No dining district in Guelph this summer, but roads can be closed for special events: council

Guelph councillors have voted against closing down a section of downtown to become a pedestrian-friendly area for the entire patio season, but have agreed to allow special events that would see traffic diverted.

If given a chance, 'we can all provide the community a safe and enjoyable experience,' Brianna Cook says

Guelph allowed restaurants in part of its downtown core to extend their patios out into the streets to form a dining district as a way to welcome back customers and recoup money lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Guelph won't see a dining district in the downtown core this summer like the one that existed last year, but the city could allow streets to be shut down for special events.

Last summer, officials in Guelph touted the dining district as a way to support restaurants hit hard by the pandemic and offer people a fun way to dine outside. It saw the city shut down the intersection of Wyndham and Macdonell streets and the restaurants in that area were allowed to expand their patios into the street. In other parts of the city, patios were permitted on sidewalks and into parking spots with large barriers.

During a committee meeting on Monday, city councillors heard from several people who spoke both in support of closing the roads to create a pedestrian-friendly area and those who said doing so would cause significant problems, including rerouting transit and impacting emergency services.

When asked by council for her thoughts, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health medical officer of health Dr. Nicola Mercer said "outdoors is always better than indoors" when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19.

"Where people can do their activities and be outdoors when they're socializing or when they're eating or drinking, it's far safer than being indoors," she told councillors, noting it's likely businesses will continue to be impacted in the months to come. "We know that we're not going to be out of this pandemic completely until, well, probably the remainder of this year."

3 options

Councillors were asked to consider three options from staff, none of which would have turned downtown into the dining district that existed last summer. The options were:

  • Close the intersection and allow patios to expand into the street but some of the roadway would also become a pedestrian only space.
  • Close the intersection on weekends but patios would not be allowed to expand.
  • Allow seasonal patios throughout the downtown and the streets could be closed for special events.

Staff had recommended the last option, a seasonal patio program, because it would allow for all businesses, not just restaurants in a particular intersection, to apply to have a patio.

The staff report noted that closing for special events would also mean fewer disruptions to deliveries to businesses, garbage collection would go more smoothly and it also "ensures consistent application of the program for all participating businesses."

The recommendation is to run the patio program seasonally for three years, then review the program.

'Safe and enjoyable experience'

Councillors received several letters and emails and also heard from people at the meeting. Resident Adriano Salvatore said walking from his vehicle to the dining district meant "lots of little shops caught my eye and I took note of businesses I hadn't seen in the past."

Brianna Cook of Acqua Salon said the hair salon was eager to take part in a seasonal patio program.

"If we're all given the opportunity to welcome the patrons outside, we can all provide the community a safe and enjoyable experience during this challenging time," she said.

A server works on a patio at La Reina before the dining district was put into place last summer. The restaurant's Bryan Steele says not being allowed to expand his patio into the street means the restaurant will lose 60 per cent capacity compared to last year and he wouldn't be able to hire as many people. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Bryan Steele of La Reina, a restaurant that was part of the dining district last summer, said the program helped them recover and build a customer base that has continued to support them through the winter months. He was also able to hire 13 people last summer, he noted.

"[Last] summer was the most fun I've had in 10 years in the industry. It was in no way a walk in the park," he said. "I worked seven days a week and long hours, but it was gratifying."

He said the staff recommendation would see him lose 60 per cent capacity compared to last year and he wouldn't be able to hire as many people. He also said his insurance company also has indicated it would raise his rates if the restaurant had a patio that extended into parking spots but vehicles are allowed to drive beside the patio.

After hearing from delegations, councillors debated motions on how to move forward for about three hours.

Ultimately, councillors voted in favour of the staff recommendation and asked staff to report back to council in January after the first year of the three-year project.

In a post-meeting video on his Twitter account, Mayor Cam Guthrie noted that the decision will now go to a council meeting later this month "for potential ratification."


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