Sidney council has cleared the path for restaurants and patios to offer additional outdoor seating.
Councillors Monday voted unanimously to endorse staff recommendations that would see restaurants use parts of their off-street parking for additional seating and cafes extend out beyond the edge of sidewalks into street following a pending bylaw amendment.
Staff will also continue to monitor what the report calls “pedestrian levels, lineups for commercial businesses and demand for outdoor seating for food vending businesses” with an eye towards addressing so called pinch points. If necessary and only following consultations, Sidney may close streets to traffic or re-purpose entire blocks of on-street parking for protected pedestrian spaces or outdoor seating areas.
The approved measures try to balance growing demand for outdoor seating with public health needs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While council’s support for the measures were unanimous, the public also heard some concerns about the effects of the measures on residents with mobility issues, with Coun. Scott Garnett fearing that even a small loss of on-street parking could harm citizens with mobility issues.
It is not clear yet when Monday’s approved recommendation might come into effect.
Speaking with the Peninsula News Review after the vote, Coun. Peter Wainwright said the municipality has to carefully think through these measures. “At the same time, there is some urgency to dealing with the pinch points,” he said.
One such pinch point is the business frontage of Beacon Café, Sidney Bakery, Style Coast clothing store, Canada Post Office, and Quince Café along the south side of Beacon Avenue east of Second Street.
Alison Verhagen, Sidney’s senior manager for current planning and recovery director in the emergency operations centre (EOC), said in her report outlining the measures that they would allow food service businesses with off-street parking spaces to repurpose some of those spaces for outdoor tables and chairs as commercial life resumes following the lifting of some restrictions by the provincial government.
“Not all downtown restaurants and cafes have off-street parking spaces but some do, and this change may alleviate some demands for use of public space,” she said, adding that the change could happen in a single council meeting because no public hearing would be required.
Wainwright pointed to several local restaurants that could use their off-street parking to expand seating including Good Fortune Restaurant among others.
As for allowing sidewalk café areas to expand beyond sidewalk edges into the streets, Verhagen said that the change would give staff the option to issue a license allowing tables, chairs and portable planters among other items in a repurposed on-street parking space.
The report also contains three other recommendations that could eventually find their way into practice, including the use of on-street parking to create more space for pedestrians, outdoor restaurant seating and customer line-ups for businesses.
“At the present time, while pedestrian volumes are still relatively low compared to normal, staff see only a few locations where this may be warranted, that being in areas where several food service businesses are ¡n close proximity and the existing sidewalk is not very wide,” said Verhagen’s report.
One such location — or pinch-point as described elsewhere — is south side of Beacon Avenue east of Second Street as described earlier.
The report also lists the option of closing a portion of Beacon Ave to traffic (while still allowing emergency vehicles) either at certain hours of the day, certain days of the week, or on a limited basis.
While this option would also create a “significant expansion” of pedestrian space and allow businesses more space to expand onto the streets, the report recommends more engagement with business community before exploring this option in detail.
“If pedestrian levels, business activity, and requests for outdoor restaurant and café seating all increase significantly while physical distancing orders are still in place, closing a greater portion of the street(s) to traffic may be warranted to optimize community safety,” said Verhagen.
If so, staff would have to make sure that the public is well aware of the reasons behind such a move.
“In that case, the reasons for changing street use would have to be made clear to the community in order to prevent a misunderstanding that it was done as a community event or tourist attraction, since the (provincial) restriction on gatherings over 50 people is still in place,” she said.
The report also lists the option of allowing any business including retailers to expand onto sidewalks. While such a move holds the promise of leveling the playing field for all downtown business, the report strikes a questioning tone.
“There may be concerns that allowing more types of businesses to extend out onto the sidewalk and potentially into the repurposed street areas would add to pedestrian congestion and would not aid in improving physical distancing,” said Verhagen.
The report notes that any pending changes would only be temporary, only in effect for the provincially designated restart phase. Once social distancing requirements are lifted, staff would repeal changes, she added.
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