Banff to decide on future of town's pedestrian corridor
As tourists return, the Town of Banff is exploring what to do with car-free pandemic experiment
Creating a pedestrian zone on Banff Avenue happened quickly as a pandemic measure to ensure people had the space to visit the town. But as tourists return, councillors are debating the future of the vehicle-free stretch.
The closed pedestrian zone has been a hit for many businesses and visitors, but those who live in town didn't have a say in the closure.
For locals, it has become a point of contention.
During a governance and finance committee service review meeting on Monday, councillors debated the next steps in this experiment; whether or not to make the zone a permanent summer fixture.
Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said this presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the town.
"The downtown pedestrian zone was borne out of circumstances we could have never imagined," she said. "And it was a project we likely would have never entertained because of how integral those four lanes of traffic are."
Now that they've seen the results of two pandemic years with the closure and a third year of traffic as the tourism industry rebounds, DiManno says it's proving to be a viable way to shift people out of their cars and onto buses, bikes, or on foot which also helps the town's climate goals and future.
But now, she says she needs to know how the community feels.
"I don't have all the data and I certainly don't have the community feedback to know if it's the right path forward for us," DiManno said.
Letters flood council inbox
During the meeting, councillors received feedback on the two-block pedestrian zone between Wolf Street and Buffalo Street.
There were 200 written submissions and a few people also showed up to speak to councillors.
Making the pedestrian zone permanent has been the talk of the town — online and in the alleyways of Banff.
"We did this one backwards," said resident Katy Tuff. "I don't think it was a bad thing. It was an unorthodox and I don't know if we would choose again to do such an enormous shift in philosophy, you know, without consultation."
She started a consultation of her own with friends and colleagues — going into the conversation highly in favour of the pedestrian zone staying for good.
But Tuff said the spectrum of feedback she received opened her eyes to issues she hadn't considered.
People should vote on it, councillor says
Looking at the contents of the public submissions, which came from residents, businesses and some groups outside of the township, a majority of the letters were in favour of continuing with a pedestrian zone.
Some letters didn't take a clear stance, but a number of letters were against continuing to block off Banff Avenue to traffic.
All in all, there were differing opinions on how and what a pedestrian zone should and shouldn't look like.
Another shared theme in letters for and against keeping the pedestrian zone was a desire for fulsome consultation — some even asked for a referendum or a plebiscite.
Coun. Hugh Pettigrew put forward a motion asking for a referendum. Throughout the meeting he said the current council members didn't run on a platform of closing the avenue and felt the current council didn't have the mandate to move forward.
"None of us have ran on such a scheme for permanency," Pettigrew said. "Whether it's a referendum or not I think the truth will be when we get re-elected on this subject … if we are thinking of implementing this before this term is over I will not be happy."
That motion was defeated.
Many concerns around residential road gridlock
Submissions and letters reflected that the main concerns in the community concerned traffic congestion on residential side streets, as well as traffic delays as a result of the closed avenue and noise and exhaust fumes.
In some cases, there were concerns for losses or delays for certain businesses.
After hours of submissions, questions, and debate, councillors voted to find funding for a community consultation on the future of Banff Avenue's pedestrian zone, along with conceptual plans on what the avenue would look like if it was closed to traffic seasonally.
The vote carried 5 to 2.
"I'm not suggesting a vote for this is a vote for a permanent seasonal closure, it's a vote for consultation," said Coun. Chip Olver.
This vote was part of the town's service review, which means the final decision will come in the new year when councillors vote on the finalized 2023 budget. Amendments and changes are still possible.