Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Moncton's Downtown Debate

I watched the City Council meeting via the live video coverage online Tuesday September 4 and followed all the debate on the downtown. I did not have access to the reports (it would be nice if they were made available to internet viewers).

Then I read Brent Mazerolle's coverage, which represents a different perspective from what I saw. Hence, his article in plain text with commentary and corrections by me in italics.

What should Moncton’s Main Street be?
by brent mazerolle

Should Moncton’s Main Street be only for pedestrians or should it remain driver friendly? And is allowing parking on the street friendly or unfriendly to drivers?

Nobody suggested that Main Street is currently "diver friendly". One comment that came up a lot was the congestion and traffic on Main. The actual issues were: should Main Street be converted to a pedestrian mall? Should the City continue it's parking meter program. It is odd (and even a little suspicious) that the two contrary approaches should surface at the same time, and it was suggested that the parking meter project is why it took so long to receive the report on civic malls from city staff.

Different ideas for the heart of downtown dominated much of the discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting of Moncton city council.

True. The discussion of the mall report presented by City staff took maybe a half hour. The discussion of the parking meters took a lot longer.


Council received two reports from city staff at the meeting. One weighed the merits of the idea of closing part of Main Street to motor vehicles and creating a pedestrian mall for July and August each year. The other was a report on the successes and failures of a one-year pilot project that reintroduced metered on-street parking to part of the street.

True.


Ultimately staff painted a bleak picture of the potential consequences of a two-month street closure and a relatively positive picture of Main Street parking.


This is really a matter of interpretation. The street-closure studied the results from similar programs in other cities, and wasn't so much a study of how it would work in Moncton. And the parking study was definitely mixed.



Council had initially tasked staff with looking at the pedestrian mall concept back in April of 2012. An interim report was shown to council in a briefing this past February, but the public presentation of the final report was delayed to allow the one-year parking project to come to term.

True, but this delay was not an 'official' delay; it appears to be more of a foot-dragging kind of delay.

City staff’s research found certain conditions must be in place to create a successful pedestrian mall and Moncton lacks a number of them.

No, that's not what it said. It was a report on tendencies in other cities - under what conditions the malls were successful, under what conditions they weren't. It wasn't a comprehensive study of all mall projects (one council member mentioned a significant exception). I don't think it looked at Europe at all.

To be successful a pedestrian mall must have a varied mix of uses, a large population of captive users including a strong resident base, heavily programmed activities, incorporation of efficient public transit and a location on a side street as opposed to a main thoroughfare.

These were all mentioned. But again, they were not found to be requirements, but tendencies.

Strong anchors on each end of the mall that serve both as pedestrian generators and help to enclose the space are also key, while centralized or co-ordinated retail management and well planned and extensive parking adjacent to the pedestrian mall are also important.

I don't recall this point being made. Some council members did point to the desirability of the mall as an adjunct to an events centre.


The area should already have a high amount of tourism and location in a college town or near a college neighbourhood is critical.


Again, that's not what was said. Rather, it said that malls with a strong tourist crowd or near a college were successful. Notice how Mazerolle has converted the 'IF' in the report to an 'ONLY IF' in this paragraph.


“Creating pedestrian malls does not create pedestrians,” Sébastien Arcand of the City of Moncton’s urban planning department told council. Rather, they tend to succeed in larger centres in places where they can build on already considerable amounts of pedestrian traffic.

This is accurate.


More than 200 North American cities have experimented with pedestrian malls since Kalamazoo, Mich., was the first to try one in 1959. Only about 15 per cent of those remain today.

Again, it would have been useful to study Europe.


Staff also found a recent survey of 72 communities that constructed pedestrian malls showed 56 of those communities have completely or partially reopened theirs to vehicle traffic and an additional 10 per cent are considering such an action.

Yes, but take this in context. In most cases 'reopening to vehicle traffic' rarely means abandoning the mall. Rather it means (as in eg. Ottawa) the mall being a mall during the day and a street at night.

When pedestrian malls have not been successful communities have experienced issues with vandalism, litter, safety and reduced business activity.

I don't recall litter being mentioned. The vandalism issue surfaced when malls were unused and unpopulated, and especially side-street malls. Reduced business activity was cited, but not as a general consequence of malls, but as a sign of unsuccessful malls.



