Victoria’s experiment turning parking spots over to businesses a ‘work in progress’

A month after the City of Victoria established new rules to allow retailers and restaurants to expand their operations onto sidewalks, public spaces and some parking spaces, a number of downtown merchants are still trying to determine what, if any, impact the changes might have.

Retailers along Government Street contacted by the Times Colonist on Tuesday agreed that the rules, designed to help economic recovery during the pandemic, seemed better designed for restaurants and pubs rather than their brand of commerce.

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Jessica Walker, managing partner of Munro’s Books, said outdoor retailing would not be appropriate for the book seller given exposure to the elements and having to add staff to handle an outdoor kiosk.

She said they are taking a “wait-and-see approach” to outdoor retailing. “My sense is that most of the people taking advantage of the easing of those restrictions are the restaurants and that makes perfect sense as they have such limits on capacity indoors.”

As for the temporary restriction of vehicles on Government Street, including the closure of a block between Fort and View streets, to provide room for patios and pedestrians Walker said they were going with the flow.

“I have long been opposed to the permanent closure of Government Street, but I feel like it’s important now for us all to chip in and do whatever we can for the neighbourhood,” she said.

So far, she said there’s been little impact, one way or the other, from the closure or the addition of patio space for the nearby restaurants.

“I still think it’s all a bit of a work in progress,” said Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

Bray said there are concerns over the lack of access for delivery trucks on Government Street, and access to the Bedford Regency Hotel’s lobby.

“It’s creating some challenges.”

He said not enough is happening in terms of patio expansion or retailers hitting the sidewalks to determine if it will make a difference in speeding economic recovery.

“Generally, it’s been well received I think, and certainly the restaurants able to move into that space have been welcoming it,” he said. “There are still businesses trying to figure out ways to make that public space work.”

Bray said as far as he knows there have been no complaints from other businesses about patio expansion.

“Parking is not going to be the big issue for downtown, that is going to be getting people to come downtown,” he said. “And patios and exciting outdoor spaces will be a draw. If you have a block where people are coming down because there’s a patio that can only benefit your business.”

Those using the outdoor seating certainly seem on board.

Merv Fuchs and Kevin Dombrova, both visitors from Vancouver, praised the availability of patio space.

“We’re just here for a day or two and we were looking for something like this,” Fuchs said from expanded outdoor seating at the Bard & Banker.

He said a lot of cities have a closed-off area such as Government Street that is good for walking.

Sidewalk seating at Pagliacci’s was just the ticket for Joanna Gray, who said she enjoyed the experience of being outdoors. “I hope they keep more outdoor tables during the summer.”

Erin Thompson, a former Pagliacci’s employee who is visiting from Toronto, also said she is a big fan of the restaurant’s patio. “It’s a great option to be outside and not be around people in a small space. I really like it.”

The new patio at the Taphouse is a great addition, as well, said Rene Lachapelle. “I wish the weather was better,” he said with a laugh.

Ian Tostenson, chief executive of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said expansion of patios is a lifeline for an industry that has been brought to its knees.

Tostenson said being able to expand capacity and still maintain safe social distancing by creating outdoor space might be the difference between life and death for some businesses. “It is very meaningful.”

It remains to be seen if it will be as meaningful for retailers.

Leo DeVuyst, whose family owns Artina’s Jewellery, said shutting down Government Street does nothing for retailers, while expanding patios is only going to help restaurants.

“It will be good for them because they can put seats outside that they have lost due to distance regulations.” He dismissed the idea that more patios will mean more traffic for all merchants along the strip. “We are a tourist-based business and there are no tourists. Until they come back I don’t think we are going to see much of anything.”

Maura Fitzgerald Lamb, owner of Irish Linen Stores on Government Street, said she’s for whatever will bring people downtown.

“It’s really challenging. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Fitzgerald Lamb, who has owned the store for 43 years. “I’m really grateful for the local support and people are starting to make their way in, but it’s obviously nothing like when we have the tourist season. Yet there is a really nice sense of people here supporting business.”

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