Keep the patios, but reopen Government St. to vehicles: DVBA

Victoria’s shops and restaurants are keen to keep expanded patios in place through the winter months, but they want Government Street reopened to at least one lane of vehicle traffic, the Downtown Victoria Business Association says.

The city’s Build Back ­Victoria plan, approved in June to aid the COVID-19 recovery, allowed businesses to increase their ­seating areas by setting up tables and chairs on sidewalks, streets, boulevards and public plazas.

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At the same time, pedestrian-friendly zones were created along Government Street by reducing vehicle travel to a single lane and blocking it off entirely from Fort Street to View Street.

Jeff Bray, executive director of the downtown association, said the plan worked well over the summer and allowing ­restaurants and bars to keep their expanded patios in place this winter will help them to survive.

But he said a number of businesses on Government want the block between Fort and View streets reopened to vehicles at a time when there will be fewer pedestrians and an increased demand for curbside pick-ups and drop-offs.

Other sections of the street should be reopened to vehicles as well if the pavement is not being used for patio space, he said.

“The feedback that we have received from our businesses is that where restaurants could extend their patios into the space was tremendous,” he said.

“But to have pedestrian-only space on the road in the middle of winter makes no sense.”

Victoria city council will consider the issue Thursday. A staff report recommends extending the Build Back Victoria program to March 31, 2021, and says the city will make modifications to maintain the additional pedestrian spaces “while accommodating northbound vehicle ­traffic movements over the ­winter months.”

Jessica Walker, managing partner of Munro’s Books, wants at least one lane of Government reopened in front of her store to allow for curbside pickup and improved access for customers over the holiday season.

“Where we heard the most negative feedback in the ­summer was from all of our couriers, because they often had to park a block away, sometimes downhill,” she said. “Our ­inventory is very heavy, so they were pushing 400-pound dollies up the street, and it was very inconvenient for them.”

If one lane reopens to ­vehicles, Walker said she would support keeping the expanded patios in place for restaurants. “Certainly, the survival of any business downtown, we all have to be prepared to make ­sacrifices for that.”

Matt MacNeil, who owns the Irish Times Pub and the Bard & Banker on Government, said the flexible patio policy made a big difference to his businesses over the summer.

“I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been had we not been able to be outside in the numbers that they gave us,” he said. “So we’re all grateful for that.”

MacNeil said he’s looking to keep his patios in operation over the winter by creating greenhouse-type structures with removable glass panels to allow for air flow on nice days.

But he agrees with Walker on the need to reopen Government to northbound traffic, which will allow cabs to pick up and drop off people in rainy weather.

“I think that they can still maintain that pedestrian feeling and have one lane going north,” he said. “I think it’s just the wise thing to do — for deliveries, for all the retailers in the mall and everything else.

Bray said his association would like to see Build Back Victoria extended beyond March to Oct. 31, 2021. The longer time frame would give businesses more certainty before they invest in “winterizing” their patios. “To ask businesses to make that type of investment with the possibility that, at the end of March, you’ve got to take it all out, might make it tougher for certain businesses to do it,” he said.

Bray added that an Oct. 31 deadline would coincide with the expiry of the temporary provincial authorization that allows restaurants and bars to expand their licensed areas.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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