Council mulls fate of parking and patios in downtown cores

(Gazette file photo)

SARAH WILLIAMS

STAFF WRITER

On May 28th, Prince Edward County Council received a report from the Community Services, Programs and Initiatives Department focused on temporary flexibility in urban areas for the hospitality/retail sector.

The report outlines a temporary amended patio licensing bylaw, dining in public parks and consumption of alcohol in said parks.

Staff have been advised to review the amended patio licensing bylaw for accessibility, effectiveness and viability.

The temporary patio bylaw would extend throughout 2020 and would see the elimination of approximately 50 parking spaces in favour of patios to allow for social distancing during the time of COVID-19.

Restaurants would also be allowed to set-up some dining areas in public parks to compensate for their lack of floor space due to social distancing. The public consumption of alcohol would be permissible in order to augment outdoor dining spaces and boost sales for restaurants.

The requests outlined in the report, according to Todd Davis, Acting Director of the Community Services, Programs and Initiatives Department, all come from the business sector by way of the Economic Recovery Task Team.

Addressing council, Davis noted that-unsurprisingly-the hospitality sector has already suffered a severe blow from the ongoing pandemic.

“They’re looking for some amendments to the patio licensing bylaw for the 2020 season, including a series of changes, such as the removal of fees, extension of hours, reduction of width clearances, elimination of fencing requirements and the fast tracking of applications,” noted Davis. “They also brought forward the idea of expanding dining options into public parks.”

The report states that interested parties would seek dining options in Benson Park, the Mill Pond and Wellington Parks. The municipality would provide picnic tables, extend public washroom hours and facilitate trash collection.

Changes to the patio licensing bylaw were recommended to come back to staff at the June 9 council meeting.

Councillor Stuart Bailey honed in on the concept of public consumption of alcohol, stating he had called the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) but they remarked there had been no precedent set that would allow such an amendment to a bylaw.

In his response, Davis noted a year old law that had passed in the Ontario Legislature that would allow, in principle, the consumption of alcohol in public places via bylaw. The law has yet to receive royal ascent. However, Davis also noted that the issue demands public consultation.

“While I appreciate the desire of the business community, alcohol in public parks is something that goes beyond our business or hospitality community,” he said.

Mayor Steve Ferguson voiced strong support for this motion, commenting that many of the businesses that are suffering due to restrictions are also those that bring visitors to the area.

“All those businesses bring and have brought vitality to our community and are many of the reasons we see so many people come here during the tourism season and also decide to reside here on a permanent basis,” said Ferguson.

In speaking, the mayor also noted that several other jurisdictions are making similar changes to their bylaws to help businesses survive. Among those, noted Ferguson, are Kingston, Toronto and various smaller jurisdictions.

“I’m hoping council supports allowing this to go through in order to receive more fulsome information from staff in due course,” he said. “I view this as crucially important to our community as a whole.”

Support for hospitality and small businesses aside, Councillor Janice Maynard brought to light concerns surrounding safety and cost of the proposed temporary bylaw.

“Most parks have received a pretty marginal level of service in the past. To add anything else will be challenging, without hiring more staff, and that would have included summer staff in the past,” voiced Maynard. “I’m also concerned about the ability to clean tables and washrooms. We are going to have some physical distancing issues on sidewalks if we allow patios to intervene onto sidewalk areas and then have a five foot walk around.”

Maynard also raised the issue of accessibility and questioned the incentive for many locals to shop downtown once a considerable number of parking spaces have been eliminated.

“Although I can see maybe a few in downtown, 52 lost parking spaces seems like quite a bit and I’m concerned that local shoppers-when we say shop local, I assume that means that the locals are shopping local-and when you’re trying to access services that take you downtown, without parking, I think that could be a particular issue.”

The need for public consultation was reinforced by Davis, who noted that although 52 parking spaces is the ask, that request does require input from community members.

“What we were seeking was an opportunity to seek public consultation and feedback. We’re prepared to go out, using the Have Your Say platform immediately,” said Davis.

Councillor Phil Prinzen brought up the possible negative impact for businesses whose parking spots will be taken away but who don’t have the need or option for a patio.

“I was going through and looking at parking spots and businesses impacted. There are seven businesses that have the patio option and 34 businesses that will be impacted that don’t have the patio option. So, I want to make that known,” asserted Prinzen. “There’s 34 businesses that count on those parking spots. I understand we want the hospitality sector to survive, but if we have those seven businesses survive but lose 34, town is going to look a lot different.”

Councillor Mike Harper, who has been involved with the Economic Recovery Task Team, impressed upon council that the issue is not only about recovery, but also about surviving.

“I want to impress upon all of you that this isn’t just about recovery. This is really about survival,” said Harper.

Many hospitality businesses, added Harper, will be operating with only 50 per cent floor space while social distancing restrictions are in place. Given that, and the fact that many businesses depend on the summer months to survive the winter, Harper stressed the urgency of this issue.

“If we can get this into place by July 1, the start of the summer, we’re already going to be giving them a much higher hill to climb. Let’s get on with this and let Todd do his job and recognize it won’t be perfect, while continuing to refine it over the weeks and months ahead so we can try to salvage some fall business as well,” stressed Harper.

Ultimately, the motion was carried, with proposed considerations set to come back before council on June 23.

To access the municipality’s Have Your Say online platform, please visit: https://haveyoursay.thecounty.ca/downtown-outdoor-expansion-public-consult .