A man and a young boy stopped on their bikes at the intersection of Bernard Avenue and Water Street on Monday, June 29. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)

A man and a young boy stopped on their bikes at the intersection of Bernard Avenue and Water Street on Monday, June 29. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)

Kelowna council approves annual Bernard Avenue closure

Pedestrians and businesses will again take over Kelowna’s main drag after a successful pilot last summer

After what city staff called a successful pilot project through summer 2020, city council has voted to make the Bernard Avenue road closure an annual event.

This past summer, the program was hastily launched to allow businesses to expand their patios and operations into the street, allowing for additional seating at a time when indoor seating was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and other forms of active transportation took up the middle of the roadway.

In a report given to city council on Nov. 12, staff noted despite the short notice given to businesses for the first go-around between July and September, the overall feedback from the 23 businesses — 21 food establishments and two retailers — which participated in the patio extension, was positive.

Despite the pandemic, a survey circulated to those businesses, showed 88 per cent of them saw financial results that were the same or higher than in 2019. The same percentage indicated a willingness to participate in the program again in future years.

Pedestrian volumes went up 88 per cent compared to 2019’s expected counts at the intersection of Bernard Avenue and Mill Street. And, around 10 per cent of that activity was comprised of bikes, skateboards and rollerblades.

A study through July and August, had staff observe the goings-on on the street to see how the public was using the open space.

Among their findings was the “park-like atmosphere” that encompassed the street, greater utilization of street furniture and the creation of a seamless transition between Bernard Avenue and nearby parks.

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To remedy what was observed by businesses as a lack of traffic in Bernard’s 400 and 500 blocks, staff have proposed turning that stretch into a demonstration “Green Street” — a space which would see businesses reap the same expanded-patio benefits as they did this year while essentially turning the area into a park. That space would consist of parklets, murals, public art, pianos, bike racks and busking stops, and the city’s events team would work to host COVID-compliant programming in the area. The 200 and 300 blocks would remain the same as they did this year.

“Throughout the world, cities and towns are taking their parks to the streets, as a result of greater constraints in urban environments. COVID-19 has accelerated and emphasized the need for streetscapes and laneways to function beyond the requirements of the automobile,” stated the staff report.

Bylaw and RCMP found no substantive concerns due to the road closure. Tourism Kelowna also supported the measure, noting several compliments.

Coun. Gail Given said this marks a time to start looking at streets more as “public spaces” than “vehicle spaces.” She also noted that as more people move into developments further up Bernard, businesses in the 400 and 500 blocks may note more patronage.

Coun. Charlie Hodge, who also serves as council’s Downtown Kelowna Association representative, said closing 200 and 300 blocks is a “slam dunk.” The 400 and 500 blocks, though, he described as a mixed bag.

“They see vehicles and that kind of traffic more important to what they offer,” said Hodge. “The idea of animating is great… in the process of doing it, we have to keep in mind that we’re bringing in people to support business. But if they’re not going into the stores to spend money, we’re not achieving the ultimate goal.”

He recommended staff to communicate further with those businesses to solidify plans before the summer.

Councillors acknowledged that it is unknown where the COVID-19 situation will be by summer 2021. Coun. Brad Sieben was hesitant about the Green Street due to it potentially attracting people to congregate in the area.

Staff said similar areas were implemented in Vancouver and other large cities last year, with COVID-compliant programming.

Currently, there is no set date for the road closure, though more than half of the businesses in the area indicated a desire to see the road closure for a longer period of time.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: michael.rodriguez@kelownacapnews.com

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City of Kelowna