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Winnipeg's skywalk system a 'microcosm' of issues in downtown


It was meant to revitalize Winnipeg's downtown by taking pedestrians over and under the street. As the city's skywalk prepares to expand, some question if taking pedestrians off the street was a good idea to begin with.

The latest addition to Winnipeg's skywalk system is in the process of being built over Carlton Street. Once completed, the new section will connect True North Square to the new Wawanesa Tower.

The latest addition to Winnipeg's skywalk system is in the process of being built over Carlton Street. (Source: Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

Krista Sinaisky, the director of corporate communications for True North Sports and Entertainment, told CTV News the skywalk is expected to be completed in early 2024. There are plans to continue the skywalk to connect to a new hotel being constructed across the street from True North Square, and eventually all the way to RBC Convention Centre.

Stretching from the underground concourse under Portage and Main, nearly three kilometres of tunnels and bridges snake through downtown Winnipeg to form what is officially Winnipeg's Weather Protected Walkway System.

A map of Winnipeg's Weather Protected Walkway System. (Map: Google Earth/ Graphic: CTV News Winnipeg)

According to a city report from the early 2000s, the system provided access to 1.8 million square feet of retail space, connecting 38 buildings together.

It's only grown in the years since.

It was first introduced in the mid-seventies. The council of the time saw it as a key component for the revitalization of downtown to combat what was described at the time as a growing exodus of people and retail to the suburbs.

"The mindset at the time was really that you could have a healthy downtown if you separated pedestrian and vehicular traffic," Richard Milgrom, the head of the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba.

"It also sort of assumed that we would have a city that's continuing to grow and it really didn't. I mean, that's around the time that city just stalled out in terms of growth for several decades."

He said it was a common way of thinking; cities like Calgary and Minneapolis did a similar project.

But it didn't quite work for Winnipeg.

"What happened was all the people ended up in the skywalks for a number of months of the year, and the retail followed it. And then because the retail followed it, the street fronts were no longer viable places for retail because you didn't have any foot traffic going by them."

A walk through the skywalk system today will reveal several empty storefronts. There are some shops remaining and they are diverse – a jewelry store, a clothing store, a few restaurants, a cell-phone repair shop, gift shop, an optometrist – to name a few.

But the several 'For Lease' signs scattered throughout the skywalk seem to outnumber the 'open for business' signs.

Several 'For Lease' signs are scattered throughout the skywalk. (Source: Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

For some of those businesses, the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin.

"We were shut down. We didn't work. We couldn't work. The skywalk was dead, like it was totally dead," said Maylene Davis, the owner of Pall's Hairstyling in the skywalk.

Davis said when everything reopened after the pandemic, they were able to bounce back because of their existing customer base. She said some of their neighbouring businesses weren't so lucky.

Davis said the ones that are still open try and support each other.

"I always am happy when I see somebody open, like it doesn't matter what it is. I'm very happy that somebody's at least trying to make a go of it," she said, pointing to a new pizza place that opened in the skywalk above the police headquarters, replacing the Starbucks that closed during the pandemic.

"I try and go for pizza once in a while. We try and support the businesses."

One pedestrian in the Downtown Winnipeg Skywalk meanders through the dark corridors on March 23, 2020. (Source: Danton Unger/ CTV News Winnipeg)

But even before the pandemic, she says she felt the skywalk has been getting a bit rougher. She says they lock the doors of the salon in the early and late hours of the day when there are fewer people around.

It's one of the reasons that the Downtown Community Safety Partnership (DCSP) patrol the skywalk and underground tunnels.

"The indoors are actually no different than the outdoors. They are actually a microcosm of what happens outside," said Mitch Bourbonniere, the community outreach liaison with the DCSP.

"What you see outside in terms of a mix of shopkeepers, visitors, people who live downtown, and also some of our unsheltered folks – we have a mix of that outdoors. We have the very same mix indoors."

He said the more people and resources that come downtown, the safer it becomes. But he said Winnipeg is not unique with its challenges.

"Everybody's experiencing challenges around safety, around homelessness and poverty," he said. "We are not unique, but we are all trying our best to work at it."

Reed Oslund agrees – the more people, the safer it becomes. He's trying to bring more people into the skywalk with his art.

Reed Oslund displays the many his photographs inside the skywalk. (Source: Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

"I'm a pensioner with not the best of pension, so I hit upon my side hustle, which is exploiting my photography," he said.

Spread across the side of the skywalk near the Millennium Library, Oslund displays the many photographs he's taken over the years.

"Usually I share space with the Jehovah's Witnesses," he says.

He says there is usually a great response to his work from the many people rushing through the skywalk any given day. Still, he thinks there is an opportunity for more.

"I would like to see the skywalk better utilized to present our local artists – whether it's buskers, magicians, photographers, painters," he said.

A spokesperson for the city told CTV News each section of the skywalk is owned and operated by the individual building owners, and as such, private property owners may have their own rules about buskers setting up shop in the skywalk.

As for the future of the skywalk, Milgrom says – whether or not it is good for downtown – the city has committed to the system.

"If you are going to follow through on that commitment, then I think you also have to find a way that that skywalks system can feed life in public spaces downtown," he said, adding there needs to be more efforts to get pedestrians back on the street, which he said are seriously underused social spaces.

"I understand why that happens for a few months of the year in the middle of the winter. But it seems a shame to abandon them completely for the other nine months of the year." Top Stories

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