The shrinkage of a single Winnipeg sidewalk has led to concern from urban planning experts and growing confusion at city hall.
The width of the sidewalk – located at the southbound corner of Bannatyne Avenue and Main Street and in front of the McKim Building – will be reduced from 4.9 metres to 2.2 metres to pave the way for a new vehicle loading zone.
In 2018, the building's former loading zone on Bannatyne was converted to separated bike lanes, leaving tenants without adequate loading space, said Faye Thomson, co-director of the School of Contemporary Dancers, which occupies the building's main floor. The school reached out to the city's public works department, stating it needed a loading zone for vehicles to drop off and pick up students.
"It's not that we don't support bike lanes, and I'd like to make that clear," said Thomson, who said her organization wasn't consulted about the bike lanes or removal of the loading zone. "Philosophically it wasn't an issue, but it was a practical one."
"The goal of this loading zone is to ultimately ensure a safe pick-up and drop-off location for families and children attending music and dance lessons at 211 Bannatyne," a Public Works Department representative wrote to city councillor Vivian Santos, in a message shared with the Free Press. "While the impact to the existing sidewalk may seem extensive today...the finished loading zone will leave the sidewalk with a width that still exceeds the minimum allowable measurement for the area (1.5 metres)."
But Santos says she wasn't notified about the reduced sidewalk width. If she had been, she'd have voiced her concerns, she told the Free Press.
"This is not what I have been promoting the Exchange District to be: a pedestrian and cyclist friendly neighbourhood," she said, adding she normally is notified about changes to streets and backlanes. "You don't see anywhere else in the Exchange with (sidewalks this narrow) along a main street," she added.
"I hope it doesn't set a precedent."
Richard Milgrom, the head of the University of Manitoba's department of city planning, agreed. "The message to downtown pedestrians is they aren't as important as vehicles. That's pretty clear," he said. Milgram said sidewalks must be wide enough to not just serve as places for people to walk: they can be used as social places, with benches or art work to create more comfortable settings for pedestrians.
"It's even more complicated for people who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters," he added.
While Winnipeg's minimum width for sidewalks of this kind is 1.5 metres, the City of Edmonton's streets design and construction standards states main-street sidewalks should be no narrower than three metres wide.
Milgrom said both 2.2 metres and 1.5 metres aren't wide enough. "Minimum standards are rarely about quality. They're usually about making things tolerable at best," he said. "I would argue this is reducing the tolerability."
A city spokesperson said the re-structured sidewalk met the city's standards, adding, "Transportation planning in the downtown, given the limited space within the existing public right-of-way, is a matter of balancing the needs of all users including pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, and sometimes involves making compromises to achieve an acceptable solution for all users."
The School of Contemporary Dance, along with fellow tenant Across the Board Cafe, say the loading zone will help their businesses. "Basically, we see it as a positive for us," said Nicholas Mann, the cafe's manager, who says he didn't reach out to the city to request the change. "Having the loading zone here for deliveries (will be helpful)."
Mann said he hopes the city did due diligence in assuring the new sidewalk will be sufficient from pedestrian and accessibility standpoints. "We as a business would love to see more infrastructure for bikes and having it accessible for pedestrians, but it's a tough balancing act because everything is so congested."
Santos said public works director Jim Berezowsky acknowledged in a meeting Thursday a need for better communication during community consultation to avoid situations like this one.
"I had a few emails today expressing concerns about accessibility," Santos added. "I'm not an engineer, so I trust that 2.2 metres is wide enough, but I personally would have liked to see other options."
Santos has requested another meeting with public works about the issue.