Last summer’s Downtown Dining District was a great success, but it also exposed problems that need to be avoided in the future, say several city councillors who are speaking out about what one councillor calls the “false narrative” that program changes will hurt businesses.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is an enhancement. We have more patio space, more merchants able to do it, more reasons to come downtown,” said Coun. Mike Salisbury.
“Not everyone felt (last year’s initiative) worked. There was a lot of people that liked it and there were a lot of businesses that benefited, but there were also a lot that did not.”
Meeting as the committee of the whole on Monday, city council unanimously approved a three-year program that, if ratified later this month, would see businesses of all sorts be able to apply for permission to set up seasonal patios on private property, public sidewalks and in on-street parking spaces.
Unlike last year, the intersection of Wyndham and Macdonell streets would not be closed throughout the summer, though the committee-approved motion allows businesses to apply for special event road closure permits.
“If restaurants in downtown got together, they could all benefit and have a structured approach to the special events that could create a whole new dynamic in the downtown and a whole new culture of cooperation among all restaurants,” said Coun. Leanne Caron, suggesting rotating sections of downtown could have special event road closures and different themes to attract people.
If that happens, Caron believes it will turn all of downtown into “small winners” rather having “five big winners” and a bunch of “losers” from the closure of the Macdonell and Wyndam streets intersection.
“Everybody’s still a winner,” she said. “This is all about the economic recovery of downtown … all of downtown..”
It would be “obscene” of council to prioritize giving “a few” businesses two metres more patio space by spilling out into closed roads over maintaining transit connections, added Salisbury.
“That closure creates delays and missed connections in our transit. The people that we call essential workers are, over the course of the summer, it could be hundreds of hours stolen from them in terms of productivity and family time,” he said, suggesting the intersection closure is akin to throwing essential workers under the proverbial bus.
Transit is an essential service in the eyes of Coun. Phil Allt. He believes the schedule needs to be maintained.
“I will be the first to admit that we need to make improvements to it. We don’t make improvements by impairing our capacity to deliver people on time. All that does is reduce ridership and lead to discouragement, and actually morale issues with drivers,” he said.
“To keep those routes open so that we can do it effectively is pretty important to me.”
In a report to council, city staff estimate the cost of closing the intersection of Macdonell and Wyndham streets at $338,200 for 2021, in part due to the rerouting of transit buses and the need to bring on more buses to make up for lost time and increased distances being travelled. For weekend-only closures, the cost was pegged at $152,200.
That’s in addition to the $112,500 committee members agreed to spend in 2021 to cover the purchase of barriers to be placed between patios and open traffic.
“When you benefit a small group of businesses in one geographic area at the expense of all, that is not good financial stewardship,” Caron said. “With the special events approach, the businesses that benefit pay the cost of the closures, but they can apply for city grants and they can apply for waivers through an alternate approach where everyone is treated equally.”
Road closure costs have not been budgeted for this year and would have to come out of reserves, she noted.
Over the three-year program, the collective cost of closing the Macdonell and Wyndham streets intersection throughout patio season would be at least $1 million. If that collective cost was added to the city budget in a single year it would result in a roughly 0.42 per cent residential property tax increase, based on 2021 budget figures.
“It’s the best solution for the short-term,” Caron said of the committee’s decision.
“What we need is a long-term plan and we have one, thankfully,” she added, referring to the Downtown Secondary Plan which envisions a pedestrian-friendly space from Market Square to Baker Street.
“It’s a public realm plan that encapsulates everything that I’m hearing people want in a dining district. Taking over hot asphalt for four months and closing downtown’s busiest intersection doesn’t achieve any of the objectives of a public realm plan that will truly enhance downtown’s economic recovery.”
Approved in 2013, Caron hopes the Downtown Secondary Plan can be implemented in time for the city’s 200th birthday in 2027.
“I’m quite happy with it,” Allt said of the committee’s decision. “It provides a template for downtown redevelopment. It’s a downtown that can move people with active transit, with public transit and maybe even with cars. Clearly it leads to more of a European high-street model of the downtown. That, to me, is a big plus.”
Several of the councillors said they take exception to Mayor Cam Guthrie’s Tuesday statement to GuelphToday that he plans to make a return of the Downtown Dining District, along with the closure of the intersection of Macdonell and Wyndham streets, an election issue in 2022.
“We have way more important fish to fry than to worry about politics right now. We need to make sure that our community thrives and survives through the most difficult thing I think we’ve all ever seen in our lives,” said Salisbury, adding the idea “irritates” him. “This is not an election issue. … You do realize the election is damn-near two years away, right?”
Caron referred to it as “dog whistle politics."
“The politicization of this issue is a real disappointment,” she said. “We are elected to represent both views and balance pros and cons and make decisions that are best for everyone.
“Our role is to bring people together to create an environment where we can come up with a win-win solution. … The consequence of trying to come up with a solution that works for everyone is that not everyone gets what they want.”