After decades of discussing the merits and pitfalls of turning Queen Street into a pedestrian mall, council agreed, during a special meeting called last Friday morning, to a pilot project that prohibits vehicles on the main drag from King Street to Victoria Street.
But Monday, Lord Mayor Betty Disero and interim CAO Sheldon Randall, using the authority delegated to them to make decisions on behalf of council during the state of emergency, overturned some of the details approved by council.
The first day of the trial period was to be Canada Day, and then was to continue on weekends and holidays, until the end of October, as approved by council, voting on a motion put forward by Coun. Clare Cameron, which also called for the streets to be closed from 10 a.m. Saturday to Sunday at midnight.
But after hearing from business owners, and meeting with Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce representatives, the decision was made to shorten the hours for closing the street.
Instead the pilot project is now only for Canada Day and three weekends in July, and will extend a little further, past the Victoria Street intersection to the Post Office, stopping before the Hendriks valu-mart parking lot.
The timing was also changed, to close the streets Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Shortening the closure, Disero said, to cover just the time stores are open, will have less of an impact on residents, who are subjected to increased traffic in their Old Town neighbourhood.
The details now correspond to the request made Friday by chamber president Eduardo Lafforgue, and Kim Gauld of the Heritage Merchants Group, who were both surprised, as were some councillors, by Cameron’s motion to extend the pilot program until the end of October.
Gauld, who with her husband Scott owns The Sunset Grill, represents a group of about 40 downtown businesses, and also sits on the chamber board.
They stressed they want the street closed for safety and health reasons, allowing room for pedestrians to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, instead of crowding on the sidewalks during busy weekends.
“Safety and health are paramount for residents and visitors,” said Lafforgue. “It’s essential to promote that we are a safe playground.”
Lafforgue was asking for a trial period of three weekends, and regular evaluations with chamber and town representatives to see if the street closure is working, and to allow for adjustments if necessary.
The results of the evaluations, with input from residents and businesses, will allow for adjustments, and a decision as to whether to continue the closures during the summer and into the fall, said Disero Monday, after the announcement of the change in details. That allows for data to be collected in time for a decision to be made on how to proceed when council meets on July 20.
At Friday’s meeting, Lafforgue explained he is not planning on offering festival-like entertainment such as music or buskers, as during other street closures. His goal is to keep the centre of the street empty for pedestrians. He suggested following the protocol used for the chamber’s annual Peach Celebration, which closes off the street for a day in August, or the Icewine Festival that shuts it down for several days in January. The chamber already has the logistics worked out from previous years, and could handle the closure easily and quickly, he said, with just eight steps that are followed every year for those two events.
He told councillors the chamber will notify residents who will be affected by traffic and parking on nearby streets, as it has done before other street closures.
Gauld told councillors that after several zoom meetings with retailers and restaurant owners, and three surveys, 90 per cent indicated they are in favour of some form of Queen Street closure, with a “compelling” desire to try something new.
She suggested using surveys at the end of each week to ask business owners if the street closure helped them to feel safer, if their customers felt safer, and if it helped their businesses.
“Then we can decide how we improve and move forward. The big thing is how to make everyone feel safe.”
On busy weekends in town, she said, “residents and visitors are saying they don’t feel safe.”
Supporting the request for street closure at the virtual council meeting was Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw Festival, who is also a chamber board member and part of the Town’s rapid response task force.
With the festival closed and hotels empty, the downtown merchants need all the support they can get, Jennings said, encouraging the Town to try anything, even at the risk of failure, that might help Queen Street merchants.
Although the closure will be modelled on festival street closures, exactly how it will be managed “is to be determined as part of the test,” Jennings said, reminding councillors that “this situation is not normal.”
There was also a discussion about allowing retailers to move out onto the street, into parking spaces, as the restaurants are doing with their patios. It would encourage shoppers while also giving them space for physical distancing, said Gauld, adding there is a small number of retailers who have expressed interest in doing that.
Coun. Gary Burroughs said he could recall retailers moving their merchandise out on to the sidewalk during the Peach Celebration. If they want to expand their space on weekends when the road is closed, they can use the sidewalk in front of their shop and allow pedestrians to use the road. Otherwise, he said, “I think we’re opening up all sorts of things that we shouldn’t be.”
Although council agreed to the street closures, there was no decision made to allow merchants to move outside, said Disero.
Other issues that have come up repeatedly in recent years during debates about creating a pedestrian mall on Queen Street were also discussed Friday, including the loss of parking spaces and parking revenue, and cutting off delivery to stores.
