Councillors agree to create pedestrian zone on Government Street

Victoria plans to limit motor traffic on Government Street and close it entirely to cars from Fort to View to create more room for pedestrians and allow for physical-distancing, as downtown businesses look to recover from the COVID-19 outbreak.

City council approved the temporary changes Thursday, as part of a suite of measures that includes increasing patio spaces, allowing for yoga and fitness classes in parks, and dedicating stalls for food trucks and bike vendors.

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Mayor Lisa Helps praised city staff for their swift response to council’s call for action to accelerate the recovery.

“Our businesses are really struggling out there,” she said. “They’re struggling and they’re worried. They’re worried about their employees, they’re worried about their survival.

“And when we said 2 1Ú2 weeks ago, go away, be bold, and then come back, I think you’ve really achieved that in spades.”

The “Build Back Victoria” plan includes:

• Allowing restaurants to use sidewalks, plazas, boulevards and parking stalls as expanded patios or flex spaces.

• Permitting businesses such as fitness clubs and yoga studios to operate in parks, with the exception of Beacon Hill Park.

• Providing 14 dedicated stalls for food trucks and bike vendors who will be unable to sell their wares at festivals this summer.

• Creating more temporary zones for pick-ups and deliveries.

In addition to closing Government to cars in the block from Fort Street to View Street, the city plans to reduce Government to a single lane from Humboldt to Yates, and discourage through traffic. The changes will increase the space available for patios, pedestrians and other business needs.

Staff also plan to turn off the traffic signal at View and Government and post signs that identify the corridor as a “pedestrian-priority space.”

“This initiative is a significant and ambitious response to the current COVID-19 crisis and represents one of the largest changes in the downtown for many years,” a staff report says.

Changes will take effect Monday and remain in place until Oct. 31, although city staff say they will be flexible and make improvements as needed.

The decision received a mixed response from businesses, particularly in the block that will be closed to motor traffic.

Tony Guo, who manages the Bedford Regency Hotel, said the closure means his guests will no longer be able to use the zone outside the hotel to unload their luggage and check in.

“That will be a big impact on our business, if people don’t have access to that,” he said.

Jessica Walker, managing partner of Munro’s Books in the same block, said she’s willing to give the closure a try, providing it’s temporary.

“My overwhelming sentiment right now is that we need to do whatever we can to support our neighbours, particularly those in the restaurant industry,” she said. “And, despite my reservations, I’m willing to have it as an experiment.

“Many, many merchants on Government Street made it very clear that they wanted it to be a temporary measure [and] not commit to anything permanent, but that if there was a time to do any sort of a trial, this was it.”

Walker acknowledged, however, that she has concerns about pick-ups and deliveries at the store with the loss of loading zones in the block.

“It’s not just like one little box,” she said. “Sometimes our guys are coming with two or three dolly loads of hundreds of pounds of books, and they need to be able to do it easily.”

Councillors Geoff Young and Charlayne Thornton-Joe opposed closing the block and possibly harming businesses that are struggling to recover. Thornton-Joe said all outlets should be allowed to conduct business to the best of their ability, rather than being the subject of an experiment.

“I don’t think we need to make winners and losers of our businesses,” she said. “The next few months are critical for all our businesses.”

A majority of council, however, supported the closure and expressed confidence that expanded loading zones at Fort and View will address some of the concerns.

“I just think we’re the capital city of a fantastic province, and if other cities can close scores of streets, surely we can think to do it for one block,” Helps said.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said his members have opposed closing Government Street in the past, but many are now open to reducing the number of lanes as a way to allow for more patio and retail space.

“The main concern was allowing for passenger drop-off and deliveries, which is why one lane makes sense,” he said. “So the only thing that came as a bit of a surprise was the full closure between Fort and View.”

Bray said he had yet to speak with businesses in that block to gauge their reaction, but he’s confident city staff will be open to discussions if changes need to be made. “In general, we think creating more space for restaurants and others to be able to expand into the street will make Government Street really attractive for locals to come and spend a summer evening or a summer afternoon there.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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