So Moved, St. John’s: 23 November 2020

The Holiday Market Sike

This just in: to discourage the congregation of shoppers, the forthcoming Holiday Market weekends of December 5 – 6 and 12 – 13 have been cancelled. Your city Council wants you to know that businesses are open, and to please support the local shops downtown during this difficult time. However, rather than maximizing pedestrian space by closing Water Street to vehicular traffic, they ask that you practice your best physical distancing… while forced to congregate on sidewalks. 

In support of the motion to cancel, Mayor Breen said, “We feel that we need to make the decisions that are necessary for the safety of our residents as we move forward [during] this very challenging time for everyone.” He later stated, “This is not about not going shopping downtown; it’s about not encouraging congregation… events such as this encourage congregation.”

Bolstering the Mayor’s support for this motion during discussion were Deputy Mayor O’Leary and Cllrs Hanlon and Lane. “I do feel a strong sense of responsibility (as we are elected leaders) to adhere to the very strong suggestion that, certainly, our Chief Medical Officer and the Province are asking of us all,” said O’Leary. Cllr Hanlon added, “We are the leaders of the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, so I think it would be fitting for us to follow the advice of the provincial government… we could possibly face a shut down as well if we go the other way, so this is a precautionary effort and I think that it’s wise for us to take this route.” 

“I don’t like supporting this motion but I think it’s the right thing to do… having the pedestrian mall is a way to encourage people to go downtown to shop,” said Cllr. Lane. “We’re still encouraging people to go down and shop; however, we’d like them to space that over the course of a number of weekends as opposed to encourag[ing] them to come on a specific day.”

Of course, I understand these Council members’ desire to do everything in their power to limit the spread of Covid-19, and their concern about instigating gatherings. But I cannot understand the logic used to defend this motion. If the goal is reducing the density of shoppers during the lead-up to the holidays, one achieves this by increasing the size of the area in which they can spread out. 

While we’ve broken up with our Atlantic bubble-mates for the next two weeks, so far, we remain at Alert Level 2. (Keep in mind: we’ve been at Alert Level 2 since June 25—before the summer pedestrian mall began in response to the pandemic, to make it safer for people to move around outdoors and support businesses operating at reduced capacity.) 

Cllr Froude gets it: “Folks are going to be out shopping in any case, and having additional space by having a street closure gives them space to queue, and to be out and do their shopping. I feel like it’s riskier to have people constrained to sidewalks, and I won’t be supporting the motion.”

Rather than cancelling our best opportunities for physically-distanced shopping altogether, there are a number of things Council could have done to amend the Holiday Market. For one, they could have rolled back the outdoor programming. Maybe they could have set up barricades to control the flow and volume of pedestrians, like they do for George Street Festival and Canada Day celebrations. Cllr Burton suggested nixing the first weekend, December 5 – 6, which falls within the two week window of our Atlantic Bubble intermission, and “waiting until we find out a little bit more about what the situation is here in St. John’s, and in Newfoundland and Labrador more broadly, before we cancel the second weekend, December 12 – 13.” 

If we’re still allowed (encouraged, really) to keep frequenting the shops and restaurants, the answer is to make pedestrianized streets not special. Make it a regular, everyday thing, especially while shopping and eating out are allowed. Rather than rushing down to Water Street to taste the freedom of car-free downtown life, people could rely on that safe outdoor space being there whenever they want to go shopping. If we had never cancelled the pedestrianization of Water Street back in September, people would be so used to it by now that this would not even be registering as an issue. 

Prioritizing safety means supporting residents in practicing public health measures. The city can’t make people wash their hands, or wear masks outdoors. But it can make physical distancing easier by controlling how its assets (like Water Street, and Duckworth Street for that matter) are used. The only thing cancelling the Holiday Market does is stop anyone from pointing the finger of blame at council if cases were to start popping up. Nevermind the actual best interests of the community, and the actual stipulations of Alert Level 2 (which let us go to places like Costco and indoor malls). Just do your economic duty and spend dollars.

New Books and Old Carriage Houses

A tiny balm for the previous section’s sting: there will be a one-person Private Printing Press at 223 Hamilton Avenue! One of my favourite parts of reading Council meeting agendas are the emails from residents. Regarding the person who submitted the application to start this home-based business, a friendly neighbour wrote in to say, “I have no idea who they are, or what they’ll be printing, but I support people creating businesses in their homes, especially in these hard times, and especially ones that create books.” So wholesome. 

