Face of city about to change with businesses expanding to sidewalks and plazas

Victoria workers fanned out across the city Friday to alert stores and restaurants to new rules that will allow them to expand their patios and retail spaces onto sidewalks, streets and public plazas.

Council approved the measures Thursday to help speed the economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses will be able to apply free of charge, beginning Monday.

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Mayor Lisa Helps said city staff have taken a “bureaucracy lite” approach so businesses can quickly begin serving more customers while still meeting physical-distancing requirements.

“We’ve already had some applications today and the idea is not to take weeks or months,” Helps said Friday. “The idea is to take days.”

She added that it’s likely the first applications will be a “bit clunky,” but staff will be focused almost exclusively on the issue over the next few weeks.

“Businesses are starting to reopen and they need to know how much inventory to order, how many staff to hire back. And if they can double their square footage by operating in the public realm, that’s going to help them a lot.”

Neil Davis, owner of Mesa Familiar, is among those hoping to take advantage of the relaxed rules. He wants to expand his café into Fernwood Square so he can serve more customers.

“We have a small café that’s 25 seats,” he said. “With the new regulations, that drops down to 12 seats. So that’s just not a viable business model.”

If he can operate a patio, that would mean the difference between success and failure, he said. “It’s as black and white as that.”

Across the street, Mike Colwill, operating partner of the Fernwood Inn and Fernwood Pizza Company, said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. “I definitely appreciate how quickly they’ve moved on this,” he said. “I just don’t know what this is going to look like yet.”

Colwill said the current approach of operating at 50 to 60 per cent capacity is meeting the demand at the moment.

If that changes, Colwill said, one possibility might be to work with neighbourhood partners to apply for a street closure and expanded patio space — something Helps said businesses can do.

Council has already decided to temporarily restrict vehicles on Government Street — including closing one block from Fort Street to View Street — to allow more room for pedestrians and patios.

Matt MacNeil, who owns the Irish Times Pub and the Bard & Banker on Government, said he still has a lot of questions about the city’s plans and how they will affect businesses once applications open Monday.

“Because of the season and the good weather that we have, we all could use extra space on the sidewalks and on the street; there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I just think that the devil’s always in the details and they seem to be in short supply so far.”

He remains opposed, however, to any permanent closure of Government Street to motor traffic, beyond the temporary measures aimed at helping businesses survive the pandemic.

“I know there’s been talk of them closing it permanently,” he said. “They’ve wanted it for a long time. It makes no economic sense to close that through the winter months.”

MacNeil said Victoria doesn’t have the population base or density to support a year-round closure. “So we need to be more nimble and thoughtful about how we make these decisions.”

Larry Sullivan, president and chief executive officer of Rogers’ Chocolates, said he, too, is waiting for more details and whether there will be sufficient supports to keep people safe on Government Street.

“I can see positive attributes that it might bring, especially for the restaurants,” he said. “And if the restaurants can bring people downtown, that helps us, helps our stores, helps all the retailers.”

But he is concerned that it will exacerbate social problems that businesses already encounter daily.

“Even now, they’re still going on, so if they’re going to get worse, that’s not helpful,” he said. “If we can have a closed street and restaurants thrive and people feel safe, then that would be a wonderful thing.”

Darlene Hollstein, general manager of The Bay Centre, acknowledged that she initially had concerns about plans to close the block next to the mall.

But she was reassured by discussions with city staff Friday and the possibility for some of the mall’s tenants, such as Earls restaurant, to expand into the street.

“They’re super-open to our ideas of how we can actually animate the space and make it a comfortable location within the downtown core to invite people back down again,” she said. “So I am supportive of it and I have several tenants that want to be part of it.”

Hollstein said the city’s plan to test the street closures through to the end of October also makes sense.

“Generally speaking, I haven’t been fully supportive of shutting down the street,” she said. “But under these circumstances, we’re in new times, so it’s time to look at business a little differently.”

Theresa Palmer, who owns the Out of Ireland store on Government, offered a similar assessment.

“We do believe that this is a temporary thing during COVID,” she said.

“We certainly support that and we hope that local people will come out and support the restaurants and support the shops as well when they’re downtown.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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