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'Symbolic heart of the city': Urban planner reacts to possibility of opening Portage and Main

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One Winnipeg city planner is saying that Portage and Main should have been reopened a long time ago.

“I’ve always thought it was weird,” said Richard Milgrom, head of the University of Manitoba’s department of city planning.

“I’ve been to a lot of cities around the world and there are a lot of busy intersections that are much busier than Portage and Main where pedestrians and vehicles manage to get along.”

Milgrom’s comments come a few days after Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham announced that he is drafting a motion to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians in order to avoid a $73 million repair bill and years of construction-related traffic delays.

Milgrom said that the reason for the closure of Portage and Main had more to do with politics than city planning. He explained it was closed in the 1970s due to a development deal to open a retail space below the intersection, which called for pedestrian traffic to be moved underground.

“It was very much a development incentive at a time when the city was really quite desperate for development,” he said.

Milgrom noted that he’s a bit surprised by the mayor’s announcement, but supports the decision, saying, “Sometimes the best way to do something is actually just the simplest way to do something and sometimes the cheapest way to get across the street is a crosswalk and not a tunnel.”

Milgrom said that reopening Portage and Main won’t be a magical fix for the Downtown area, but is an important piece of the puzzle.

He added that this decision may help Winnipeggers as a place to stay and hang out, rather than just a place to drive through.

“I hope this sort of begins to signal a change to thinking about Downtown as a place to be rather than a place to leave,” he said.

Milgrom said that Portage and Main is the “symbolic heart of the city,” but that things won’t change overnight.

“Some people during the plebiscite were saying, ‘Why would we want to cross there? There’s nothing there,’” he said.

“Well, there’s nothing there because no one’s walking there. Pedestrians create reasons for stores to exist. When it opens, it will take time, but that area will change.”

- With files from CTV’s Rachel Lagace and Katherine Dow.

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