Victoria takes steps toward making pandemic street patios permanent

Victoria city council is moving toward making its pandemic street patios permanent.

Last summer, the city allowed restaurants and stores to expand patios and retail space onto sidewalks, streets and boulevards to cope with physical-distancing requirements amid the pandemic. Some businesses have asked that the changes be made permanent.

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On Thursday, councillors passed a motion to facilitate permanent lane closures in the 1300 block of Gladstone Avenue in Fernwood Village where restaurants have expanded onto the road, making the street one-way.

Council asked city staff to report back on how it can work with businesses to find a permanent approach to the more than 100 new patios when the pandemic is over.

The pandemic emergency bylaw allowing the patios expires in October.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said Thursday she expects staff will recommend extending the bylaw to June 2022 to match the duration of a temporary pandemic-related provincial liquor policy that allows all patios to have liquor licences.

“The best-case scenario is for the province to make this new approach, allowing the patios to have liquor licences, the liquor policy, permanent,” said Helps.

Once the province removes that provision, each patio would have to apply for its own liquor licence, she said. “It would be easier if what the province has done during the pandemic can become permanent.”

Eventually, the businesses with patios built during the pandemic will pay a fee.

“Right now there’s an inequity,” said Helps. “Businesses that had patios on public spaces before the pandemic are paying for them. I think that’s fine for now. But again what we’ll need to turn our minds to once we’re through this and businesses are booming again, there will need to be some kind of fee.”

Gladstone Street is a great example of the community and businesses coming together to ask the city for something, Philip Bellefontaine, Victoria’s director of engineering, told council.

Bellefontaine said he did not anticipate any significant community concerns in making one-way traffic on Gladstone permanent.

“But it’s prudent the city goes through a process to make sure no one has been missed in terms of who we have spoken to, to gather all that feedback,” said Bellefontaine, adding the city could send a letter to residents and businesses in the area and contact the local residents association about the move.

Coun. Geoff Young, who supported the motion, said the patios are “generally good” and add vitality, but they also affect driving and parking.

“Patios that are heavily used in the height of summer add to the city. But three weeks before Christmas, when people want to come down and shop in our small shops and those patios are totally empty, they are not a good use of public space. So I am in favour of patios that may have time-of-day or time-of-year limitations,” said Young.

Over time, patio owners tend to make them more enclosed, he said, adding roofs and plastic sides and running cables across the sidewalk.

“Pretty soon, you’ve got just another structure on the street and you’ve lost the communication between patio residents and passersby that is the whole point of their existence.”

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Greater Victoria Down­town Business Association, said the patios were a lifeline for businesses and allowed staff to keep working during the pandemic.

He said a patio culture emerged as people embraced them — sitting out on a dark, cold October day with blankets — although there is concern over the way some of the temporary structures look and issues around accessibility need to be addressed.

“Applications coming in for permanent patios will get far more scrutiny than they did last year, when it was just ‘slap ’em up and just get going,’ ” said Bray. “I think you’ll see over time that they’ll be improved.

“If they know they can be permanent and the city will work with them so they can do a design that makes sense, then I think you’ll find that businesses will make the investments because it will pay off.”

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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