Just like in other Okanagan communities, the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting Vernon, B.C., to rethink some of its outdoor space.
Vernon restaurants are already using sidewalk patios more than they ever did pre-pandemic.
Now, city hall is looking at going further by blocking off two blocks of the city’s main street to vehicle traffic four days a week this summer.
The current proposal is to block off 30 Avenue from 29 Street to 31 Street from Thursday morning to Monday morning each week.
Councillor Dalvir Nahal suggested the idea.
“I want to see a vibrant downtown,” Nahal said. “I want to see people on the streets eating and enjoying an evening.”
Some businesses believe they would really benefit.
“It gives us a chance to hire more staff back. It generates some more revenues which we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said James Fradley, owner of The Med Restaurant.
However, other businesses in the impacted area are opposed to the idea.
The owner of Vernon Teach and Learn, Lynella Henke, said the vast majority of businesses in the 3000 block have signed a petition against the proposal.
“People do not want to lose their curbside, they don’t want to lose their parking. Those are things that we have fought to keep for all these years,” Henke said.
“I also think it’s pretty drastic to shut down the road for four days a week for four months straight. If we are going to do this, why don’t we try it for a Saturday and Sunday?”
Henke said her business put a lot of effort into allowing online shopping and curbside pickup, and closing the street to traffic would make that service less accessible to customers as they wouldn’t be able to park in front of the store.
She said restaurants in her block are also relying on curbside pickup and delivery apps.
Henke would rather see only the 2900 block closed to traffic.
The proposal to temporarily close two blocks of 30th Avenue to vehicles is only the latest way Okanagan cities are rethinking outdoor spaces in light of the pandemic.
Mark Holland, a community planning professor at Vancouver Island University, believes it’s good that cities are rethinking outdoor space.
“COVID came in as a real challenge and it has really disrupted our cities in many ways, but there is a silver lining in that. Because we had to change what we did, it is causing us to rethink assumptions that we’ve been living with for too long,” Holland said.
“Rethinking what our streets and our sidewalks are used as … could possibly be one of the greatest gifts that we leave with our cities.”
However, Holland said whether pandemic changes are here for the long haul will likely depend on buy-in from businesses and commuter habits.
Holland said in communities where many people continue to work from home post-pandemic there will continue to be an elevated demand for shopping and restaurants after the pandemic.
Where there are stores, restaurants or other commercial businesses that are able to manage outdoor spaces successfully, Holland believes those new initiatives will stick around in the long term.
Back in Vernon, city councillors will have to decide whether to go ahead with the street closure pilot project and have been informally canvassing businesses.
“It’s been mixed reviews,” said Nahal.
“For the most part, it’s been positive. The amount of support and emails from the consumers that want to go downtown and support the businesses have been overwhelming. I think the biggest issue, and we have this issue all the time with Vernon, is parking.”
If the Vernon pilot project goes ahead, it could start as early as May 13.
The idea is expected to be back on the city council agenda on May 10.