Over the last few years, one topic that has perennially spurred debate on local Twitter is King Street in Downtown Kitchener. Specifically, should it be permanently closed to auto traffic and made pedestrian-only?
There would have been more of a debate this year. That was until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and caused the City of Kitchener to hit pause on a multi-year project to make King Street more pedestrian-friendly.
“As long as I can remember working at the city, there has always been a dream since the ‘70s and ‘80s that we would someday shut down King Street and create this wonderful pedestrian place,” said Cory Bluhm, Executive Director, Economic Development at the City of Kitchener.
Comparisons are often made to pedestrian-only streets in cities across Europe including London, Paris, Amsterdam and others. “Every community thinks this way,” added Bluhm. “It’s an idealistic vision and we’ve always had the goal to someday get there.”
Bluhm pointed out that though the vision might be ideal, the process to get there isn’t as simple as just blocking traffic and throwing out some picnic tables. Across the border in Buffalo, the city made a large portion of Main Street pedestrian-only in the 1980s, only to see stores and restaurants close due to a massive drop in customers. Since the middle part of this decade, Buffalo has been working to re-introduce cars back into the core.
The City of Kitchener has been working since 2008 to make King Street in Downtown Kitchener more pedestrian-friendly but at a pace designed to make it a successful transition and not duplicate other cities’ mistakes.
“It all comes down to human psychology,” said Bluhm. “We have this idea that if we don’t see life and vibrancy downtown, then we think it’s not working.” As much as many of us want pedestrian-only streets, our brains do see empty streets without cars as potentially dangerous. “Driving traffic gives people a sense of safety,” added Bluhm. If you’ve ever walked down a street at two in the morning and there are no cars out, how fast have you walked to get to your destination?
For a pedestrian-only King Street to truly work, Bluhm noted that there has to be energy and activity throughout the day, seven days a week. “We need to build up to that,” said Bluhm. This meant working with businesses who were wary of losing business from drivers who couldn’t park close by.
The City of Kitchener has been following in the steps of Santa Monica, Calif. in how they work to build up the experience for pedestrians, drivers, cyclists and businesses in the core. “They have the Third Street Promenade and we’re building our version looking at what they’ve done.”
Instead of a full closure, the City of Kitchener has given themselves the flexibility year over year to close King Street and other side streets as needed by festivals and events. From Oktoberfest to the Christkindl Market, Summer Lights Festival to Rock and Rumble, the City of Kitchener has worked with businesses to make the periods of closure successful. “We shut down on weekends and open during the week,” said Bluhm, “We’re perpetually building on each time, eventually building more permanent closures.”
This summer was going to be another step on that journey, but of course, we have all had plans that had to be changed due to COVID-19. “We planned to shut down a couple of blocks of King Street this summer for at least two months. We wanted to see how long we could push and then COVID hit. It’s still very much our ambition to get there,” Bluhm said.
If there is a silver lining to this, it’s that the COVID-19 closures opened up opportunities to try other street closure and patio changes that wouldn’t normally have happened.
“This has proved it to us, that we could close the road and then work with the businesses to create experiences to attract people downtown,” said Bluhm. One of those pedestrian-only closures is in Belmont Village in Midtown. “What they’ve done is amazing, it’s all because of the businesses there in Belmont Village – it’s the differentiator.”
The City of Kitchener and the Belmont Village BIA worked together to close a portion of the slipway and parking spots on the Lady Glaze Doughnuts side of Belmont Avenue. “We’ve been working on a new streetscape project for a year to two,” said Belmont BIA president Terry Bax. The Belmont BIA has the same inspiration as the City of Kitchener. “We wanted to make it more of a European style.”
Diners enjoy an afternoon out on the patio in
Closing the slipway and taking over parking spots needed the support of the local businesses. “We spoke to all of the business owners and wanted to try it out in the centre of the village,” said Bax. “When we spoke to the businesses in April, everybody was reeling and didn’t know what was going on. People were skeptical, but it wasn’t a hard sell.”
The Belmont BIA happens to be Ontario’s smallest BIA, but they also have great partners.” We were able to collaborate with design companies like GSP Group, Westmount Signs and Paul Consulting and we have some great stakeholders in the Village like Don Zehr from the Zehr Group.
The European-style patio (you knew we were going to say that) has communal space in the slipway and the parking spots are designated for each business. “The Checkerboard crowd migrates to Casa’s seating in the morning, all the businesses are working together and sharing to make each successful.” Bax also noted that retail businesses in the Village are also seeing a boost in business due to the added foot traffic. They even had one closed business, Wilhelm's Café + Bar, reopen to take advantage of the patio seating.
The City of Waterloo is also adapting their pedestrian-only street plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the City of Kitchener, the City of Waterloo had planned to close a street – Willis Way – to car traffic this summer. With the closures due to COVID-19, the City re-evaluated their plans based on discussions with their business partners.
The Willis Way closure is part of the City of Waterloo’s Uptown Public Realm Strategy – the city’s long term vision on how they want the public realm to be in the core. Willis Way is just one piece of the puzzle. Other projects include eventually connecting Laurel Creek between Waterloo Park and City Hall and adding more small green spaces to connect the large green spaces across the city’s core.
“We had a mixed reception from businesses on Willis Way,” said Tenille Bonoguore, City Councillor for Ward 7. “That’s part of the reason it’s a trial, to see how it can work.” The closure you’ll find now is from Caroline Street to the rainbow crosswalk. The original plan was to close Willis Way from Caroline Street through to King Street, but the City changed the length of the closure based on feedback from the businesses on Willis Way. “Pickup for orders was an issue,” said Bonoguore. While the City has received a great deal of feedback from businesses, they haven’t received much from the general public. “I’m really curious to see what people think.”
The closure at Willis Way inspired the city’s other pedestrian-only closure at Princess Street. “When we announced the Willis Way closure, Bhima’s and Loloan Lobby Bar owner Paul Boehmer tweeted out ‘if you can do Willis, why can’t you do Princess?’” Bonoguore reached out to Boehmer and got him in touch with the right people in the City. “It happened pretty quickly. The staff pulled out all the stops and the Princess Street closure happened one day later.”
Community members in Kitchener played a role in another of the city’s downtown pedestrian-only projects – Gaukel Street. The construction of the Charlie West condo development required the closure of one block of Gaukel for over a year. “Sam Nabi (owner of Full Circle Foods on Charles) and others said, well, this hasn’t changed anything. How important is Gaukel from a traffic scenario?” said Darren Kropf, Active Transportation Planning Project Manager at the City of Kitchener.
That question led to a project team with Kropf in the lead. “We were very excited to think about Gaukel differently,” added Kropf. “It is the entrance to Victoria Park, it’s a pedestrian path to City Hall, the Laurier campus, stores on King Street, the LRT and more.”
With the COVID closures, the City decided to close the block of Gaukel between the former transit hub and 44 Gaukel. “It’s more of a patio space because we can’t encourage large gatherings of people right now,” said Kropf. “But with 44 Gaukel, you have all these really creative people making something out of nothing.” The City is working with artist Luke Swinson to create art that recognizes the Indigenous community’s history in the area. The block was also the heart of June’s Black Lives Matter protest and march. “People have been talking about that rally and we’re working on a way to tell that story. There are all these groups thinking about how they can make Gaukel Street a reflection of our community.”
If you give people back their space, they will do amazing things with it.