ByWard Market grocers feel forgotten as city prioritizes patios over parking
Traffic congestion, confusion keeping customers away, owners say
Some ByWard Market grocers say the city's strategy to help restaurants and bars survive the COVID-19 pandemic is also deterring customers from visiting their shops.
Isaac Farbiasz, who owns ByWard Fruit Market with his wife, blames the "severe downturn" squarely on the city's decision to allow bars and restaurants to expand patio space into parking spaces and to reroute streets to accommodate other street closures.
Farbiasz said food sales along ByWard Market Square had previously been strong during the pandemic, around the time businesses pivoted to curbside pickup and deliveries.
Several nearby stores even got together and co-ordinated deliveries in the spring, allowing customers to buy products like cheese, produce, fish and meat on the same order.
"It was nuts," said Farbiasz. "We were all incredibly busy and really stressed out."
But starting in July, business began to slow down dramatically. Farbiasz estimates revenue is now down about 25 per cent compared to the same time last year.
'Can't park, can't drive'
Starting July 16, the city closed William Street from George to York streets, ByWard Market Square from York to Clarence streets, Clarence Street from William to Dalhousie streets and the north side of York Street from Byward Market Square to Sussex Drive.
ByWard Market Square was also converted to southbound traffic to offset the York Street closure.
Farbiasz said the plan has led to both traffic congestion and driver confusion.
"That has completely screwed up traffic. Customers are saying, 'We're not coming down here, it's impossible. Can't park. Can't drive,'" said Farbiasz.
While many customers can do their shopping on foot, not everyone wants or is able to lug groceries several blocks to their car.
John Diener, owner of Saslove's Meat Market, said his family-run business has also seen a 25 per cent drop in sales, compared to the same time in 2019.
Diener wants the city to better promote the hundreds of parking spaces in garages in the ByWard Market, which remain fairly vacant even while streets are clogged with cars.
"There's a garage almost right at our doorstep that has several levels of parking," he said. "There is a lot of parking. People just don't necessarily see it."
Diener said he also wants the city to make parking free at municipal garages in the market, similar to how drivers weren't charged for parking at Ottawa City Hall on evenings and weekends during the construction on Elgin Street.
Laila Gibbons, director of roads and parking services at the city, said in an email the ability to convert parking spots to patios has been available since 2017.
While there's a "natural period of driver adjustment" when changes are made to roads, the city has installed wayfinding signs to help drivers navigate the market, she said.
Gibbons also said the city isn't exploring the idea of making parking garages free, but it has been promoting the neighbourhood's two municipal garages on social media and with street signs.
Both garages are operating at about half their capacity, she said.
Diener said another option could involve allowing parking during the day and converting the spaces to patios after 4 p.m., when most shoppers are home and the diners come out.
The city had previously said it expects street closures and patios to remain in place in the ByWard Market until the end of September.
"I understand how necessary [the city's patio plan] was for the restaurants, who really took a big hit for three months being almost totally closed. Certainly something drastic had to be done to help them," said Diener, whose butcher shop is the only one remaining in the ByWard Market.
"But unfortunately, it has impacted the retailers who were operating during the day," he added. "I think they've forgotten that retail, especially retail food, was what the market was founded on."