Many cities have also been challenged by the ongoing costs involved in programming events to draw people to the pedestrian spaces.



I don't recall this point being made.

Nevertheless, the recommendation in the staff report to council was to consult the public to see what it thought of a summertime pedestrian plaza, effectively an echo of what was in the original resolution giving staff their marching orders to investigate the idea.

The presentation from city staff was very different on this point. The report recommended consultation because City Staff were directed to make this recommendation. But staff were very clear in expressing his view that he did not support consultation, saying it "would be throwing good money after bad."



A variety of forms of consultation could be used, with the cheapest method being an e-mail survey at the cost of an estimated $500. Using the city’s existing ForumMoncton Online would cost about $3,500, while a telephone survey of residents would cost anywhere from $12,000 to $26,000.

The main recommendation was to consult Moncton's online citizen panel. I don't know Mazerolle would say this.


At this point, Moncton’s city manager Jacques Dubé said really, based on the information staff had uncovered, “we’d recommend this whole exercise cease now.”

True. City staff really don't like the idea.


The comment did not sit well with either Mayor George LeBlanc or Ward 3 Councillor Daniel Bourgeois, the latter having made the original motion to investigate the idea back in 2012. LeBlanc pointed out to Dubé that his comments contradicted what the staff report said in writing, and Bourgeois characterized the comment as going against the spirit of public consultation.

Agreed. I think there is a bit of a conflict there.


Within staff’s report to council is consideration of other ideas, though they are essentially different riffs on what the City of Moncton does now — closing parts of streets to accommodate special events.

Ultimately, council voted to go ahead with some form of public consultation, but what that might entail was not completely clear.

I got the sense that it would mean consulting the online citizen panel (which to my knowledge has never been consulted on anything, as I'm on it, and have never been consulted on anything). But who knows.



Meanwhile, one year after the City of Moncton instituted on-street parking on parts of Main Street and Queen Street, the project seems to have been mostly a success, even though a majority (65 per cent) of downtown businesses surveyed found the results of the parking on their bottom lines to have been revenue neutral.

It's unclear what would lead Mazerolle to call the results 'a success'. There was a DMCI survey which was (as a Council member pointed out) very unscientific and unrepresentative, and should not be taken seriously. There were, for the most part, no business gains. There were significant reports of increased traffic, and staff at the Delta reported complaints from guests trying to get in and out. Two council members reported cycling difficulties, though city staff said only one complaint from cyclists was received (that would be me, I guess, as I sent in a complaint).

The key reason behind trying the parking project had been to try and stimulate business for downtown merchants.



By that measure it is a significant failure.

“For years, we’ve heard from business, ‘there’s not enough downtown parking,’” the mayor noted, calling upon Downtown Moncton Centre-Ville Incorporated general manager Anne Poirier Basque, who was in the council chamber observing, to ask if she had an explanation for the lacklustre results. She didn’t.


Not only did she not have an explanation, she hummed and hawed and basically broke down on the point.

Having said that, the public at large gave the on-street parking a fairly significant thumbs up, seventy per cent of them saying they liked it and wanted it to continue.



This was the biased DBCI survey.

While its lack of impact on business may have disappointed him, the mayor said the parking’s overall popularity wasn’t a surprise.

“I don’t think I’ve heard a single negative comment,” he said.



This is something that should be challenged, because I know there have been negative comments - he even heard some in the hour or so before he made the remark.

There have been a number of tweaks over the past year, though. The original 110 parking meters has been reduced to about 90, because some parking spaces were found to interfere with the smooth flow of traffic, especially Codiac Transpo buses.

Council further reduced that Tuesday night, by voting to remove 16 metered spaces that had been installed on the north side of Queen Street after a citizen complained they made cycling hazardous.

This is probably the major result, that Council will remove the Queen Street meters. It is worth noting that Council members were told that the existing empty spaces in the Peace Centre parking lot would more than absorb the impact of this closure.

There were also some really outrageous statements from city staff during this discussion that were not reported. For example, Dawn Arnold asked whether there were any east-west bike lanes downtown, and she was told "no, because bicycles can go wherever they want." There are no plans to improve bicycle access downtown because "we want downtown to be a destination."  

Video of the meeting can be found here.

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