Centennial Square safety campaign taps youth

Victoria staff have been directed to engage young people in efforts to make Centennial Square a safer and more welcoming place.

“We want the space to be safe, welcoming and inclusive for everyone. We want it to be more lively,” said Mayor Lisa Helps.

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Staff reported Thursday that they have been working with the Coalition to End Homelessness to engage youth through on-site activities such as barbecues.

“They’re here anyway — what do they want to do?” Helps said. “How can we engage their passions?

“Maybe it’s a small market that’s run by youth in the square. So there’s a lot of programming stuff that I think can be done without too many changes to the physical infrastructure.”

In his latest report to council, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak identified the square, adjacent to city hall, as an area of increasing concern for police, who have to deal with gang activity, assaults and underage drinking.

But other than youth programming and some relatively minor lighting, accessibility, drainage and surface improvements to the square’s upper terrace, there are no plans for any major redevelopment during council’s current term, Helps said.

Last month, Manak said the square has become a destination for youth in the region, and with them has come an increase in violence.

The department received 168 calls for service at Centennial Square in March and April. The two-month stretch marked the highest number of calls to the square since 2015.

The Downtown Victoria Business Association, whose offices front onto the square, also has concerns.

“We have to be able to have the conversations about the challenges that we might see in places like Centennial Square. Be solutions-focused, but also have honest conversations.

“There are behaviours occurring in Centennial Square that would not be acceptable if they were occurring in Vic West or Fairfield. So why are they acceptable in downtown? And what can we do to enliven that space and make that space a place where locals would want to come?”

A city planning exercise had suggested trimming or removing the giant sequoia near the front of the square to help open the space to Douglas Street.

But the city was quick this week to dispel any suggestion that that option was on the table.

Helps said there are no plans to remove the tree.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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