The town is taking a new approach to its Queen Street pilot project starting this weekend, leaving the street open to traffic, while widening walkways and creating extra seating space for people on Regent Street.
The changes will be in effect this weekend and next, the town announced Wednesday – one week longer than when the pilot project was launched earlier this month.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero told councillors on Monday during a committee of the whole meeting that she did not make the decision and asked interim chief administrator Sheldon Randall to explain the changes.
Randall said to alleviate congestion on some side streets, the town will close off some parking spaces to give pedestrians more space for physical distancing while allowing traffic to flow along Queen.
“We’re trying to find a way that we can balance the interruption for the residents and still achieve the goal of physical distancing for the community,” Randall told councillors.
The town will also close off the north side of Regent Street near the Stagecoach restaurant and Greaves Jams, he said.
The town will install fencing to barricade the parking spaces, Randall said, leaving access open for driveways that cross the sidewalk.
The barricades will go up Friday night and be taken down Monday morning, Randall said.
He said a big concern is public safety.
“My biggest fear right now is that we can't get enough safety fencing to do that,” he said. “Hopefully, this doesn't happen that we have a car or somebody driving and, you know, they're on their phone and they weave off into the walking area. We need to make sure that we're doing something to protect the pedestrians as well.”
He said the town also wants fencing “that's going to look nice.”
Randall said the town and emergency group consultants agreed the closure has so far accomplished its goal as far as physical distancing goes, but that the program is being refined to help with traffic congestion on residential streets.
“Basically, we agreed that closing down Queen Street did achieve the goal of creating more space for physical distancing, I think we hit a homerun on it,” he said.
“But the discussion we had was, are there other things that we should be looking at trying that will still achieve that space to physical distance, but yet move traffic in a different way.”
A residents group formed last week and has been taking surveys of the road. A survey sent to The Lake Report by Ian Gibson said 203 cars were observed going past his Simcoe Street home on Sunday, in just 30 minutes.
Coun. Gary Burroughs asked Randall how long the tests would continue.
“I guess I wasn't clear on how many weeks you were going to continue this program. I think it needs to come to an end. And I think we need to start making some decisions, not keep trying to tweak, week after week, as the businesses continue to suffer,” he said.
Originally, the town announced publicly that the closure would only last until July 19, Burroughs pointed out.
Randall didn't say how long the testing would continue, but that if council didn't want to continue with the closures, that councillors should say so.
“If council doesn't want us to do that, you need to speak up now I think. So when we don't do something else that's going to upset this council,” he said.
He said staff still needs to collect more data.
“I think council needs to just wait and get our feedback over the next few weeks. And we need to continue to collect data, and then council can make a decision on how long or if they want to continue to test options,” he said.
So far “It seems from the businesses in the downtown core it's more positive than negative. And for the residents in the surrounding area it's more negative than positive,” he said.
“I'm hoping what we're going to do over the next few weekends, is we're going to find a compromise between the residents and the businesses that works. Where we're able to achieve the goal of physical distancing, we're not going to impact the residents largely, and we're still going to keep the free flow of traffic up and down Queen Street.”
Randall added the new plan will mean significant savings for the town, as town staff won’t have to set things up on overtime.
Burroughs asked if there has been enough data to show whether the street should be closed or not.
Randall said the current surveys aren’t giving the town the information that it needs as far as who is filling out the surveys.
“The paper surveys, unfortunately, did not give us the data that we need. We don't know the orientation, or where they're coming from, we don't know if it was a business. We don't know if it was a tourist or if it was a resident, so we want to be clear.”
The town has collected about 270 surveys so far, he said, adding that town staff will be out on the street to ask visitors to complete surveys.
Coun. John Wiens asked if the closure change, since it would be all weekend and not from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., would affect residents on Queen Street.
Randall said parking lots behind buildings and driveways that cross the sidewalks would be open.
He said that’s part of why he’s optimistic about the new plan, because it allows for “business as usual” for shops and residents.
“I look forward to the many comments we’re going to receive on Monday or Tuesday,”
Burroughs reiterated that he thinks the test closure needs to end, as it's impacting businesses on the street.
Disero said if councillors want to see the program ended, they should make that motion at the July 20 meeting of council.
“Thank you, lord mayor, and I am aware and I will be in touch with the clerk. Thanks.” Burroughs replied.