Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's pedestrian mall accessibility will change, vows mayor, after Facebook post highlights problems

The city is working to improve accessibility at the new downtown pedestrian mall after a popular post on social media drew attention to the challenges of navigating the area.

Post of wheelchair user unable to navigate area shared almost 1,000 times

Certain blocks of Water Street are closed to cars, and now feature picnic tables, in addition to new decks that many businesses have built over the last week. (Mark White/Twitter)

The mayor of St. John's says the city is working to improve accessibility at the new downtown pedestrian mall after a social media post drew attention to the numerous mobility challenges of the area.

In a Facebook post shared almost 1,000 times, Lisa Walters recounted her experience trying, and mostly failing, to visit downtown businesses while in her wheelchair.

"Between all the businesses with no ramps, the clothing racks, patios and bistro tables blocking off huge sections of sidewalk and the lack of access to accessible washrooms, the only real accessible activity you can do at the pedestrian mall is just stroll down the middle of the street," she said in the post.

"There aren't many options for those of us with mobility aids to spend our money downtown, because not many places give us the option to get in the door."

The post also included photos of nearly 50 businesses that were inaccessible to her.

Walters declined a request for an interview, but in her post said more work is needed to ensure everyone is able to visit the shops and restaurants along Water Street.

"The glaringly obvious thing to me was how sad it was that so many businesses could build these elaborate patios overnight, and still not have small wheelchair ramps into their stores or restaurants," she said in the post.

"I'm sure there are lots of factors to consider when trying to make your downtown business more accessible, but business owners who choose to operate in these inaccessible locations really need to put in more work … to help make their businesses more accessible and help make downtown a place everyone can enjoy. And the city really needs to make some changes."

'A work in progress'

One of the many comments on Walters' post was from St. John's Mayor Danny Breen.

Breen said empathizes with Walters' concerns, and as his daughter has a hearing impairment he's familiar with some issues of accessibility.

"It's a challenge. It's something that we want to make sure we get right. We can always — and need — to do better," he told CBC News. 

Breen said the city has included eight accessible parking spaces and several accessible picnic tables at the pedestrian mall, but it's important to ensure the many newly built patios and decks are accessible.

The mayor also pointed to the challenges of getting into and out of many businesses, something he hopes to be able to work with business owners to improve.

"We're going to be working with the businesses and Downtown St. John's to address some of those [issues]," he said. 

"Our staff are meeting on it today, reviewing what needs to be done, then reaching out to the business owners.… This is a work in progress, so we're aware of it, we take the situation extremely seriously, and we're working to alleviate the concerns there."

The City of St. John's later added that municipal inspectors have been on the street, meeting with business owners. 

"Since many new structures have been built by businesses during this past week, city staff are now evaluating the street as a whole, to see what sections of sidewalk require ramps and additional infrastructure to be built," reads a statement from the city. 

The pedestrian mall is open until Sept. 7.

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