to fix things to no real avail. They tried selling it, when they could without prospective buyers backing out, for progressively less money. The problems that Portage Place cause for downtown by concentrating too much of downtown’s retail and remaining foot traffic in a very small part of the neighbourhood remain unresolved. Maybe the only answer left is to kill it and start over with a clean slate.

  11. John Dobbin says:

    Seven: But what do you knock now? The entire mall? Imax, theatres and PTE with it?

    I think they ought to have really gone after a Jets store and the University of Winnipeg bookstore. Hell, I would have spoke to Axworthy about student residences atop the west block.

    The food court may be profitable but it is also the source of people not wanting to go the mall. I am not sure you would have to subsidize a sit down restaurant or two as they are close to Air Canada, down the street from the MTS Centre, across the street from Hydro.

  12. theviewfromseven says:

    @ John: I would have no problem with seeing all of Portage Place scuttled; I would even welcome it as a great opportunity to fix a major urban redevelopment error and make a fresh start. (I imagine FNP will want to hold on to the parking lot though, as it sounds like they would be in serious trouble without that revenue stream. A work-around might be possible there.)

    Portage Place’s history holds out little hope for its revitalization. The first owner sold it after 10 years for barely half the cost of construction. The next owner nearly sold it to an American firm in the early 2000s, only to see them back out of the deal when they came to Winnipeg to take a closer look at the operation. When they finally did sell the property in 2005, it’s believed they did so for little more than one-third of what they paid for it in 1997. Though there’s been talk of building a tower there at times, there has been no real progress since Ramada nearly built a hotel there some years ago. Even if something was built, Portage Place’s fortunes have sunk so far that the foot traffic generated would not make much of a difference.

    Everything reasonable that could have been done to revive the property has been done. Further efforts now would be a case of throwing good money after bad. Like Unicity Mall on its 25th anniversary in 2000, Portage Place is an aging, distressed property that’s ready for retirement. And as Walter alluded to, Portage Place will need to take on an even heavier debt load (already enough to be flagged as a concern by DBRS in recent years) just to keep the building in good enough condition as to not tempt PTE and the Globe to let their leases run out.

    Though I like the Globe Cinema, I’d be happy to trade them, IMAX and PTE in for the removal of Portage Place and its replacement with a series of European-inspired buildings along North Portage consisting of ground-floor businesses and 3-5 floors of soundproofed apartments, condos or offices above. It would be consistent with the policy of building more residential housing downtown and could ease the city’s affordable housing shortage a bit; and with the city’s economy doing fairly well and borrowing costs being low, it might well be much easier to do it now than to wait another decade.

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