A Main Street town square of summer gatherings, music, patio drinks and more may be in the cards after Whitehorse city council voted to have administration explore the possibility.
Staff was directed at council’s Jan. 16 meeting to look at the concept put forward by Coun. Ted Laking for a one-year pilot project that would convert a portion of Main Street, between Second Avenue and Front Street, to a pedestrian-only area through the summer months. Expanded patio spaces, greenery, picnic tables and more could be part of the concept.
That work will include looking at the implications for parking, businesses and organizations in the vicinity and consulting with impacted property owners, businesses and organizations on that part of the street.
As Laking explained when he brought the motion forward, pedestrian-only streets are becoming more common throughout the country and around the world as a way to encourage more vibrant communities.
“The goal here is to bring excitement back to our Main Street: to make it a real destination, to reignite the downtown core, to support small businesses in the community that rely on Main Street,” he said, emphasizing his motion would not commit council to opening up the space as a pedestrian town square, but rather task administration with looking at the possibility and consulting those who would be impacted.
“Then if we were to continue to proceed, a formal decision, I believe, would come through something such as a road closure bylaw,” Laking said.
While council members proposed and ultimately approved some changes to the wording of the document — removing the word proposal and focusing on an analysis in terms of what administration will bring forward, for example — they were unanimous in their support for the overall idea, highlighting potential benefits that could come.
As Coun. Michelle Friesen pointed out, not only could it be an opportunity for a more vibrant downtown, it would also “show our commitment to our climate emergency that we declared in 2019 and help us meet some of our climate goals by demonstrating a preference to pedestrians and active transportation versus what is sometimes (seen) typically as a car-centric approach in this city.”
At the same time, Friesen said it will be important to look at maintaining accessibility for seniors and those living with disabilities, a concern Mayor Laura Cabott highlighted as well.
Along with a number of accessible parking spaces on that section of road are spaces for commercial vehicles that will also have to be taken into consideration, the mayor said.
While Cabott highlighted the importance of the analysis, she also voiced her support for improvement efforts in the downtown.
“Our cities are really judged by our downtown and if you don’t have a clean, safe, vibrant, active downtown, it starts to become not quite so attractive to the things that we want it to attract,” she said. “So I do think anything that we can do to bring out that vibrancy and so that we are proud of our downtown, I would support.”
While some council members pointed to the potential to move some future Rendezvous festival events back to Main Street every February, Cabott pointed out there would have to be discussions with Rendezvous organizers and others. City administration suggested it would be better to consider that separately.
City manager Jeff O’Farrell explained closing off part of the road for the summer would require council to pass a road closure bylaw, while shutting a portion down for an event is another process.
“I see them as different exercises,” he said. “And I would suggest that perhaps another way to approach the Rendezvous question would just be for the administration to get a sense of the society’s interests in the future.”
With council’s vote in favour of exploring the possibility for the summer pedestrian town square, city staff will begin looking at the potential.
A council and administration roundtable, where staff and council members have a focused discussion on a particular topic without any formal decisions being made, will be held in the near future, Mike Gau, the city’s director of development services, told reporters after the Jan. 16 meeting.
“If the information we put together and the feedback received lends itself to carry on with the idea, then the formal road closure process would be a few months from now,” Gau said.
It would be a few months before a road closure bylaw would come back to council, if the city opted to pursue the town square.
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