If the troglodytes in the comment sections of local news sites are correct, the Imax Theatre at Portage Place is closing its doors because roving bands of knife-wielding panhandlers are routinely mugging potential customers in the streets below. (These customers, we are led to believe, have already been robbed, having handed over all their cash to pay for an overpriced parking space nearby.)
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In actuality, the big-screen theatre’s closure probably has more to do with it being a single-screen theatre unable to effectively compete with multiplexes. With its main format being shorter, education-themed films, and with other attractions to draw off of (ie, a museum) nearby, the Portage Place Imax has not been viable for years. It’s a wonder it stayed open as long as it did, really.
Still, the closure of the Imax has once again brought into question the success or failure of Portage Place both as a retail centre and as an instrument of urban renewal in Winnipeg’s troubled downtown.
The first time I set foot in Portage Place was around 1991, four years after it first opened its doors to great fanfare. I went with my grandmother, who lived then, as she has almost her entire life, in River Heights.
Always a proud and engaged citizen of this city, my grandmother believed, like many other proud and engaged citizens did at the time, that Portage Place was a good thing for downtown. Many in 1987 could still remember when Portage Avenue was Winnipeg’s undisputed centre of high-end retail, dining, and entertainment. In those long-gone, halcyon days, when men wore fedoras and women wore white gloves, Portage Avenue was the Fifth Avenue of the Prairies; our very own piece of big-city cosmopolitanism.
Portage Place was planned with these memories, and with the arduous task of competing with suburban retail, firmly in mind. Modest, gradual planning measures would not do. Instead, Portage Place had to take out three whole blocks on the north side of the Avenue. It would have to act as a boost for the struggling Eaton’s and Bay department stores, and create a dynamic street life on both Portage and Webb Place — all while having an interior shopping mall that rivalled Polo Park.
It would not have been unreasonable to believe that all this could be done. The driving force behind Portage Place was the largest infusion of public funds for downtown renewal — the Core Area Initiative — that Winnipeg had ever seen.
The development also incorporated some of the more progressive elements of city planning at the time. Compared to what might have been built a decade or two earlier, Portage Place was, architecturally speaking, pretty decent. A cheesy mix of Postmodernism and faux-traditionalism, sure, it does create some visual texture and scale on Portage Avenue (the oversized skywalks crossing Portage Avenue at either end, however, are another story). It was also a mixed-use development that incorporated retail, entertainment (Imax, etc.), offices, residential, and a refurbished YMCA.
If all of this couldn’t turn downtown around at least a little, what could?
Today, long after the novelty of Portage Place wore off, long after the initial group of high-end retailer’s leases expired, long after my grandmother stopped going there, Winnipeg is left with what Portage Place was all along: a megaproject built by politics and nostalgia, which attempted to do too much with too little information. It would have been hard to see in 1987, amidst the Holt Renfrew, Club Monaco, Imax Theatre, and glitzy new food court, but Portage Place was a step backwards from the day it was opened.
Streets and neighbourhoods continually change over time, and they don’t always change the ways we want them to, or when we want them to. This can be disappointing and frustrating to our nostalgic sensibilities and longing for continuity. But, when left alone by big ideas, streets and neighbourhoods also contain the seeds of their own renewal, even when they are on a downward cycle. What seems like the death of one generation’s grand avenue, could be the emergence of another generation’s specialized shopping strip.
The real tragedy of Portage Place was not that it was not enough to turn the tides that had been shifting away from Portage Avenue since the 1940s, but that it was far too much. Massive urban megaprojects — even relatively well-thought out ones like Portage Place — distort the process of local knowledge and urban complexity. A rapid infusion of public and publicly-supported capital inhibits smaller investments and causes nearby property owners to develop very speculative, wait-and-see attitudes.
Investors and entrepreneurs looking to enter the market don’t bother with this kind of uncertainty. Instead, they locate in places that are a little more certain, and not subject to the same irrational forces of speculation and political acrobatics that are part of urban renewal districts.
The land that Portage Place was built on was made up of three blocks of small shops, as well as a few walk-up apartment buildings and vacant lots. Buildings varied in age and architectural quality, and at no time was this stretch of the north side of Portage Avenue — from Carlton to Vaughan — a significant part of the grand Portage Avenue retail strip. The fabled greatness of Portage Avenue that older Winnipeggers remember was on the south side, between Eaton’s and The Bay, or among the bigger theatres, office buildings, and restaurants east of Donald Street.
If Portage Place had not been built, there would likely be a number of small businesses operating today, such as restaurants, hair salons, second-hand stores, or pharmacies. With a concentration of small and older buildings, it would be possible for marginal and highly-specialized enterprises to operate there. With property in the hands of many different owners, things could change more effectively and organically. When one building becomes vacant and put up for sale, it’s just one small, relatively inconsequential piece of the overall picture. (When Portage Place becomes vacant and put up for sale, it will be quite a different story.)
Unglamorous and untidy, probably. But at least a north side of Portage Avenue without Portage Place would have been honest.