Albert Street stakeholders push for pedestrian mall

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A bleak and bleary sky turned a weeping eye on an Exchange District pedestrian festival on Wednesday. But even as visitors huddled under umbrellas in the middle of Albert Street, organizers wondered: Could this be the sign of a permanent change on the historic downtown block?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/09/2010 (4450 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A bleak and bleary sky turned a weeping eye on an Exchange District pedestrian festival on Wednesday. But even as visitors huddled under umbrellas in the middle of Albert Street, organizers wondered: Could this be the sign of a permanent change on the historic downtown block?

On Wednesday, shops near the corner of Albert Street and Bannatyne Avenue celebrated the third annual Car-Free Day by shutting down traffic on the cobblestoned block for a planned street party. The pouring rain put a damper on the scheduled activities, such as street hockey and car-free trivia, but organizers were undaunted.

“If only it wasn’t raining, it would be packed,” said Anders Swanson, who works at Natural Cycle on Albert Street. “Everybody’s inside having cake, but that doesn’t count.”

BRENT BELLAMY PHOTO Store owners along Albert Street in the Exchange District support the concept of a pedestrian mall.

Here’s what would count — getting feet on the pavement and walking past area business windows.

In 2007, Swanson led a group of like-minded Albert Street business owners lobbying to turn the short block into a permanent pedestrian mall, something like Ottawa’s famous Sparks Street Mall. The proposal, which Swanson said was unanimously supported by Albert Street businesses between Bannatyne and McDermot, ended up percolating through city hall, where it eventually “fell into a black hole,” he chuckles.

Since that push for a pedestrian mall, several new shops have opened up on the Albert Street block. And the idea of a permanent, or even seasonal, walk is back in vogue.

“I think it’s a good idea,” mused Luke Nolan, who opened hat boutique The Haberdashery on Albert Street two years ago.

During July’s Fringe Festival, the first block of Albert Street was closed to cars, and the flood of foot traffic was a big boon to Nolan’s shop. Considering the success of that street closure, Nolan said, it’s worth trying out the pedestrian-mall tack year-round… even if it puts a ding in the street parking market. “It sucks for parking, but that’s typical around here,” he said. “If you’re going to do (a pedestrian mall) in Winnipeg, this is a good street for it.”

During the Fringe, the block of Albert Street outside Mariver Gapusan’s hip new knitting shop, Where The Wool Things Are, was still open to vehicle traffic. And she noticed something: The pedestrian-only block was buzzing. Her block? Not so much.

“We would walk out there and see a crazy amount of people, but they were not crossing McDermot,” Gapusan said. “We did not get the amount of (foot) traffic we were hoping for.”

Now, Gapusan is intrigued by the idea of turning Albert Street, almost up to Notre Dame, into a pedestrian mall. But the idea should be examined carefully, she stressed, noting that businesses such as cafes and retail might benefit but others, such as service businesses that rely on quick customer drop-offs, might suffer.

MIKE.DEAL@FREEPRESS.MB.CA People brave rainy weather to attend Car-Free Day on Albert Street Wednesday.

If the right balance could be found, Gapusan sees the potential.

“It would be a unique street, something you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the city,” she said. “It would bring more people here.”

To build consensus on the issue, Swanson hopes to hold another meeting for Albert Street stakeholders this fall. There is some nervousness about closing off a traffic route and losing Albert’s handful of street parking spaces, he agreed, but believes that a seasonal run — for instance, having a pedestrian mall from May to September of 2011 — might quell those fears.

“In general, I think the benefits are going to outweigh that,” he said, noting that a well-attended pedestrian mall would boost safety and make “a killing” for Exchange District businesses… I think it’s important that local businesses get together and make their thoughts known… that’ll speed up the process, for sure.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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