A Look at the Future of Portage Place in Winnipeg

Starlight Investments out of Toronto has indicated what they will be doing with their purchase of Portage Place. They will indeed be putting up two apartment building on the east and west pads of the three-block mall.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be calling this a mall anymore. There will be no internal corridor. It will be replaced with a Skywalk that runs along the entire south street side. Presumably, there will be corridors at various intervals to offices, retail stores and apartments within the new Portage Place. Also, there will likely be security doors that are closed after hours and only open to those with business inside. The Skywalk itself might be paid for and run by the city with some financial support from the developer.

None of this is to begin until 2021. Development is expected to continue through 2027.

All through this, of course, the developer has assured that millions will come in from the parkade, Perhaps $25 million or more by that time from parking alone.

There has been a promise of some sort of outdoor public access, but we have heard that story before in the form of The Promenade which runs behind Portage Place on the northside. It has never lived up to the hype. In fact, the rear entrance has been the source of many a problem for the mall. Truth be told all the entrances and bus shelters have had problems. The above picture shows a pedestrian plaza but when push comes to shove, I don’t see it happening.

A plaza has places for sitting down. It doesn’t have cars zooming past. It’s safe and secure and isn’t dominated by national chains. It’s very local and organic. There might be a thousand people that live behind Portage Place but there was never any street life. The mall and the residences turned inwards.

As for the mall, by 1988 many stores facing out to Portage Avenue shut their doors to the outside. There were two reasons for that: The mall took sidewalk traffic and moved it inside the mall, and entrances meant two staffed cash areas for stores that likely only needed one cash desk.

A good outline of the Portage Place can be read here in legislative report from 1994.

The two pads built on east and west side of the mall and development were being considered. Portage Place and the surrounding area were not considered “complete.” The next phase addressing building atop the mall and creating more street presence was investigated.

This is the concept plan above for the west side. It included an office tower of about 10 floors. It never happened. It’s why I’m not exactly blown away by the concept art from Starlight. We have seen this before. We have been promised things before. But then priorities changed.

The east side pad was to have been a Lakeview hotel. Building materials and scaffolding had gone up. They quietly came back down as Winnipeg slid into a recession that saw property values stagnate and collapse all over the city. We saw federal, provincial and civic cutbacks while arson and murder climbed, and addictions rose. Some neighborhoods were near collapse and insurance companies threatening to pull coverage. It was bad. It seemed the city was burning down.


  • Polo Park 1959, enclosed 1963, second floor added in 1986
  • Grant Park Shopping Centre 1962
  • Garden City Shopping Centre 1970
  • Unicity 1975
  • Winnipeg Square 1979
  • Eaton Place (Cityplace) 1979
  • St. Vital Shopping Centre 1979
  • Kildonan Place 1980
  • Portage Place 1987
  • Forks Market, Johnston Terminal 1989-1993

That is a lot of malls. Polo Park added the second floor in 1986 and then Portage Place in 1987. They were both owned by Cadillac Fairview. However, the Bronfmans sold CF to Ontario Teacher’s the year before Portage Place opened up. This is significant as the mall developer lost the entrepreneurial side of the business and instead got owners interested on sitting on assets and pulling in returns.

By 1995, Unicity Fashion Square mall collapsed into bankruptcy and closure. The Forks was struggling to stay alive. The earnings from the government owners parkade at Portage Place were being transferred in the millions to Forks development. Very long and cheap leases were signed and parking was free. No money was left for North Portage.

By 1997 Cadillac Fairview sold Portage Place. Remarkable after only 10 years. It would go on to be sold twice more with values collapsing. Eventually, the landlord converted some of the retail into offices with some success. But the mall was never to know its true value till the public ownership of the parkade was resolved.

This year we saw what the value of the mall in terms of the sale to Starlight was at around $22 million and the value of the parkade was around $47 million. The return on the parkade each year? About $3 million. That is something a developer can bank on.

How do we know that ownership of the parking can trigger development? We need look no further than Portage and Main where Artis owning the parking has triggered upgrades to the tower, mall and now the construction of the tallest apartment in Winnipeg at 44 storeys.

Still, we should be wary about what is promised versus what is delivered. Look at Skycity. The condo has never gotten off the ground amidst police raids and investigations. Some Winnipeggers have lost a lot of money and time on that one. And the land set aside for it will probably be legally entangled for years.

The one good thing about Portage Place is that it is a built asset and together with the parkade is an income generator. I think the mistake that some people make is that there aren’t any blue-chip tenants in Portage Place. They have a variety that other malls are now realizing can be more stable than just retail. For example, Prairie Theatre Exchange has been there from the beginning and is now joined by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. That brings in a lot of people in.

