The City of St. John's is poised to cordon off its downtown core once again this summer, reviving a popular pedestrian strip to encourage outdoor dining and shopping in the capital as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.
The pedestrian mall, first implemented last summer in response to public health guidance that limited restaurant and retail capacity, drew thousands of people to ornate patios along the city's iconic Water Street.
Last year's move left businesses on parallel Duckworth Street fuming.
Their months of lobbying for inclusion, however, paid off. On Wednesday, city council recommended incorporating sections of Duckworth in this summer's pedestrian zone, choosing two of five possible stretches to close to vehicles for the season.
New Gower Street to Bates Hill and Cathedral to Prescott streets made the cut — a major win for Kate Vallis, owner of Piatto Pizzeria.
"We're really excited to be a part of it," Vallis said. "It was a long process and took a lot of effort from a lot of people."
Vallis and other owners had pushed for the city to close off the entirety of Duckworth Street, effectively rendering two main streets in downtown St. John's car-free. The city confirmed this week such a move simply isn't possible, due to emergency vehicles, buses and residents requiring access to the roads.
The city says the two potential segments it's recommending for inclusion in the mall don't block access to parking lots and include a grassy area that could be "used for programming."
Coun. Debbie Hanlon told CBC News Thursday enhancing the mall this year, and refining it now for future summers, will boost tourism when cruise ships return to the harbour.
"There is an end in sight," Hanlon said.
She said the pedestrian mall is scheduled to open July 2.
Hanlon questioned cost
Adding those two sections of Duckworth, however, comes with a $167,000 price tag, nearly doubling the project's budget and increasing the economic burden on the already cash-strapped city. A city official told CBC News that the cost of running the Water Street segment will run between $180,000 to $200,000.
It's a cost Hanlon questioned this week in a conversation with a city staffer that was mistakenly broadcast.
"Spending that kind of money to appease a few people? I agree with you 100 per cent. It's absurd. It's nuts," the unidentified staffer said.
"If you go against it and all of council goes for it then you're the idiot, right?" Hanlon is heard replying.
Hanlon expressed regret for that conversation Thursday.
"After I cried for an hour, I gathered myself up and I started to call the people on the street. That was it. I apologize for any of the remarks that were made," she said.
"I just couldn't wrap my head around ... the magnitude of not being able to satisfy everyone, only a small amount, and how much that would cost."
Above all, she added, she wants downtown to thrive. "I'm really pleased with what we have right now," she said. "More than anything, I really hope people support them."
But owners like Vallis aren't ready to stop pushing.
"Although this is a win — a small win and a step in the right direction — I think people are still disappointed that the other area ... where there's a really much higher density of businesses is left out this year," Vallis said. "But I think there's still hope for changes in future."
Council passed the second, expanded rendition of the pedestrian mall at its council of the whole meeting Wednesday, but that vote isn't binding.
It will discuss and finalize the plan at its regular meeting on March 29.