People will be free to walk on 102nd Avenue between 99th and 103rd Streets in downtown Edmonton after city council voted Monday to turn the downtown corridor into a pedestrian-friendly zone for one year.
In a tight 7-6 vote, council agreed to close that stretch of the avenue to cars along the new Valley Line Southeast LRT.
The new bylaw allowing the change is expected to take until September to draft.
Coun. Aaron Paquette said he believes walkable areas will encourage people to return downtown, boost local business and make the area safer.
"Pedestrianization and people-friendly streets are proven time and time again, without doubt, to benefit the local businesses," Paquette said. "Their profits increase because people stay around."
Councillors have spent hours debating the pros and cons of closing the avenue to traffic, starting with a discussion at council's urban planning committee in mid-May.
The six who voted against the recommendation expressed support for the idea but with several concerns about the timing, location, and potential cost.
Coun. Tim Cartmell said more car-free areas would add to the vibrancy of a city, but didn't vote in favour of this particular project.
"I think this really is a great idea worth pursuing," Cartmell said at the meeting Monday.
Cartmell said he doesn't know the potential implications for emergency vehicles, whether 102nd Avenue is the ideal space to designate a pedestrian zone, or whether adjacent property owners support the project.
In recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, Cartmell suggested other areas need more urgent attention in drawing people back.
"There are so many spaces right now that are not animated: Churchill Square being one, the Ice District being another, the space behind the library being a third," he said.
"We've actually got a number of realms in our downtown that don't have the eyes, ears and feet on them, and we need to draw them back."
Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association (EDBA), said several business members are concerned about social disorder if the road remains empty and inactive.
"Without a critical mass of pedestrians, cyclists, and other positive activity consistently filling the space every day, week and month, there are a lot of very genuine concerns about what this road is going to look and feel like over the next several months," McBryan told CBC News Monday.
The EDBA supports vibrant, people-oriented spaces, McBryan said, like existing pedestrian-oriented areas like 104th Street and Rice Howard Way.
Tired of closures
The avenue has been closed to vehicle traffic for more than four years while crews built the tracks and infrastructure of the Valley Line Southeast LRT.
Coun. Sarah Hamilton said many people are tired of road closures and crews on streets.
"There is a general construction and closure fatigue," Hamilton said. "I've heard overwhelmingly, requests from the adjacent retailers, to have a little bit of normalcy before we introduce more dynamism into the closures and the transportation network."
Putting pedestrians alongside the LRT track might have safety implications as well, Hamilton said.
Representatives from the YMCA presented their case to councillors at a meeting May 31, urging council not to approve the pilot.
Kent Bittorf, vice president of health, fitness and aquatics with Northern Alberta YMCA, said the road closure and construction have adversely impacted Don Wheaton YMCA and led to more disorder in the area.
Adam Laughlin, manager of integrated infrastructure services at the city, said when the bylaw is presented to council, they'll have a better idea of how much it will cost to consult local business owners and residents and create the designated area.
Paquette urged his colleagues to support the move.
"We're not contemplating closing a road, we're contemplating opening one up," he said.