Ten-hour daily closures of Government Street to motor vehicle traffic, between Humboldt and View streets, is a key element in the City of Victoria’s pandemic recovery assistance program for 2021.
As part of the support of downtown businesses, in the wake of the indoor dining ban and beyond, Victoria council approved a plan to extend the Business Recovery from Pandemic Bylaw – branded as Build Back Victoria – past its planned end date of Oct. 31 and continue to monitor the results.
The use of public space for private uses, including relaxing rules around using sidewalks for seating space for restaurants, pubs and other food primary businesses, has been central to the program. Most councillors agreed the move has added vibrancy to downtown streetscapes, with more than one saying the patios give the area a more European flavour.
“Thank you, I can’t wait for the summer,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. She was already thinking ahead, noting aloud that the city and Downtown Victoria Business Association could team up for a Patio Fest event to promote outdoor dining on the slowest night of the week.
Starting in June, Government Street will be closed to motor vehicles between noon and 10 p.m. daily, but open to pedestrians and northbound horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and pedicabs. The corridor has been the most visible area downtown of the city’s allowance to place patios on sidewalks, and the increase of pedestrian space to allow for distancing during the pandemic.
The opening hours of 10 p.m. to noon will allow for emergency vehicles and morning deliveries and commuters. Cross streets are not affected.
While he voiced appreciation for how the streetscape changes have livened up the downtown, Coun. Ben Isitt cautioned that post-pandemic, the city will need to land on an appropriate balance between commercial interests and public interests. He also worried that the ability to use public space at no charge could give businesses that have taken advantage of the Build Back Victoria program somewhat of an unfair advantage.
Coun. Stephen Andrew said it’s going to take several years for some of these businesses to recover the losses of the past 12 to 18 months.
“I would like to see this go on and on. Yes, we may have to look at the future use of public space, but I would like to see this continue,” he said. “To me, it makes downtown look fantastic and exciting.”
The discussion also included a recommendation that staff to ensure all businesses serving on patios have their washrooms open to patrons, and those adding a smaller outdoor space ensure those spaces are fully accessible for people with mobility challenges by July 1.
The city also plans further pedestrian friendly and public seating enhancements along Government Street as part of the spring and summer program.