By Jessica Lovell
A late-night pilot project that has police closing downtown streets in an effort to curb alcohol-related disorder in the downtown seems to be having the desired effect.
“We’re seeing some positive outcomes,” said Guelph Police Chief Bryan Larkin.
With the combination of student crowds at the close of Frosh Week and crowds of music lovers out for the Guelph Jazz Festival, last weekend saw some of the largest crowds in the city’s downtown, he said.
But even with over 9,000 people in the downtown, police laid relatively few charges.
“We’ve really reduced our assaults, our property damage, our mischief,” said Larkin in an interview following the busy weekend.
There were about five public fouling charges, and seven public intoxication arrests on Saturday night, he said. There were two disturbances Saturday night as well, but police were able to intervene early on, so no arrests were needed, he said.
This all points to success for the pilot project devised by the Downtown Nightlife Task Force, a group made up of downtown businesses, residents and representatives from the University of Guelph, the City of Guelph and local emergency services.
The project involves the closure of parts of Macdonell and Wyndham streets between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights during the busy first month of the semester. As part of the project, portable toilets are set up in the Macdonell Street parking lot, and taxi stands have been brought back to help move the crowds out of the downtown more quickly at the end of each night.
Last weekend was the second weekend for the project, but it was the busier of the two weekends. With the addition of the jazz festival on Saturday night, there were even more people in the downtown area, but no major issues to report, said Larkin, a task force member who was also out during the Saturday night revelry.
“We had an additional road closure and everything worked out really well,” he said.
In addition to the closures on Macdonell and Wyndham, Carden Street was also closed for festival performances, and the street “was fully animated from the morning into the wee hours,” said Larkin.
If there was one hitch, it was the number of cars that had to be towed from the streets last weekend.
On Saturday night, as 11 p.m. rolled around, three tow trucks got to work moving cars parked in the closure zones to a downtown parking lot. They towed about 19 cars a night last weekend, compared with about 10 cars a night the previous weekend, said Larkin.
“We noticed on Saturday night, we had displaced more cars than any other night,” he said, noting the numbers were likely higher because of the festival.
“Nobody’s been upset; they understand,” he said, explaining that there are no charges or tickets for the people whose cars get towed. They just have to go to another location to pick up their vehicles.
The task force will be addressing the towing issue with continued communication, sending out news releases each week to remind people of the closures, and there has been talk of additional signs, he said.
The taxi stands are another area where there are still some challenges, admitted Larkin. “There are still challenges with people not going to the taxi stands and trying to flag down cabs,” he said.
But the hundreds of people that are using the stands over the course of a night are lining up and waiting without creating the disturbances that police thought might arise, he said.
The downtown was mostly cleared out by around 3:15 a.m. each night, which is a little bit ahead of the task force’s 4 a.m. estimate, said Larkin.
“Everything’s on track,” he said.
The task force meets each week and goes over what went well and what didn’t, and it has plans to meet following next weekend to strategize for the busy homecoming weekend to follow.
“At the end of the day, this is about public safety,” said Larkin, noting that if something isn’t going well, the task force will tweak things as the pilot continues.
At the end of the five-week project, the task force will survey downtown stakeholders to solicit further feedback, he said.
So far, “the feedback has been very positive about how we’re managing people,” he said.