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Here’s what you need to know about Victoria council’s Government Street proposal

The city says it wants to make Government a ‘people-priority street’

By Martin Bauman
March 10, 2022
City Hall
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Here’s what you need to know about Victoria council’s Government Street proposal

The city says it wants to make Government a ‘people-priority street’

By Martin Bauman
Mar 10, 2022
Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
City Hall
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

Here’s what you need to know about Victoria council’s Government Street proposal

The city says it wants to make Government a ‘people-priority street’

By Martin Bauman
March 10, 2022
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Here’s what you need to know about Victoria council’s Government Street proposal
Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Victoria council is seeking input on its draft designs of a reimagined Government Street. The City of Victoria’s engagement team has posted an online survey that will be available until March 20.

Noting the overall streetscape hasn’t changed in a half century, the city has put forth what it calls a “people-priority” vision for the street: one with wider sidewalks, new seating areas, intermittent car-free zones, and a Lekwungen Cultural Plaza—“really supporting to-ness, and treating the street and the areas on it as destinations, as opposed to through-ness,” urban planner Joaquin Karakas told Capital Daily.

The proposed changes come two years after city councillors first piloted pedestrianizing Government Street in an effort to bring an economic boost to businesses beset by tourist shortages. It also comes in the wake of a popular pilot project that saw patios pop up across Victoria, from Broad Street to Fernwood Village.

New gateway to Government Street

As part of the Government Street redesign, city staff are proposing a plaza that would honour the Lekwungen people and mark the entrance to Old Town from the Inner Harbour at Humboldt Street. 

Illustration: City of Victoria

“We’ve had the opportunity to work really closely with our Songhees and Esquimalt Nation partners who have provided really great input and advice on how to make the street more culturally safe and welcoming for their members,” Karakas says.

“And that includes telling a broader story about the history of our city, and a history that includes thousands and thousands of years of Lekwungen presence—and not just in the past, but the present and future.”

Traffic closures would remain timed, with removable bollards to convert the space into a pedestrian zone. Planners have proposed a cultural pavilion and public gathering space outside the Belmont Building, in front of Tractor Foods.

Wider sidewalks, ‘all modes of travel’

From Courtney to Yates Street, the road would narrow to allow for an expanded sidewalk and public space, and the timed car-free zone would continue—while also making room for horse-drawn carriages, pedi-cabs, and bicycles (which would be permitted at all hours).

Illustration: City of Victoria

The closure would stop short of an all-day ban on cars, however—something Jeff Bray, CEO of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, says would otherwise be a “deep concern” for the businesses who rely on Government Street for deliveries.

“There's no laneways,” Bray told Capital Daily. “[For] many of the businesses … their front door is also their back door.

“Government [Street] already has the widest sidewalks in the Capital Region—it already is predominantly pedestrian … there are other ways you could improve the pedestrian experience, while still at least maintaining one little lane of traffic,” he added.

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Steve Stead, the owner of Shanzee’s Biscuit Cafe in Market Square, shares similar feelings to Bray.

“I am all for the foot traffic, but with the option for buses and delivery vehicles to travel through when appropriate,” he wrote to Capital Daily in an email. He also mentioned he would be wary of any further restaurant spaces incorporated as part of the city’s plan.

“There is a huge amount of food service operators all around the Government Street area, and adding food trucks and food vendors would further dilute the business opportunities of an already fragile industry,” he argues.

Despite a large contingency of support for fully pedestrianizing Government Street in the city’s earlier online input process, Karakas, too, is wary of closing the street fully to cars—pointing to earlier experiments in the 1970s as having “mixed success.”

Instead, he believes that with timed closures, there are ways to satisfy both pedestrians and businesses who rely on commercial vehicles. He points to Calgary’s Stephen Avenue and Halifax’s Argyle Street as examples of pedestrian-first streets that can also adapt for motorized traffic. Both have design elements—like narrower lanes, wider sidewalks, curb bump-outs, and road surface paint—that make the environment more welcoming for people, and less welcoming for cars. 

Halifax’s Argyle Street. Photo: Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“The cues for vehicles are that if you are going to come, it's essentially a plaza where vehicles are allowed to drive through, but at a very slow [speed] and within a very shared environment,” he says.

Chinatown Plaza

One of the more noteworthy elements of the proposed redesign is a plaza slated for the corner of Government and Pandora Avenue. Staff have proposed a plaza that would eliminate the slip lane that leads to the alleyway behind the CTV and CFAX building. In its place, the plaza—with its mix of trees, planters, and a public water feature—would provide a southern gateway to Chinatown.

Illustration: City of Victoria

“That has essentially been planned for several years now,” says Karakas, noting it would be done as part of the redevelopment of the burned-down Plaza Hotel.

“Given its location, we’re seeing that as an opportunity to have some character and expression that reflects what we see throughout Chinatown.”

Mixed reviews

The draft proposal came together over the course of spring and summer 2021, with input from the Downtown Victoria Business Association, Songhees and Esquimalt Nations representatives, city advisory committees, among other stakeholders. Over 700 residents also took part in an earlier online survey, offering recommendations ranging from adding a sculpture and mural walk, to lowering the cost of busker licenses, to adding covered bike parking.

We asked our newsletter subscribers for their thoughts on the proposed Government Street. Redesign. Examples and precedents ranged from Melbourne, to Milan, to Vancouver.

“Take a look at the doming of the street next to the Cathedral Duomo in downtown Milan,” reader Sam Purdy wrote. “Doing the same to a portion of Government St. would open up a year-round tourist destination with sidewalk cafes [and] street performers, regardless of the weather. A significant cost that could enhance an already vibrant tourism industry.”

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. Photo: FromTheNorth via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Reader Karen Bishop cautioned against Government Street becoming a “ghost strip,” like Vancouver’s Granville Mall.

“Outside restaurant patios are nice, but only for a few months. Keep them as temporary / seasonal. And not too large,” she wrote.

Cordova Bay reader Roger Love shared far bolder plans for pedestrianizing Government Street:

“Visionary development would be to have Wharf and Government as pedestrian streets from Belleville to Johnson, [with] View and Yates cut off at Douglas to include Broad Street [as pedestrian-only].”

Perhaps the most practical suggestion came from reader Andrew Godon:

“What Government Street needs most if we want it to be a people place is to provide restrooms. It's just something everyone has to do once in a while.”

What happens next?

The city is hosting two virtual focus group sessions for local businesses on March 8, which will include a presentation by city staff and the design consultant. On March 9, the city will host two community-wide virtual presentations with no pre-registration required—from 12-1pm and 6-7pm.

After final input, the project will be presented back to various stakeholders, including First Nations representatives, members of the Chinese community, and local businesses, before it is presented to council in late spring.

*With files from Alec Lazenby and Jackie Lamport.

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Martin Bauman
Newsletter Editor
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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