Vancouver’s Gastown will go car-free this summer

Vancouver City Council has passed a motion to make Gastown car-free this summer. Kate Walker has more on the pilot project, that aims to make the popular Vancouver neighborhood more accessible to tourists.

Traffic will look much different this summer in one popular Vancouver neighbourhood. 

On Wednesday, city council unanimously passed a motion to make Gastown car-free for the months of July and August. 

This will mark the beginning of a pilot project, which will see Water Street, from Richards to Cambie streets, pedestrian-only, and the two interior blocks of Water Street from Cambie through Abbott and Carrall streets “car-light.”

Vancouver City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung says the project will come at a perfect time, with Vancouver already in a global spotlight.

“This gives us the chance to have two summers before we literally host the world with FIFA coming,” she said.

After July and August, staff will revisit the pilot project in the fall to figure out next steps. Those would include what other areas of the city could look the same and whether it would be made permanent or kept seasonal.

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“This would create an enhanced pedestrian experience along all blocks of Water Street, while also accommodating access to residential buildings, the Easy Park parkade, tour bus pick up and drop off, and loading and delivery for businesses,” the City of Vancouver staff report explained.

The report notes staff have discussed the plans with the Gastown Business Improvement Society (GBIS).

“The GBIS has expressed concern about the overall duration of the traffic pattern changes in the neighbourhood, which would run from March to early September. Staff have considered alternative approaches to the summer pilot to reduce the closure duration,” the report said.

“In response to a specific request from GBIS, staff considered making the pilot concurrent with construction. Unfortunately, this would mean trying to pilot a pedestrian-first street during off-peak months and while one of the primary public spaces, Maple Tree Square, is under construction. Staff do not believe this would set the pilot up for success.”

This is the next phase in a larger multi-year $10 million plan which also includes repairs, maintenance and increasing the heritage look of the neighbourhood to make it, what the city describes as, vibrant.

Gastown business community split on project

Wally Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association, is raising concerns about the plan on behalf of his association, which represents 564 members.

Wargolet says while he’s appreciative of the investment, he doesn’t think the car-free pilot project is a good idea.

“We’re concerned about the fiscal responsibility of taking $10 million dollars, and taking 45 per cent of that to invest in infrastructure — which is why this conversation started — we started because we were concerned about the decay of our neighbourhood,” he said.

“To say we’re now going to spend 55 per cent on a study and a pilot, doesn’t make good fiscal sense.”

Wargolet added that the report from staff doesn’t paint a clear picture of concerns from the business community.

“We don’t have clear metrics of how we’re going to measure success,” he said. “More people on the streets is awesome, but in our conversations with San Diego and with Montreal, yes, they have seen more people on the streets, but that does not equate to more dollars at our businesses.”

Multiple business owners expressed concerns about access to their businesses, parking, public safety and public washrooms.

But David Jones, owner of Vinyl Records on Water Street, says he welcomes the move.

“I’m really happy about it. It’s finally forward thinking in Vancouver, like many other big cities in the world that have done this and been successful with it,” he told CityNews.

Jones says he’s not concerned about access for delivery vehicles because they will have alternative routes to get into the neighbourhood. He adds that the pilot project will take place at the busiest time of year, so even if it doesn’t increase business, it will definitely improve the community feel.

“I already was thinking about getting a busking license for out front so we can have performances,” he said. “If they are closing the road down, that’s meaningful to me. It’ll make it more of a community, make it safe for families and children.”

John Bucan, district manager for Maison & Café Kitsuné, says he’s also excited to participate.

“Because during the summertime, we get a lot of tourists in this area. Cruise ship docks, like three of them come at the same time,” he said.

“The more people the merrier for the businesses. I’m really excited about it.”

-With files from Kate Walker

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