I have said it before and, unfortunately, I will likely say it again: the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging, particularly for small businesses.
But like many crises, some good also emerges.
In downtown, the silver lining of the enduring pandemic this summer is the emergence of patio culture.
In response to COVID, and the occupancy challenges it poses for restaurants, bars, and lounges, the City of Victoria launched several short-term initiatives in their Build Back Victoria program. The goal was to help businesses reopen and recover.
One of the most successful aspects was the easy application for added flex spaces or parklet space outside food service businesses to increase seating capacity.
The uptake from businesses was immediate. To date, we have seen over 99 businesses apply for patio or parklet space.
The response from the public was just as immediate. Yates Street, Broad Street, Government Street, Fernwood, and other areas are seeing street life like never before.
For years, people have suggested that Victoria adopt a more ‘European feel’ to its public realm. However, antiquated liquor laws, cumbersome bureaucracy, and cost seemed to get in the way.
With COVID, the need for all levels of government to become nimble, flexible, and, to some extent, just get out of the way has led to an explosion of exciting outdoor spaces.
The lack of large numbers of tourists has encouraged locals to come downtown and try patio life. There is a new energy and vibrancy as a result.
This is wonderful news for both owners and their staff. Frequenting patios and enjoying the great weather leads to more employment for locals, including students and new Canadians, who make up a sizable portion of servers and other food service employees.
The emergence of patio culture and witnessing locals enjoying these outdoor spaces is great to see. The Downtown Victoria Business Association feels the city should look to the success of these new spaces, and explore either allowing them every spring, or even operating them year-round.
If this change becomes permanent, we could anticipate owners investing more in the appearance and amenities of their spaces.
This, in turn, would lead to that ‘European feel’ people talk about.
We have one the best mid-sized downtowns in North America. Patio culture could be the key ingredient to move us to the next level of fun, inclusivity, and vibrancy in Downtown Victoria.
See you on the patios, Victoria!
Jeff Bray is the executive director with the Downtown Victoria Business Association.