Victoria Street tenants are divided over an idea to shutter the street to vehicles in favour of creating a pedestrian-centric area, with many citing concerns about parking.
Kamloops This Week conducted a survey in recent weeks of tenants on Victoria Street, from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue, asking if they support or oppose closing the street to vehicular access.
The idea was floated by Hello Toast restaurant owners amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Owners of the popular downtown breakfast and lunch locale said due to occupancy restrictions and distancing rules in place for restaurants to curb spread of the novel coronavirus in B.C., they would not be able to keep their business afloat in their typically small and cozy space.
Instead of closing the street, the city instead loosened rules for outdoor patios and sidewalk sales, allowing businesses to spill out onto sidewalks and parking stalls, to create more space for customers.
Several businesses have since expanded their patios.
KTW compiled a database of more than 150 Victoria Street tenants from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue, which includes top-of-mind stores and restaurants and many professional services — counsellors, lawyers, accountants and financial services advisors — not visible to the average passerby, tucked away on top floors above storefronts.
In addition, the area surveyed is home to non-profits, big banks, government offices, a movie theatre, a library, a hotel, a pharmacy, fitness studio space, beauty services and others.
KTW reached more than 100 tenants. The survey does not include residential dwellings, which are also sprinkled along the strip.
The survey found 50 tenants were in favour of closing Victoria Street to vehicular access (46 per cent of those contacted by KTW), while 38 were opposed (35 per cent), Twelve tenants (11 per cent) indicated maybe/unsure and seven (6.5 per cent) were impartial.
Of those in support of the idea, owners of restaurants and professional service providers were generally more in favour of closing the street to vehicles, while owners of stores were generally opposed.
Restaurant owners told KTW closing the street to vehicles would create a good atmosphere downtown and allow for social interaction and physical distancing during the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Restaurants have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with most already working on slim margins.
Caffé Motivo and Hoja Mongolian Grill expressed support, as did Subway owner Grayden Flanagan, who noted these are “unique times.” One restaurant, Dorian Greek House, was not keen about the idea, noting the proposal is better in theory than in practice and that “every time there’s a road closure, unfortunately it hurts business for us.”
Service providers seemed open to helping businesses in their neighbourhood hurting during the pandemic, with 14 of 19 reached in favour of at least testing closure or putting it into place on a temporary basis during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, store owners expressed concern about parking and loss of customer convenience. In fact, the issue of parking was raised by more than one-third of tenants reached by KTW, by far the most significant concern raised in closing Victoria Street to vehicular access.
Many liked the idea, but are concerned about parking, with some suggesting they would support the initiative if issues were addressed.
One Victoria Street store owner said vehicular traffic directly equates to business.
“We need traffic,” Jonathan Buchner of Jonathan Buchner Gems and Jewellery said. “We need access to our business. It’s why I have a downtown business.”
Others suggested downtown parking issues are more perception than reality, with residents unwilling or unable to walk.
The bottom line? If customers aren’t happy, it’s bad for business.
The owner of Bikini Bill’s, Bill Sanesh Jr., went so far as to call closing Victoria Street to vehicular access the “worst idea,” stating sales are directly linked to parking stalls and suggesting social issues in the area would be amplified without proper security to monitor pedestrian-only streets.
Some business owners feel the area could work if the space is animated with activities or performers.
However, limitations around the number of people who can gather are in effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The least receptive block to closing Victoria Street to vehicular access was First Avenue, with 60 per cent of businesses reached by KTW opposed.
Meanwhile, the block most willing to close the street was Fourth Avenue, with nearly three-quarters of the businesses reached open to the idea.
The city recently approved a permit for the Kamloops Regional Farmers’ Market to close the street partially on Wednesdays through the end of October.
More views on the issue
• Universal Reproductions and Engineering Supplies on First Avenue said it would not support closing Victoria Street during business hours because “parking is bad enough.”
It would, however, support closure after 5 p.m. Another business suggested rotating block closures.
• There were two differing views from Second Avenue on the issue of pedestrian malls.
One suggested places like Calgary and Colorado have benefited from street malls, creating vibrancy.
Another stated: “The history of post-war urban design is littered with failed attempts to turn traditional ‘main streets’ into pedestrian malls.
“Complete closure to vehicle traffic has generally not been successful and should be done only where all of the elements to assure success are in place. Kamloops has a successful traditional ‘main street’ and that should be celebrated.”
• A gift shop staffer said they would be concerned about losing senior clientele, of whom there are many in Kamloops and who still tend to choose brick and mortar over online shopping.
Without parking in front of their business, that makes coming downtown less accessible for seniors.
• Three different owners on different blocks separately told KTW that when the Wednesday farmers’ market sets up shop on Victoria Street, it detracts from business. “My heart broke when I came to realize that the farmers’ market was hurting our business,” one said.
• Fratelli Foods owner Mario Pietramala said the idea to close Victoria Street to vehicular access has been done and discussed many times over the years , noting that every time it happens, “you might as well lock the doors and go home.”
He said while the idea “looks cool” and might work in places like New York City, it is not appropriate in Kamloops, pointing out businesses such as Walmart and Costco would never eliminate parking.