Most stores and restaurants receive deliveries from trucks which stop in the middle of the street while they unload, but the majority of deliveries are Monday to Friday, said Gauld. She suggested trucks could make deliveries on weekends, if necessary, in the morning and evening.
While there were numbers given for revenue that would be lost from parking, Burroughs pointed out it would likely be more a matter of vehicles using other spaces further away, not necessarily reducing revenue.
Lafforgue, asked about encouraging visitors to wear masks by Coun. Norm Arsenault, said the chamber, through its website and answering outside blogs, will be reminding people planning to come to town about physical distancing. Wearing a mask “is absolutely essential. We’re encouraging everyone to do it.”
Coun. Erwin Wiens asked about merchants who lose revenue during street closures for other events, including Hendrik’s valu-mart.
Jennings said there could be adjustments made after the first weekend, if necessary. “It isn’t going to be a perfectly fair situation, and there is no way to make it a perfect situation,” he added. Instead of making “perfect the enemy of the good,” he said, “in terms of moving this forward, I would try, evaluate and adjust.”
“We would not be able to satisfy everybody,” Lafforgue agreed, “but we need to try.”
Coun. Erwin Wiens mentioned other details that had not been discussed, such as third-party insurance, and who would shoulder the costs of closing down the street.
“I would like to see what’s best for residents and businesses. I don’t want to be an impediment to them, I want to be an asset.” But before he could support the request, he would want to see an operational plan from the chamber that lays out more of the details on who takes responsibility for what, and where the money is coming from, he said.
Disero said she walked along Queen Street last week with her clipboard, accompanied by Coun. Allan Bisback, to ask merchants their opinions on street closure.
They received a very mixed response from retailers and restaurant owners, she said, with 28 saying yes to trial closure on weekends, and 19 saying no, a different result than Gauld’s surveys.
She asked business owners, not property owners, she explained, and not all of those she spoke to are familiar with Survey Monkey.
“A couple were impartial, anticipating COVID is going to kill their business anyway,” she said. They are anxious, they don’t know what to do, and some are saying, “just do what the Town thinks is best.”
Some of those she spoke to asked not to be identified, “begging not to say who they are.” They’re afraid of repercussions if they say no to street closure, she said.
Bisback agreed he heard a mixed response as well. “There is a real feeling of anxiety, from retailers and folks who have been here 25 to 30 years.” He got the impression a few shops will close, and also that visitors are day-trippers, not here to shop.
Council also discussed another proposal put forward by staff, to block off parking spaces to allow for pedestrians, but leave the street open for traffic. It included closing a small portion of Regent and Victoria Streets, but not Queen Street.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita, who represents the Town on the chamber board, asked why council would look at other options, “when the majority of businesses have asked us to look at street closure.”
After further dialogue between the chamber and merchants, “I think they understand the situation a little better. They came to council this morning because this is what the majority of merchants want,” she said. “Better we do something than do nothing. Closing parts of Regent and Victoria doesn’t help a lot of merchants.”
On the motion put forward by Cameron, councillors agreed to close the street from King to Victoria Streets Canada Day, every weekend from 10 a.m. Saturday to Sunday at midnight, until Oct. 31, and on statutory holidays until then.
Cameron said she felt it would be “simpler to go all in” for four months, and easier to communicate, but as a test pilot would allow for adjustments to be made, including the potential for cancelling it.
She also called for town staff to create an operational plan laying out responsibilities and costs.
Lafforgue and Gauld both said after the meeting that Cameron’s motion for the pilot project to extend through October took them by surprise.
Lafforgue says he is pleased that the message to visitors will be that NOTL is safe, and not so crowded that there is no room for physical distancing.
“We need to save Queen Street,” he says. “We’re losing who we are, and it won’t come back easily. Imagine this town without Queen Street, without the restaurants, without the Shaw — unfortunately, it might happen. Whatever we can do to help, we should be doing it.”
Gauld, who was happily busy Friday evening with a new Sunrise Grill patio created out of two parking spaces, said it was good to be open and back in business, hopefully on the way to a season of recovery.
She is also pleased with the pilot program for road closure. It allows for physical distancing, and adjustment to make it work for everyone, which is what they were hoping for.
“It’s got to be good for everybody,” she says. “But the number one issue is safety. If pedestrians have the space, they’ll try to spread out. And if we give them that ability, most people will be respectful.”