Street in front of Parliament could reopen in March, a year after ‘Freedom Convoy’

Police officers walk pass the Parliament buildings in Ottawa on Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Officials from the Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police are expected to testify about their challenges overcoming the "Freedom Convoy" protests today at an inquiry investigating the federal government's use of the Emergencies Act.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld. ajw

An Ottawa municipal committee has voted to reopen the street in front of Parliament Hill to traffic a little over a year after it was blockaded by the big rigs of the “Freedom Convoy.”

The transportation committee voted on Thursday to have Wellington Street reopen no earlier than March 1, to put in new infrastructure including a temporary bike lane and to explore temporary closures for events.

The decision will be brought to the wider city council for a vote in early February.

The street was formally closed until the end of 2022 on Feb. 23 last year, days after the weeks-long convoy demonstration was cleared.

Coun. Ariel Troster expressed her concern about a lack of support for emergency services during the convoy protests, saying that if the street reopens, the same situation cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

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She said it’s important to “make sure emergency services are never overwhelmed again,” so that residents will not be in danger due to a lack of resources.

Committee chair Tim Tierney said that the committee has been in contact with emergency services and the Ottawa Police Services Board, and they are working together to address safety concerns expressed by residents and city staff.

Right now, he said, the street is not secure, and councillors do not want it to open without “secure measures in place.” Barriers were installed on the street, but it is possible for vehicles to pass through, and he said police will be monitoring and addressing that in the coming months.

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Some councillors want to see longer-term plans discussed before spring, saying during the meeting on Thursday that the street could become a pedestrian-only zone and it would be a step back to return to how things were before last winter.

Ben Cool-Fergus, an urban planner with the city, told the committee that this is a “historic opportunity” to reimagine the city’s downtown core, which he said has otherwise not changed very much, with the exception of a few lane additions.

“I’m really hoping that courage is demonstrated to not just return to what was, but to think of what could be,” said Cool-Fergus.

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Troster said that if the street were to reopen, she wants to make sure that pedestrian and cycling safety are a priority. She added that the possibility of closing the street for events, on weekends and in the summertime can be a part of the long-term plan.

“I want to leave the street better than it was originally,” said Troster.

But the executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area told the committee that the closure has been a struggle. Kevin McHale represents nearby businesses on and around Sparks Street, a pedestrian corridor one block south of Wellington Street.

He said that businesses have been facing many repercussions. For deliveries, he said, large transport trucks have to detour onto smaller streets, which cannot always accommodate their size. And he said some businesses are unable to reach certain customers because there is a lack of available parking.

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“The limited amount of surface parking in our area cannot be accessed by our members, clients and service providers. Loading zones are inaccessible and restrict deliveries,” said McHale.

Coun. Matthew Luloff said traffic planning is at the forefront of the conversation. He noted that as more federal public servants return to their offices downtown, traffic may increase in the area, which could lead to congestion issues.

“Queen Street certainly was not built to handle the amount of traffic it has been forced to handle,” he said, referring to a two-lane street two blocks south of Wellington Street.

“Right now, infrastructure in the downtown core is ailing under current conditions.”

The city’s traffic director, Phil Landry, said a study will be conducted to see what traffic is like in the coming months, and he will provide an update to the committee.

A House of Commons committee recently recommended that Wellington Street be moved under parliamentary jurisdiction, which could take its fate out of the council’s hands, but no decision has been made.

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