Starlight will need to satisfy office tenants such as Investors Group, PTE and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra with some form of public access. None of them would want locked doors making it difficult for clients and customers to access their services. There are also several non-government agencies, dentist and other clinics that need access to either a public court or outside building entrance.

It is no wonder Starlight is talking about a “public plaza.” But Edmonton Court will be neither be a replacement for the mall or a plaza. It would be the bare minimum to keep the tenants they have happy. To service the Skywalk facing out to Portage Avenue and to make sure people have access to their parkade from the street, there needs to be ways to pass freely through the building north and south and up to the east and west Skywalk corridor. That requires stairs, elevators and escalators. That end Edmonton Court will remain public.

There is no doubt Starlight does not want to lose Staples and Shopper’s Drug Mart. Expect to see these stores have exterior access to Portage Avenue. A grocery has been talked about as well and it will likely have access to Edmonton Court or to Portage Avenue. The federal offices of Services Canada will need some sort of public access as well since the mall corridor will disappear.

The type of disruption being considered for Portage Place can only be done a section at a time. And probably a floor at a time. Likely, the second floor will be first and the northside retail tenants will be affected. The section to see change first must be, without doubt, the east side of the present mall. Why? Because the Skywalk to Bell MTS Place helps puts premium parking in the parkade for over 100 events a year. Any interruption in that affects the bottom line for Starlight.

The apartment towers in terms of construction will probably be less disruptive than closing the mall and building the Skywalk out front. But the Skywalk really can’t be done without some sort of impact on the second-floor retailers. The ones facing north will face evictions first but as soon as the entire Skywalk is done, the second-floor ceases to be a mall as we know it. As for the third floor, the east side where the IMAX and Globe Theatres once stood represent an attractive space to make third floor apartments more appealing.

I suspect as amenities go, the theatres could be used for an apartment gym, a common room, meetings rooms. The same could apply to the IMAX space. The high ceilings could make for a climbing wall alone. Some sort of lobby, dedicated elevators right down to a service dock for people moving in and out and receiving deliveries will be needed. Engineers, architects and trades people will be needed to figure it out. Likewise, when apartments are set up on the west pad, they will have to figure out elevator and stairwells and loading dock too.

Slow work to upgrade older buildings such as malls can take years. Polo Park in fifty plus years has doubled and now contracted and looking to build up again. A better comparison might be Grant Park Mall that look several years, a few setbacks and continued change to get to where it is now. A few times Grant Park looked like it would be passed by in favour of flashier retailers and yet it has flourished despite major changes.

The conversion of Portage Place to what it is going to become is probably not going to be what the concept pictures show. Unlike, True North Square that started on a parking lot or land where structures were knocked down to make way from construction, Starlight is working with existing structure as well as tenants.

If we skip ahead to the future of Portage Place, there is a good bet that in this decade it won’t look like it does now… probably won’t be owned by Starlight either. By way of comparing, there is not a single tower at Portage and Main that hasn’t changed hands except for the Richardson building. The goal of Starlight will be to monetize their asset with the transformation and only hold onto it if it looks to build their stock value. While dividends are very welcome, Starlights makes money buying and selling assets. Buy low and sell high.

What we will see with Portage Place is the two 20-storey towers over the next 10 years, a connection to Skywalk and as many long-term blue-chip tenants in retail and office as they can find. After that, don’t be surprised if they sell to a nice fat pension group looking for consistent dividends for their retirees. How much will they sell for? If they are lucky, they sell three blocks of prime real estate in Winnipeg for between $800 million to a shade under a billion. All that for an initial $80 million investment and probably $300 million or so development.

The city won’t have much leverage except in the Skywalk discussion. At that time, they could encourage more street entrances to the retail off Portage and may hear a receptive ear. A real upgrade of Portage Avenue in that area could work. Keep in mind though that the city keeps saying it is in the poor house so there is that.

In 2030 the whole of Portage Place might be complete. That would just in time for the discussion for the replacement of Bell MTS Place with a larger facility. In case you are wondering where that will be, look no further than where the Goldeyes play right now. The city has already indicated that they see how valuable this land is and at some point, they will hand it to the True North or whoever owns the Jets for a new arena around ten years from now. As for the Goldeyes, who can say if the team will be around but if I was to guess, it will moving to Point Douglas when we make another pitch for an international games and looking to build a legacy building.

And the old Bell MTS Place arena? Another add-on to True North towers. Even then, the Portage Place parkade will still be needed for a higher density office and residential community in the area.

Look for new plans on Portage Place and the Skywalk soon and a start date announced for construction by fall of 2020.

This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations