True North redevelopment plan for Portage Place met with cautious optimism

A plan to transform Winnipeg’s Portage Place into a “downtown community campus” was met with cautious optimism after True North Real Estate Development unveiled more details about its redevelopment proposal for the beleaguered, 36-year-old mall.

The development arm of True North Sports and Entertainment plans to spend $550 million over three years on an adaptive reuse of Portage Place, starting with the construction of 15-storey health-care tower on the east side of the Portage Avenue complex.

That tower would house a primary-care clinic, walk-in clinic, dialysis centre and addictions medicine clinic as well as an expansion of the Pan Am Clinic.

True North also plans to dismantle the glass atrium in the mall to reopen Edmonton Street between Central Park and Graham Avenue, build a 16-storey residential tower with a grocery store on the main floor and create a community centre and space for community organizations in the centre of the mall.

Kate Kehler of the Socal Planning Council of Winnipeg said she is pleased to see True North address many of the criticisms levelled against an earlier proposal by Starlight Investments to redevelop the mall.

That plan was widely criticized by social activists for ignoring the needs of newcomers, Indigenous people and other downtown residents.

“The vision is exciting,” Kehler said in the atrium at Portage Place after officials with the province and True North formally announced their plans.

“You can’t deny that a lot of what the community has been identifying for the over the past few years is mentioned at least in the plan. But as always, the devil will be in the details.”

Kehler said she is concerned about additional public funding for the private development, beyond the long-term leases Shared Health and the Regional Health Authority intend to take in the health-care tower.

Premier Heather Stefanson suggested Friday the province would be open to property-tax incentives. Jim Ludlow, the president of True North Real Estate Development, suggested his company would seek those incentives from both the city and the province.

An aerial view of Portage Place, taken by a drone camera.
The redevelopment plan for Portage Place calls for a residential tower above the pad at left, the removal of the glass atrium to the right at Edmonton Street and a health-care tower above the pad at the far right of this aerial image. (Trevor Brine/CBC News)

Kehler also said she wants to know what form of consultations True North will make in the coming months with Indigenous leaders.

Jerry Daniels, the Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, said he looks forward to speaking to True North about ways to ensure the redevelopment of Portage Place complements his own organization’s $130-million transformation of the former downtown Bay building into a mixed-use project called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn.

“We haven’t gotten anything specific yet in terms of the conversations that we’ve had, but I think there will be a lot of synergies that are present there,” said Daniels, who was seated in the front row of the True North announcement.

“It’s important for Winnipeg. It’s actually really good for our project as well. because we really think downtown needs a huge investment.”

Mark Chipman, who chairs True North Sports and Entertainment, said True North Real Estate had to act before Portage Place was shuttered, something he said he felt was an imminent possibility.

“I have a hard time distinguishing between opportunity and obligation some days,” said Chipman, who said his company could not stand back and do nothing while another large downtown amenity was in danger of closing.

“I don’t mean to sound overly altruistic here, but my father taught me long ago if you see a need, then maybe there’s an adjacent opportunity with that.”

A drawing of a building with a circular green space in the foreground and a tower at right.
An architectural illustration of what Portage Place could look like if True North Real Estate Development proceeds with its plan to purchase and redevelop the mall. (Architecture 49/True North Real Estate Development)

True North has an option to purchase the mall from Vancouver’s Peterson Group and a parallel option to purchase the parkade below the mall and right to build towers above it from The Forks North Portage Partnership.

Chipman said Friday he expects True North to exercise those options, especially after the company announced such specific redevelopment plans.

True North plans to redevelop Portage Place from east to west, starting with the health-care tower.

The primary-care clinic slated for the main floor of that tower should reduce the demand on the emergency department at Health Sciences Centre, said Lanette Siragusa, CEO of Shared Health.

“That’s our expectation,” she said before sidestepping a question about whether it was wise for the province to shutter another inner-city primary-care clinic, the urgent-care centre, at Misericordia Hospital, in 2017.

“I can’t speak to the decisions made in the past, but I think this is a really positive step going forward.”

Siragusa and Stefanson were also asked why the province is prepared to take out long-term leases at a new True North health-care tower while the Manitoba Clinic, another private health-care tower, sits partly vacant near Health Sciences Centre.

Siragusa said Shared Health is aware of the space at the Manitoba Clinic, while Stefanson declined to comment.

The executive director of the Manitoba Clinic did not respond to CBC News requests for comment.