Handrails will be installed on the Ogden Point breakwater early next year, opening up the popular walkway to people in wheelchairs and scooters.
The 700-metre-long breakwater will be lined on each side with curving aluminum handrails fitted with horizontal flexible stainless-steel cables.
Adding railings to the three-metre-wide structure — with drop-offs of up to three metres in places — will make it safer, said Curtis Grad, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the breakwater’s owner.
“We feel strongly this is the right thing to do,” he said. “You’ll see toddlers on the breakwater with their parents three or four away from them and it just makes me cringe to think what could happen.”
The idea of installing handrails has been raised in the past, generating a mixed reaction, Grad said. The handrails are being built in sections and are designed to preserve the view, he said. “It is very minimalistic in terms of obscuring your vision.”
Grad said he’s spoken to people who have lived in Victoria their entire lives but have never walked on the breakwater because they experience vertigo.
Michael Helm, co-owner of the Breakwater Cafe and Bistro at Ogden Point, said the community is “split down the middle” about the plan.
Disability advocates and focus groups were consulted about the change, which includes a curved design to prevent climbing. The entrance gate, built in 1916, currently does not allow wheelchair access to the breakwater.
It hasn’t yet been determined if the breakwater will be opened to cyclists and skateboarders, who are now prohibited.
Last year, someone fell off the breakwater late one night and was taken to hospital for treatment. A kite boarder was recorded jumping over the breakwater in September, and the video was posted on YouTube.
The plan to install railings was in part prompted by government regulations to keep harbour authority workers safe, Grad said.
“The bottom line is if we left it the way it is, our insurers and Labour Canada would not have been comfortable with the risk. The alternative was to close down the breakwater and we simply did not feel that was an option,” Grad said.
Access to the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater will be improved with a new set of stairs, he said.
The breakwater will be closed during construction, expected to take about eight to 12 weeks, and will likely reopen in March.
Storm watchers will be able get out in wild weather once handrails go in, since the gates will no longer be closed when it’s blowing 27 knots.
The Harbour Authority will pay the project’s estimated cost of $400,000 to $500,000.