City spaces must be protected

Portage Place purchase make city’s priorities apparent

Is downtown Winnipeg safe?

This deceptively complicated question has been a point of discussion for the city after it was announced earlier this month that Toronto investment firm Starlight Investments had offered to purchase Portage Place Shopping Centre for $69.9 million with the intention of turning it into a residential area.

City councillor Jeff Browaty called the mall “a blight on our downtown and on our city” during discussion of whether to approve the purchase. Premier Brian Pallister noted that even as a 6-foot-8 man he had run into trouble in the area and said he had heard multiple reports of Winnipeg residents feeling unsafe there. Last week, city council unanimously decided to approve the sale despite hearing from people living in the area who say they were not properly consulted on what the future of the mall should be.

Many of the city’s leaders have listed citizen safety as a core reason for approving the purchase. The logic here is confusing at best — the mall, a publicly accessible space, has a reputation for being unsafe. How, then, will downtown residents benefit from turning it into a less accessible space? The idea that the answer to people feeling unsafe in places where people congregate is to take away the congregation area, rather than working on the actual reasons people feel that way, is absurd.

One might consider any additional housing in downtown Winnipeg to be a good thing, an answer to a growing population and a growing economy. This may be true, but if we parse the numbers — a 2017 report by the University of Winnipeg’s institute of urban studies lists the median income of people living downtown as $21,857, a full 39 per cent lower than the median city-wide total income — it becomes more apparent who the sale will benefit. The lower-income community that calls downtown home, many of whom are Indigenous or newcomers to the country, will be priced out of their own neighbourhoods.

Malls like Portage Place are not just shopping centres. They are free to enter, provide a place for people to congregate and offer a relatively safe place to bring your children. Any person who has ever worked in a mall setting knows that many of a community’s most vulnerable groups — low-income people, homeless people, young children and senior citizens — are the people who get the most out of a mall’s open hours. Until the bus stop was closed at the end of May, people without cars could still be dropped off right by the Portage Place front doors. For years, Portage Place Shopping Centre has acted as a community space.

This has been an especially distressing year for anyone keeping track of community spaces in Winnipeg — earlier this year, the Millennium Library installed “security measures,” including bag checks and metal detectors, which critics say by nature disproportionately target homeless and lower-income visitors.

Just last week, True North Development announced several new businesses it was developing downtown, including a headline-grabbing “grocery store.” It would be an exciting service for downtown residents, where more access to affordable fresh food options would be welcomed, if the store wasn’t already being described as a “boutique grocery experience.” Only time will tell if the grocery will be of service to the majority of downtown residents or only to a privileged few.

If the city was willing to let the sale go on for the relatively cheap price of about $70 million, imagine what it could have accomplished had it chosen to take Portage Place and convert it into a space that still had the best interests of the community at heart.

The possibilities are wide-ranging: if the majority of people living downtown make nearly 40 per cent less than the rest of the city, would it not be in the city’s best interest to provide accessible job services to the people living there?

People living downtown are more likely to be new immigrants to the city, and less likely to be gainfully employed than the average among the rest of the city.

Daycare services, affordable spaces for local entrepreneurs from marginalized groups to set up shop, meeting areas — the space could be entirely revitalized, but remain publicly accessible, to meet the needs of the actual area.

Urban development does not have to mean high-end housing and artisanal grocery stores.

We need public spaces for people of all income levels to comfortably exist — to connect, to find shelter from Winnipeg’s notoriously hot summers and cold winters, to access services without the constant demand to purchase or the threat of over-intrusive policing.

It’s worth mentioning that while the city was working on installing aggressive security measures at the Millennium Library and voting to sell Portage Place Mall, two people have died this month from the heat wave enveloping the city.

With this sale, those meant to represent the people of Winnipeg have proven what they really advocate for: the interests of wealthy gentrifiers.