A Development Regulations amendment is being considered so that people may dwell in Carriage Houses. If you have feelings about this, it’s going to public review, so get writing (preferably using your very best Jane Austen voice; you can use Ches Crosbie’s old instagram captions for local-context inspiration). It would be Very Enticing to take up residence in a stately little heritage out-building and imagine all the fancy carriages it used to house for its owners to take turns ‘round Quidi Vidi Lake and visit the country to see people like Lady Anne Pearl. 

Besides the inherent cuteness of this, it’s actually very exciting from a planning perspective. As far as I know, this would be the first instance of anything close to Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) allowances on residential properties in St. John’s. It’s a really progressive baby step, and one that should be improved upon by allowing the building of new ADUs.

The Ghost of Rawlin’s Roundabout

A direction note from staff was hot off the press, following Council’s request in August of this year to see what improvements could be made to the area. From the note: 

“The roadways in the area of Rawlin’s Cross are due for routine rehabilitation. This reconstruction work will include improving curb ramps, minor adjustments to street alignment and traffic islands, and reviewing pavement markings. Benefits to accessibility and safety are expected with these changes. It is however noted that the improvements to the safety performance of the area will not match the significant benefits realized through implementing the circulatory traffic control.”

Staff aren’t still rotted at all. There were a number of alternative changes considered. 

Some were not supported:

  • Closure of Central Segment combined with traffic signal control (on Military Rd.)
  • Realigning the angle of approach on Monkstown Rd.
  • Parking lot (between Monkstown and King’s) access closure
  • Advanced signal warning beacon (for the approach to the King’s/Military traffic signal)

And others will be incorporated into routine rehabilitation work:

  • Realigning the approach of Flavin St. at Prescott St.
  • Extending the King’s Rd. northbound channelizing island (minor changes to improve pedestrian crossing along Military)
  • Upgrade the traffic island on Prescott St. at Queen’s Rd.
  • Two-stage marked crosswalk on Monkstown Rd (including a widening and realignment of the existing traffic island)
  • Prescott / Queen’s right-of-way assignment

Cllr Burton warned us not to get our hopes up. “These are minor and standard practice improvements. They are very positive, but they are not transformative, I don’t think, in the same way that the pilot project was.” 

Cllr Skinner is very bothered (he wanted to say he was pissed off, but bit his tongue) by how people traverse the notorious intersection. He said, “It’s not the pedestrians’ responsibility—it’s your responsibility behind the wheel.” 

Cllr Hickman believes that forsaking the roundabout for the cross “is what it is now,” and “it’s up to the drivers. The drivers are the ones in control.” Mayor Breen adds, “we can spend all the money we want on traffic calming… good enforcement is one of the better tools you’d have to do this.”

Straight from staff’s direction note: 

“The pilot configuration was found to have reduced the overall rate of collisions (the number of collisions adjusted for traffic volumes) by over 50% and reduced the severity of collisions that did occur. Measured average speeds on the circulating roadway at Monkstown Rd and King’s road were below 30 km/hr and 85% of all vehicles were travelling below 33 km/hr.”

As a local architect I know likes to say, “planned space is planned behaviour.” And given that enforcement is not under the city’s jurisdiction, but the RNC’s, this is just more pass-the-buck shrugging of shoulders. 

Getting Around À La Mode

The city apparently wants to help increase the percentage of people using sustainable modes of transportation—this includes transit, walking, cycling, and others. It is good for our health, our sense of community, and our responsibility to contribute to climate change mitigation. The graph below shows how we’ve been doing with that, between 1996 and 2016.

So, obviously, not that great. However, we’re doing better than Regina, Thunder Bay, Kamloops, and Barrie (…not something to write home about). Staff suggest a range of goals, with matching horizon years for measuring progress, which are displayed in the following table:

Council will move forward with “considering” improvements of 16% by 2030, and 22% by 2050 respectively. A good reminder from Cllr Froude: “A goal only means something if you act according to achieving that goal, so it’s important that we take it seriously.” 

Marianne Alacoque, Transportation System Engineer, did a beautiful job of laying out exactly how Council can take it seriously. She highlighted, “Some of the most effective and fastest ways to boost sustainable mode share in the short term are to: 1. Increase transit frequency and service hours, and 2. Infill missing sidewalk segments and increase sidewalk snow clearing level of service. (This supports both walking and transit mode share.)” 

But of course, Metrobus trimmed routes and driver hours for this winter just a few days ago, and in September, Council voted not to spend an extra $1.35 million on the sidewalk snow-clearing budget. You can’t make this stuff up. One small silver-lining: Mayor Breen can see how all this demonstrates the need for mixed-use neighbourhoods and density in developments. Music to my ears—I hope he keeps singing this tune.

Photo by Graham Kennedy.

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