Business owners: Closing Government Street to vehicles a bad idea

The idea of closing part of Government Street to vehicles and establishing a pedestrian mall has retailers on that street fuming.

John Vickers pitched the idea — which would see Government Street closed to vehicles between Humboldt and Yates streets on weekends this summer — to Victoria councillors last week. Fort Street would remain open to traffic.

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Vickers is the organizer of Victoria’s international busker and chalk festivals, during which the street is partially shut. He believes a seasonal pedestrian mall would enliven Government Street — which has a number of empty storefronts — by attracting more people.

But business owners are labelling the idea poorly thought out and misguided.

“It is absolutely the worst idea I’ve heard,” said Maura Fitzgerald Lamb, owner of Irish Linen Stores, who said she recalls instances when the street was temporarily shut to traffic years ago. “It was a total disaster.”

Lamb, who has operated her store at 1019 Government St. since 1977, said the street needs to be open for vehicles.

“I call taxis three or four times a day for visitors during the season to go to the hotels,” she said, adding hotel shuttles and cruise ship buses regularly bring tourists to the street. “I couldn’t imagine it [shut to motor traffic].”

The argument for closing the street seems to be that it will entice more people to use it and walk the stretch, but Darlene Hollstein, general manager of the Bay Centre, said that’s not always the case.

“The busker festival was extremely successful for us — our numbers were up and it really worked for us,” Hollstein said. “But then we saw other ideas like the chalk festival, and that didn’t quite resonate. It had an [adverse] impact on our traffic and sales.”

Tom Thompson, owner of W&J Wilson, said if the street is closed to cars on a weekend or longer, he might as well close up shop for the duration. “The festivals are great for normal citizens, but for people who want to go shopping, they will avoid going downtown while they are on,” he said.

Shelley Hird, owner of Artina’s Jewelry, said she is also against the idea.

“We feel closing the street to cars, with no sustainable plan as far as purpose or events, would be detrimental to the retail on the street,” she said.

“Last year, the Downtown Victoria Business Association finally came to an agreement where the cruise ship tour buses would stop along that corridor, and we feel removing the direct traffic generated from those buses could negatively impact the retail.”

The number of retail vacancies on Government Street has prompted Mayor Lisa Helps to float the idea of a property tax exemption for some property owners along what is one of the city’s main streets.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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