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Fort Street businesses demand redress for new bike path

As city officials prepare to cut the ribbon on a new two-way Fort Street bike path on Sunday, some businesses are calling for compensation for what they’re describing as millions of dollars in lost revenue during months of construction.
The new bike lanes on Fort Street are scheduled to open on Sunday, May 27, 2018. Councillors approved the next legs of the city's bike network — stretches on Wharf and Humboldt streets — at Thursday's council meeting.

As city officials prepare to cut the ribbon on a new two-way Fort Street bike path on Sunday, some businesses are calling for compensation for what they’re describing as millions of dollars in lost revenue during months of construction.

In addition to bicycle lanes, the work involved upgrading of underground utilities, tree removal and replanting, installing benches and rebuilding sidewalks.

The project “isolated and disadvantaged the subset of businesses on and adjacent to blocks 500 through 1000 in a way not seen elsewhere in the DVBA [Downtown Victoria Business Area], let alone the city,” Bruce Gillespie, owner of Little Jumbo restaurant and bar, wrote in an email to city councillors. “They request an immediate resolution to recognize lost income and additional expenses and financial consequences they uniquely have borne.”

Preliminary findings of a survey conducted of Fort Street business owners “show business losses in the millions of dollars” and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to try to mitigate the effects, Gillespie said. He suggests council consider three options:

• Relief from the special business improvement area levy assessed on these properties.

• Reduction in tax assessments.

• Compensation for lost profits and for expenses arising from efforts to cope with the construction.

Gillespie likened the bike lane construction to what happened to Cambie Street merchants in Vancouver during construction of the Canada Line.

After about eight months of construction, several Fort Street businesses are hurting and wondering whether they will be able to bounce back, even after the bike lane opens.

The survey of business owners, launched last month, found that Fort Street revenues dropped an average of 24 per cent in the last quarter of 2017 versus the same period a year earlier. In the first quarter this year (from Jan. 1 to March 31) revenues were down an average of 29 per cent versus the same period a year earlier.

“We used to make $400 to $500 a day. Now we’re making $200, maybe $150, and on Saturdays we made $65, said Darlene Archibald, owner of Street Level Espresso and Teas.

A gaping hole remains in the sidewalk near the entrance to Archibald’s shop — a frustration for Archibald who said the city shouldn’t have done other infrastructure work while building bike lanes. “The bike lanes are not actually the problem. The problem was the sidewalks and that they were all done at the same time ” she said.

“Although the council seems to think that’s a good idea, I don’t think it was the best idea because they took away our parking as well as the sidewalk as well as customers.”

Next door at Old ’N’ Gold Jewelry, owner Craig McDonald has had a different experience. He said business has been good in spite of the construction. “We’ve been up every month over last year.”

But he was the exception of those contacted by the Times Colonist.

“Certainly sales are way down” said Mark Murr, owner of Ali Baba Pizza, at 775 Fort, which is on the south side of Fort on the opposite side of the road from the construction. “People don’t want to come downtown. They’re frustrated with the lack of parking. They’re frustrated with the homeless people. They’re frustrated with just the chaos down here.”

“Devastating,” is how Angela Pappas, owner of Chocolat Chocolatiere de Victoria, 703 Fort, describes the effect of construction, adding she doesn’t know if the shop will survive the losses.

At 1028 Fort, Applewood Antiques owner Ron Forbes said there’s no question construction had a negative impact. He questioned the decision to put the bike track on one of downtown’s busiest retail streets. “I don’t quite get why they put them on Fort Street rather than one of the other secondary streets. It’s a commercial street and it’s all businesses and most of the bike lanes are used by people just transporting back and forth to work,” Forbes said, adding he’s not opposed to the lanes, just the location.

Victoria Coun. Geoff Young the idea of compensating businesses affected by construction is problematic.

“Almost every change in road patterns, no right turns, road closures, all will have impacts on businesses and some of those are permanent. So I think we really should be focusing on the front end and get the projects done in a way that minimizes upheaval.”

The city could have done a better, faster job with the Fort Street project, he said.

“I was struck by how much of the time nothing was happening in the fenced off areas. Clearly the presence of the construction equipment, the fences, the toilets, the vehicles, had a negative impact on business.”

Young also questioned the wisdom of the city moving ahead with such projects at the height of a building boom.

“I think in a better construction climate we could have done better and I think we should do better in the future in terms of getting the project done quickly and making sure there’s an incentive for the contractor to do them quickly and with a minimum amount of disruption and upheaval.”