A 15-storey health-care tower with a primary-care clinic, an after-hours walk-in clinic and a satellite facility for the Pan Am Clinic are part of a roughly $550-million plan to redevelop downtown Winnipeg’s Portage Place mall.
True North Real Estate Development — which has an option to purchase the mall, the parkade below it and rights to build two new high-rise towers above it — is planning a radical makeover for the 36-year-old megaproject that would transform it into a downtown community campus.
“We can drill down to the kinds of programming we think makes sense for this city and for Portage Place, which never will be a retail mall again in its life. It cannot be. It’s outlived that purpose,” True North Real Estate Development president Jim Ludlow said Thursday in a presentation where he outlined his firm’s plans for the mall.
Those plans involve adding 12 storeys to the east side of the mall to create a new health-care tower, replacing the glass-enclosed atrium at Edmonton Street with a new open-air connection to Central Park and adding 13 storeys to the west side of the mall to create a 16-storey residential building.
The middle of the mall will be converted into community centres and offices for community organizations, with a nominal amount of retail space and some food services, according to the plans.
A full-service grocery store would occupy 19,000 square feet on the main floor of the residential tower, according to the plans. The YMCA, which has renovation plans of its own, would remain in place at the northwest corner of the project.
Prairie Theatre Exchange would also continue to occupy its existing third-floor space in the centre of the mall, but may end up with a main-floor entrance as well, Ludlow said.
True North also has plans to carve out two circular spaces alongside Portage Avenue to eliminate the monolithic look of the existing Portage Place edifice.
“From an architectural point of view, it’s a massive building, so what we wanted to do was break down the scale, create outdoor environments and relationships for people, outside as well as inside,” said Scott Stirton, president and CEO of Winnipeg’s Architecture49, which is working on the Portage Place plans for True North.
Those plans also include revitalizing the Promenade on the north side of the mall into something closer to its intended initial use as a pedestrian-friendly walkway and replacing portions of the third floor of the mall with gardens.
Ludlow and Stirton said the goal is to reuse as much of the original mall as possible instead of flattening the structure and building new, the way the City of Hamilton did when it decided to demolish its own struggling downtown mall.
“This isn’t a wholesale redo. We want to keep as much of the existing building,” Stirton said. “Probably the most sustainable thing to do is renewal and this project is considering it at large.”
Premier Heather Stefanson praised the proposed redevelopment during a formal announcement on Friday morning.
“This made-in-Manitoba plan and vision promises not only to revitalize our downtown but also remove barriers and create a place where people want to gather, people want to come together as a community,” she said in the atrium at Portage Place.
Stefanson said the province will support the redevelopment through long-term Shared Health and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority leases in the health tower.
She said she does not expect the province to contribute to fund the construction of the project, but left the door open to property-tax incentives.
Ludlow said the redevelopment could take three years and would require a new name for Portage Place.
He said while he’s encountered some skepticism about the scale of the proposed Portage Place makeover, allowing more than a million square feet of retail space to sit empty along a main thoroughfare in downtown Winnipeg was not an option.
The mall’s current owner, Vancouver’s Peterson Group, conceded it could no longer make the investments required to revitalize the building, Ludlow said.
The failure of a plan by Toronto’s Starlight Investments to purchase and redevelop the mall effectively closed the door on any interest in Portage Place from national real-estate developers, he added.
“You cannot let this thing languish. Therefore you must come forward with a plan, which in a city like Winnipeg, for an asset like this, has to be locally delivered,” said Ludlow, whose firm has already conducted approximately $750 million worth of real-estate developments in downtown Winnipeg.
“We’ve already been to the national marketplace. We saw what the answer was and nobody — the city, province and the feds — was very happy about how that thing unfolded in the end.”
Ludlow said True North is now at a stage where it can seek feedback about its plans from the public as well as downtown-development partners like the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which is planning a $130-million makeover of the former Bay building, which is attached by skywalk to Portage Place.
“Now that we’re going public, we can pull in all the experts and community and Indigenous groups to really take a strong community input on this design,” he said.
“What was done with Starlight was very cookie-cutter. Although this isn’t a defined plan, this is a base for us to go engage the community in an informed starting point of what these floor plates can handle, what they’re capable of and the types of programming services that may fit well.”
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The engagement will also include health-care services and professionals, as the plan for the health-care tower that would rise on the east side of the mall involves two new institutions.
On the bottom three floors, the Healthcare Centre for Excellence will encompass a primary-care clinic at the street level, as well as a walk-in clinic with extended hours, a renal dialysis centre and a rapid-access addictions-medicine centre, according to the Portage Place plans.
Above that, a proposed Pan Am Centre for Advanced Musculoskeletal Medicine would house a diagnostics centre, a surgical suite and clinics for sports medicine, minor injuries, plastics, casting, pain, orthopedics, concussions and physiotherapy.
Officials with the province cautioned these medical-centre plans are preliminary and subject to consultations.
The primary-care centre, however, is a critical component of the Portage Place plan, said Ludlow, insisting there won’t be a new Pan Am Clinic without something on the street level to serve the downtown community and take some of the pressure off the emergency department at Health Sciences Centre.
“If we decide not to include primary care, the entire community is going to be outside of the old Portage Place at the front door going, ‘Where’s my health centre?'” he said.
Stefanson echoed that on Friday.
“Shared Health and the WRHA will provide clinical as well as educational community services that are tailored to our community, to our urban population and the critical needs of all Manitobans,” she said.
True North Real Estate Development has until the end of the year to exercise an option to purchase the parkade below Portage Place and the building rights above it from the Forks North Portage Partnership for no less than $34.5 million.
The company also has an option to purchase the mall itself for an undisclosed sum from the Peterson Group.
Ludlow said True North has every intention of exercising those options.
“We might not get this perfectly right, but it’s a bunch righter than nothing,” he said.