On notice: Mackenzie Avenue summer closure proposal up for decision

A plan to convert Mackenzie Avenue to pedestrian-only for the 2020 summer months, a COVID-19 adaptation to allow retailers, restaurants and hospitality to expand service outside, is being advanced through a procedure not often used in Revelstoke municipal politics. If successful, will it mark a shift in the way city business gets done?

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The Revelstoke Farmers Market. File photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

According to Revelstoke City Councillor Cody Younker, things are looking good for a summer closure of Mackenzie Avenue between Victoria Road and Third Street to motor vehicles. His proposal is up for discussion at the May 26 council meeting, and he’s had positive feedback from enough councillors to make him feel the idea will go forward in some form.

The plan calls for a July 1 to September 7 closure, adding displaced accessible parking nearby, for staff to consult with stakeholders and the public, get it approved by council, and bring it all together by Canada Day.

Younker proposed the plan at the last Revelstoke’s City Council regular meeting through what’s generally referred to as a “notice of motion” process, a departure from the usual way of doing city business.

What is a notice of motion and why should you care? In the municipal context, it is generally used to describe a process where a councillor brings an initiative to the table for discussion, proposing a specific plan. Typically in Revelstoke municipal politics, when council wants something done, they ask staff to come up with a plan and present it back to council, which then gives feedback before the final thumbs up or down. Doing business this way is a necessity when the municipality is dealing with an issue that requires expertise, such as an engineering project.

There are downsides to doing business the conventional way. One is that it’s slow and can be even slower when staff resources don’t match the workload. Even an expedited process is likely to take a month and a half to see daylight. Sometimes it takes months or years.

Younker said that was his worry. He told me he’s been hearing deep concerns from local restaurateurs about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses, and felt the need to do something. A street closure to allow for spaced outside dining was a suggestion, and many cities across North America already have patio-table parasols unfurled.

“My perspective and thought process is I was really uncomfortable hearing the stories everyday,” Younker said. “I felt that we had to do something and have that discussion. For me, I didn’t want us to be seen as sitting on our hands, and hindsight is 20/20.”

Another concern with the notice in motion process is the issue of who is setting political direction for the city: council or staff? It’s a nuanced issue. When council asks staff to make a plan, staff then has the political direction to do so, giving staff a mandate to formulate a plan based on their professional expertise. Without political direction, it’s a dicier prospect: in the context of COVID-19 disruptions, which have upended the basis for so much in our lives, is it staff’s job to improvise fixes, offering random suggestions?

Following ongoing city emergency operations such as shutting down parks and patrolling for distancing compliance, the city formed an Economic Recovery Task Force in mid-May, which is chaired by Roberta Bobicki, the CEO of the Revelstoke Credit Union and the current chairperson of the joint CSRD and City of Revelstoke Economic Development Commission. The task force will look at long-term economic recovery, but is also expected to recommend interim recovery steps. But, the task force didn’t first meet until May 13, and procedure rules require a councillor-led initiative to be added the previous meeting, on May 12.

Younker said he wanted to get moving. “It’s kind of all a work in progress, but the main thing was to get something at the council table,” Younker said. “We need to have short-term recovery measures and long-term,” he said. “We need quick wins, right?”

Market moved

The current Saturday farmers market is popular with residents and most everyone agrees it’s a positive for the community. Back when the farmers market was in Grizzly Plaza, and after it expanded up Mackenzie Avenue to Second Street, it has been a market rite of passage to stand in sensible sandals at the south end, point towards Mount Macpherson, and say, ‘They should expand it up a block.’

The farmers markets have relocated to Centennial Park and the aquatic centre parking lot. (Although they appear as one, the Saturday market is actually two separate markets run by two different organizations, following a public split several years back.)

At this point, the Mackenzie closure plan doesn’t have detail on who would get what space, or how it would be laid out. Younker said it is something to be worked out before July 1, the targeted opening day.

In the interim since Younker’s mid-May motion, on May 22, the provincial government announced it was lowering its regulation of outdoor patio approvals, a move that will allow municipalities to move faster on improvised plans that will let indoor establishments offer outdoor service. The B.C. government has rolled out a new online application process, and in his announcement, B.C. Attorney General David Eby said it was designed to help the 180,000 British Columbians who work in the pubs, restaurants and other parts of the sector. “Speeding up the process will help restaurants, pubs, breweries and other licensees,” he said, “and give British Columbians more options for safely eating out this summer, while continuing to follow Dr. Henry’s directions.”

Like so many things in the COVID-19 era, the B.C. government announces big policy or practice departures almost daily, but the province was careful to note the expansion licenses are temporary, and that occupancy can’t be increased.

If the idea moves forward, the on-the-ground work won’t be easy. Sorting out who gets what space, and whether businesses not located on the blocks will be allowed space at the new pedestrian area are a few of many issues that need to be sorted out, and COVID-19 rules and regulations add another layer of complexity to the issue.

However, despite being pulled into the farmers market split involuntarily, city staff did manage to steward the situation to a resolution that suits market customers well — the expansion to Second Street, including stalls in the middle of the avenue that allow retailers room to spread onto the sidewalk. There’s no reason to believe it’s not doable.

A new way of doing things?

Will councillor-led plans become more common at the council table? There have been a few in the past year or so, already a departure from the norm. This one is the most high profile, and if the plan is successful, it may be viewed as an opportunity for councillors to stand out from council and the city and also get things done more quickly.

The proposal is up for discussion at council’s May 26 meeting. We will post an update here after the discussion.

UPDATE: Council decision

At the May 26 meeting, council opted not to proceed with the motion as written, instead referring it to the city’s Economic Recovery Task Force, which is scheduled to meet on May 27.

View the council discussion on the proposed street closure here:

Under a revised motion, council asked the task force to look at this proposal, including exploring options for road closures downtown, not limited to three blocks on Mackenzie. The request asked the task force to report back in a timely way with the July 1 target in mind.

“I believe they’re going to come back supporting a lot of what I am talking about here,” Younker said during discussion.

The task force’s recommendations will likely be back at the council table at an upcoming council meeting.

Correction: An earlier version stated the targeted opening date was June 1 in one paragraph and July 1 in another. In fact, the proposed start date is July 1 and the error has been corrected.