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Vancouver city council plans pilot project to test car-free Gastown for pedestrians

If adopted, Water Street could be closed to weekend car traffic as early as this summer

Vancouver is planning to eliminate weekend car traffic from the main thoroughfare of its historic Gastown neighbourhood as early as this summer, a city councillor announced Tuesday.

Sarah Kirby-Yung said she will introduce a motion on May 9 for a “people-focused Gastown,” which will include plans for a pilot project to shut down Water Street to car traffic on weekends starting as early as summer 2023.

The results will inform the city’s plans for Gastown, which may involve removing car traffic from the neighbourhood permanently in the future, Kirby-Yung said.

“The centrepiece of the vision includes pedestrianizing Water Street, looking at the options to make it either car-free or car-light on a seasonal or on a year-round basis,” she said during a news conference in Gastown, surrounded by Mayor Ken Sim and other ABC council members.

“As (we’ve) seen with so many cities around the world, we have the potential to make Gastown truly a destination neighbourhood by moving this forward with a more cohesive, bold vision.”

Under the plan, the city will immediately begin to address repairs to the cobblestone streets and other improvements on the street where the city’s famed steam clock is located.

Kirby-Yung said, if her motion passes, the city will begin the planning and design process for how to create a more pedestrian-friendly Gastown, including changing nearby Cordova Street from a one-way street to a two-way to facilitate Water Street potentially being removed as an artery.

The plan may also carry changes to bus infrastructure, and the city will consult with TransLink on those topics if the motion passes, Kirby-Yung said.

“What we are looking to do here is to harness the history of Gastown and unlock the vibrancy and the potential of a neighbourhood that people will flock to and enjoy, to create an absolute signature in our city,” she said.

Similar projects on another downtown thoroughfare, the Granville Street strip, have yielded positive results, Kirby-Yung said.

Gastown is one of Vancouver’s top tourist neighbourhoods, but it has suffered in recent years from the shutdown of cruise ship traffic during the pandemic and the spread of homelessness and social crisis in neighbouring Downtown Eastside.

Business owners in the historic neighbourhood are divided on the plan.

BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association CEO Ian Tostenson said the closing of Water Street to cars would open up space for restaurants and bars to set up patios and sidewalk cafés, making the neighbourhood more attractive to patrons.

Tostenson said restaurants in Gastown and other downtown neighbourhoods took the brunt of the malaise generated by the pandemic, and while the area’s occupancy numbers remain lower than pre-pandemic levels, a pedestrian-only Water Street could significantly boost local fortunes, if done correctly.

“If they were to just sort of open it to pedestrians only and not create the ambience and programming, I don’t think it’s going to be that appealing,” he said, noting that adding capacity to welcome cyclists would also help. “There’s a real opportunity to put a bit of a show on for the merchants down there, to make people say, ‘This is worth it.’”

Inform Interiors co-owner Nancy Bendtsen, however, was more skeptical.

Bendtsen, who with her husband has operated their furniture business in Gastown for decades, said a pedestrian-only Water Street — even if only on weekends — would be “extremely detrimental” to local businesses because shoppers still overwhelmingly use cars to access the neighbourhood.

“Of course, we want to support the bars and restaurants,” Bendtsen said. “But … it will just kill our businesses. If you walk the streets normally, you realize the amount of the overflow from the rest of the neighbourhood is here. There are people being threatened or spat on constantly. It will end up like Granville Street, and we will all close.”

Bendtsen said the city would be better served to address issues such as street repairs, removing garbage from back lanes and installing public bathrooms to improve Gastown before looking at limiting car traffic.

Gastown Business Improvement Society executive director Walley Wargolet said the neighbourhood’s business climate is relatively healthy despite the challenges, with the vacancy rate hovering around seven per cent.

He said the plan would bring the city back to the neighbourhood, and he is optimistic the results will be beneficial, not detrimental.

“We see this as that next layer to the legacy of this amazing neighbourhood,” he said.

—Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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