Close streets, expand patios: Vancouver’s Robson Street mulls how to reopen under COVID-19

Click to play video: 'Calls to repurpose Robson Street public space for expanded retail and patios' Calls to repurpose Robson Street public space for expanded retail and patios
There are calls for streets to be closed to vehicle traffic temporarily to give B.C. businesses a boost as they restart, and while Robson Street merchants say a full road closure would be problematic, retailers say repurposing some public space may help them survive. Kristen Robinson reports – May 10, 2020

With many stores along Vancouver’s popular Robson Street shopping district boarded up, one idea to help drum up business is gaining steam on social media: to close the artery to vehicles and give pedestrians more space and allow patios to expand amid continued COVID-19 physical-distancing rules.

Inside the Blue Horizon Hotel, sales director Suzanne Bidinost spent Mother’s Day brainstorming ideas on how to reopen as cases of the illness slowly decline and restrictions slowly eased.

“In my 35-year career, we have never seen anything like this before,” said Bidinost.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Vancouver mulls street closures to boost physical distancing

According to B.C.’s hospitality industry, more than 70 per cent of hotels in the province have temporarily closed.

Blue Horizon stayed open to serve first responders, though its restaurant, Abode, remains closed and how or when it will reopen is unclear.

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“We absolutely have a lot of uncertainty,” Bidinost told Global News. “We’re waiting for some guidance to know what physical distancing is going to look like going forward.”

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Retailers on Robson Street are also facing an absence of international tourism, conventions and sporting events this year, as well as fewer people coming downtown to go to work.

Without that key traffic, hospitality businesses both in that neighbourhood and across the city need help to survive, said the Robson Street Business Association.

The organization is looking at how to repurpose public space to better support businesses and allow people to safely move, queue, dine and shop, such as limiting vehicle access.

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Executive director Teri Smith said a full street closure has been discussed, but it raises other logistical challenges around transit re-routing, hotel access, and deliveries.

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Instead, the association would like the city’s help to move quickly to expand patio areas and retail spaces, as well opening side streets to retail, expanding commercial uses into laneways, and accommodating curbside patios.

READ MORE: B.C. sets mid-May target to reopen restaurants with coronavirus precautions

Meantime, the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association and three other industry organizations have written to every B.C. municipality, urging them to allow any increase in patio or outdoor space to be considered a continuation of an establishment’s existing approved alcohol service.

Robson Street already has at least four parklets: small seating areas or green spaces installed alongside sidewalks in former parking spaces.

Of B.C.’s approximately 15,000 restaurants, the association expects 25 to 30 per cent will close permanently because of the pandemic’s financial impact.

The City of Vancouver has said there are no current plans to close the thoroughfare to vehicles, though it’s been a topic of discussion after Stanley Park was closed to vehicles to help with physical distancing.

Council is expected to debate motions on both the reallocation of street space and expanding the use of patios on Tuesday.

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