Last year in Downtown Sarnia, the Chamber of Commerce made a bold suggestion, that council approved, to shut down Christina St on the weekends during the summer. For the most part it was an excellent success. Restaurants let their patios flow onto the street, people had space to socially distance while they walked and explored all the great shops downtown, fun events were run, and there was a vibe every weekend like it used to be for Artwalk and First Fridays.
The Chamber is back at it again this year coming to council for approval to do it again. I am excited what a second year will bring to this idea and give us another example year of how we can create more areas like this around Sarnia. However, there has been some pushback from local business owners that I would like to take an opportunity to respond to.
Concern #1 – Downtown closing presents an inconvenience to anyone intending to access the downtown by car.
There has been a consistent fear peddled by some downtown merchants that there is a severe lack of parking downtown and that is what is driving their customers away. They claim that initiatives like this make everything even worse. This fear though is unfounded and has been proven not to be the case not only in Sarnia, but cities around the world. Pedestrian only areas actually have been proven to increase shopping and the economic activity of areas. Further to this, the Chamber has released a downtown parking map that shows hundreds upon hundreds of parking spaces all surrounding the downtown that are free on weekends to park in with no time limits along with a few years ago council approved making the central Victoria Street lot free for all day parking all week long. When events such as Artwalk run, when 20,000 people would take to the streets downtown, this was never a problem at all. Creating a pedestrian only area downtown made people feel safe, they wandered more, shopped more and stuck around longer in the downtown and the slight inconvenience of not being able to park in the one or two spots in front of the specific store you want barely registers when weighed against the amount of traffic that it drives downtown as a whole.
Concern #2 – A “Weekend Walkabout” with no demonstrated or scheduled events serves no purpose and isn’t logical
The purpose is multi-fold and it would be helpful for us all to understand the benefits of this. Cities all over North America have been piloting pedestrian only zones (or car-free zones) because they understand the city-wide benefits of such areas. This includes encouraging walking/cycling, increased economic activity, lower accident rates and intentional spaces for sociocultural activities along with quality interactions and social cohesion. Anyone who pays attention to city planning and walkable city research (a great book btw.) understands that the purpose and logic behind making our public spaces more walkable are vast and we should be piloting these projects more often across the entire city, and then where it works, transforming areas into permanent walkable areas!
Concern #3 – A confusion of ‘opening up’ after Covid, and opening our streets
In the Sarnia Observer article, Helen Van Sligtenhorst is quoted saying “We’re all still trying to recuperate from COVID, let us be open, let the street be open. Let people come.” Her along with a few other business owners have a strange misconception that shutting down the streets actually hinders people from coming and our city opening up. I assure those concerned, that this will drive more people downtown, and not less. Sarnia businesses have had a tendency over the years to listen to the one or two complaints about parking rather than looking at the long term, city-wide benefits of following evidence-based research. It’s time for us to start listening to the experts and not letting uneducated and stubborn folks who don’t like change dictate our policies and vision for a better city.
Concern #4 – That proper consideration hasn’t been given to the business owners downtown
While there may be some truth to this concern, this definitely should not prevent us with piloting it again this summer. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive for what we were attempting to do last year and lessons have been learned (ie. the Chamber said “we’re taking a different approach this year and we will do more events ourselves to liven it up.”) Much of this would be solved if we were successful in our attempts to start a BIA in the downtown – as that is a municipal mechanism to survey, vote and have a voice for all the downtown business and property owners. I hope when we revisit that next time that we have more awareness by the downtown folks that a BIA would solve this problem for us and give us a stronger unified voice.
I really hope that council approves this Chamber request again for 2021 and that we use this opportunity to collect more relevant data for how these kinds of areas an be an improvement to the city and not a hindrance.