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Stephen Avenue goes pedestrian; traffic limited to provide space for business

Stephen Avenue will be mostly car-free for the summer as the city has extended patio space for businesses and made the centre lane pedestrian and cycle only.

The plan, spearheaded by Downtown Calgary, is a way to help businesses with capacity issues in a post-COVID-19 world.

The province allowed restaurants, cafes and bars to open May 24, but with 50 per cent capacity and two metres distance between patrons outside the same household.

This plan allows extensions into the sidewalk area. The centre traffic lane is open to alternative transportation.

Jennifer Rempel, general manager of Downtown Calgary said they’d talked about this concept when provincial reopening discussions started.

“We were working with the business community to accommodate their patios for the summer season and realizing with the width of Stephen Avenue and options because of social distancing,  that if we didn’t find some more space, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate their patio,” she said.

Rempel said business owners have told her that had the patio options not been allowed, they wouldn’t have survived the summer.

“These patios are so crucial for their year-round business,” she said.

Now, the road is closed to traffic from 11 a.m. on, with a window between 2 and 4 p.m. for deliveries. The closure runs around the clock to 6 a.m., at which time deliveries and other essential traffic are allowed along the strip.

Only pedestrian, cyclist and escooter traffic is allowed during that time. Special considerations are made for accessibility reasons.

Previously, traffic was allowed on Stephen Avenue after 6 p.m. Rempel said doing that wouldn’t allow businesses and bars to take advantage of the dinner rush or evening drinks.

‘Trying to be nimble’

Coun. Druh Farrell said right now the public realm is quite constrained, especially with social distancing in play and businesses trying to stay open. She said we have to share space in order for downtown business to survive.

“We know they don’t have enough space to spread out their customers inside because they’re at 50 per cent capacity,” she said.

“Most restaurants operate with a very slim profit margin, and they need to fill a certain number of tables in order to make ends meet.”

Both Rempel and Farrell said the situation is very fluid and requires ongoing analysis of what’s needed and ensuring it complies with provincial and local health regulations.

“What we’re doing is trying to be nimble; we’re testing, we’re learning, we’re adjusting,” said Farrell.

Rempel said they’ll monitor feedback from businesses and clients along the 8 Avenue strip and make adjustments when and where necessary. So far the response has been positive.

“If we do have any concerns expressed to us, we’re taking those seriously and analyzing them case by case,” said Rempel.

The Stephen Avenue project will run until September, barring any major changes in public health measures.