By Jessica Lovell
Turning part of downtown Guelph into a pedestrian corridor during busy weekend late nights in September will not necessarily solve the problems associated with the bar crowds, but the city’s Night Life Task Force thinks it’s worth a shot.
The main reason for the closures: “The idea is to reduce the conflict between automobiles and pedestrians,” said Ward 2 councillor Ian Findlay, who sits on the Night Life Task Force. Findlay was careful to emphasize that it is only a pilot project and how effective it will be could not be predicted.
“I think that’s what the pilot project will help determine,” said Findlay.
The strategy is largely a police-led initiative and didn’t need council authorization to go ahead, he said.
“Each year the Guelph Police Service has a campaign aimed at getting the incoming university students to enjoy themselves responsibly,” said Findlay, explaining that this initiative is an extension of that campaign – known last year as Project Safe Semester.
A report from the police service, posted on Findlay’s Ward 2 blog, details the positive outcomes police are hoping for.
One of those is to promote transit as the safest option by discouraging people from driving to the bars. “Guelph has one of the highest per capita impaired driving rates in Ontario,” the report said.
It will get rid of the idea of “Macdonell as a tailgate party,” where people come downtown and park and hang out around their cars, said Findlay.
But he didn’t believe creating the pedestrian corridor would turn the street from a tailgate party to a street party.
“Guelph Police Service will have a very high presence downtown, as will Guelph bylaw (officers), so it’s not going to turn into a street party,” he said.
The idea is more about reducing some of the congestion on the downtown sidewalks during a time when crowds begin massing around bars and nightclubs. The increased pedestrian area is “intended to reduce the ‘jostling’ of persons on the sidewalks, which often escalates into disturbances,” said the police report.
As well, it is meant to reduce the risk of pedestrians being hit by cars, it said.
The University of Guelph’s associate vice-president of student affairs, Brenda Whiteside, who also sits on the Night Life Task Force, agreed with Findlay that closing the streets wouldn’t have the effect of turning the downtown bar scene into a Mardi Gras-type atmosphere.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a festival kind of feel,” she said, noting the key is that the streets will be closed around the time when students are getting ready to leave the bars, rather than as they begin their night.
“If we don’t try it, we’ll never know,” she said.
But the task force is sensitive to other issues that may arise, Whiteside said.
“We recognize that closing those streets comes with other issues,” she said.
Less available parking should not necessarily be a problem, as those who are drinking would not want their cars anyway, but people parked on the streets before the closures will have to make sure they move their cars before a certain hour.
Transportation may also be an issue.
As part of the pilot, taxi stands will be back – at Wyndham and Cork streets and Wyndham and Fountain streets. Security to prevent disturbances generated by crowds around the stands will be provided by the Downtown Guelph Business Association.
It is hoped the taxi stands will have the effect of reducing the number of pedestrians stepping into traffic to try to hail cabs, the police report said.
As well, the bus stop for the university’s late night bus has a new location. It will move from Wilson Street to a platform at Guelph Central Station on Carden Street.
It is hoped that crowds will disperse from the downtown to these three separate areas, getting people out of the downtown core and reducing potential property damage in the downtown, said the police report.
Temporary public washrooms will also be back, in an effort to reduce public fouling, another area that police identified as a concern, said Findlay.
This time, though, instead of the open-air pissoirs that were piloted in past years, the washrooms will be portable toilets, which can be used by both sexes and by the disabled, he said. The portable toilet option was not tried in the past because of concern from police about how to police the enclosed space, but they have since changed their minds, said Findlay.
The initiative is all part of the task force’s efforts to be proactive, but it shouldn’t be taken to mean the night life is deteriorating.
“There’s been a significant improvement in the behaviour in the downtown in the last five years,” said Findlay. “We’re definitely trending in the right direction.”
Last year, the most significant public outcry about student disorder came not during frosh week, but later in September during Homecoming Weekend. The concerns came out of residential neighbourhoods rather than the downtown.
The neighbourhoods will be on the radar, and the police and bylaw officers will shift their resources to tackle homecoming, but no plans have been finalized yet, said Findlay.
“We’re definitely going to be much more proactive,” he said. “The student social atmosphere is continuously changing and evolving, so our response has to continuously change and evolve.”
Closures include . . .
The pilot project will see Macdonell Street closed between the Macdonell Street parking lot and the West Parkade and Wyndham Street closed between Carden and Cork streets from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, starting this Thursday, Aug. 30, and running to the end of September.