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Future of Banff's pedestrian zone going to binding vote later this summer

“We’ve heard from 11.5 per cent of the population and we know more voices would like to be heard on this issue."
Flower beds are watered in Banff's downtown pedestrian zone. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – Banff’s pedestrian zone is opening for the May long weekend for most of the summer before a binding plebiscite on Aug. 12 asks residents for a yes or no vote on the future of the controversial downtown car-free zone.

Council opted against fully repealing the bylaw in order to shut down the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone, preferring to take the matter to a vote to get a greater sense of where the community sits on the divisive issue following a valid petition that collected more than 1,000 signatures in opposition.

Mayor Corrie DiManno said she felt a vote of the electorate is the fairest path forward.

“We’ve heard from 11.5 per cent of the population and we know more voices would like to be heard on this issue,” she said during a council meeting Monday (May 13).

Banffites for a Comfortable Living Community, the group that distributed the petition and collected 1,000-plus signatures, welcomes this decision for the vote of the electorate.

“Residents want their say on this,” said Bunny Julius, a group member and local restaurant owner.

“The pedestrian zone fundamentally changes the way the town works. Many find that the negative effects outweigh the benefits. We look forward to seeing if that’s how the majority feels”.

Leslie Taylor, who was the lead on the petition, said the group worked hard to get the petition in quickly, in hopes that the vote of electors could be held before summer started.

“So I’m a bit disappointed with the long timeline,” she said. “However, I’m glad that the vote will be held, and I hope that all Banff voters will take this opportunity to have their say.”

The Banff Avenue pedestrian zone started in 2020 in response to COVID-19 pandemic social distancing requirements. Having outdoor seating allowed restaurants to stay in business while observing COVID protocols.

Town council continued this emergency measure in 2021, then extended it for two more summers to help with economic recovery in the tourist town. In January 2024, council voted to make this an annual practice, from Victoria Day long weekend to Thanksgiving every year.

Once the COVID-19 emergency had passed, many locals expressed concerns to council about the community-wide impacts of the pedestrian zone.

They cited blocking the town’s main arterial road, traffic congestion on formerly quiet residential streets, interference with evacuation routes, extra demands on housing from additional commercial activity, conflicts with Parks Canada’s commercial cap, and business inequity.

When the decision was made to proceed with the pedestrian zone despite these concerns, a group of locals organized and distributed a petition to have the motion repealed, collecting 1,114 signatures,

On April 15, Banff’s town manager, Kelly Gibson, declared the petition valid. Council then had a choice between cancelling the pedestrian zone or putting it to a community-wide vote.

At Monday's council meeting, members of the public argued both for and against the pedestrian zone, with most calling for a vote of the electorate.

However, Harvey Locke, who signed the petition, said he wanted council to rescind the initial bylaw that allowed for the pedestrian zone.

He said diversion of traffic from Banff Avenue onto Beaver Street, where the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation has a series of heritage properties, is ruining the historic streetscape – Banff’s first residential street.

“It has now become an industrial street whenever Banff Avenue is closed,” he said.

“Buses, trucks, our garden is unusable some days …  just the sheer volume of noise caused by the traffic displaced.”

Both Banff & Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) and Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association urged council to take the matter to a vote.

David Matys, VP of destination development for BLLT, said more than 90 per cent of visitors surveyed said the pedestrian zone should continue beyond 2023 and they are expecting it to be open this summer.

“A pedestrian-friendly downtown core is what we’ve told them we have for the last number of years, and a last-minute decision to remove this popular feature will not be received well by visitors,” he said.

Matys said Banff’s reputation will take a hit if the pedestrian zone does not open on the May long weekend given work that has been done to create a sustainable tourism destination.

“Bluntly, the image of a vibrant pedestrianized downtown core turning back into a four-lane road will undermine this,” he said.

“A last-minute decision not to proceed with the pedestrian zone will have a significant negative impact on our credibility as a sustainable tourism destination.

“While this is a matter that needs to be resolved,  choosing to do so just before our peak session is not ideal.”

Aug. 12 is the latest a vote of the electorate can happen under Municipal Government Act rules related to petitions. Coun. Hugh Pettigrew was unsuccessful in his bid to have the vote earlier in summer on July 15.

“There’s a lot of reasons to support a vote because I do agree our community is really divisive on this,” said Pettigrew, who has previously pushed for a plebiscite on this issue.

“But I’m concerned that if we drag this on any longer, we’re going to have more angst on both sides.”

Coun. Chip Olver supported the earlier vote date too, but also wanted to keep Banff Avenue open to vehicles until the voters decide.

She said this would give residents a chance to compare what traffic is like when Banff Avenue is open to vehicles in the busy summer versus when the car-free pedestrian zone is in place over the past four summers.

“I think it would be good for people to vote with the greatest understanding of what two different options offer,” she said.

“If it’s a yes vote, then we open it. If no, we don’t.”

Olver’s bid did not get support from the majority of council, with most concerned that businesses had already invested in outdoor patios, were ready to open this coming Victoria Day long weekend, and had hired staff.

Mayor DiManno said the Aug. 12 date is the best to give administration as much time as possible to prepare for the vote.

She said it takes time to procure tabulators, hire and train staff, issue and receive special ballots, meet the advertising requirements, and hold advance polls, which will be crucial in a vote taking place in the summer. “In my opinion, trying to expedite the timelines is a disservice to democracy,” she said.

“If we’re going to do this vote, then let’s do it right and with enough time to ensure eligible voters are aware and ready to participate.”

The mayor said she hopes the results of the Aug. 12 vote put the matter to rest once and for all.

“I’ve heard stories about how this causes tension at family dinners, in lifelong friendships, and between neighbours because people do not share the same views,” she said.

“At the end of this exercise, people are likely either going to be extremely happy or very upset and I’m worried about where that leaves us and about how we find our way back to being the empathetic and kind community I know us to be.

“This is why it’s imperative every resident who is eligible to vote participates in this exercise so that we can move forward as a community.”

Meanwhile, Parks Canada and the Town of Banff continue to be in talks over the federal agency’s position that outdoor seating in public spaces flouts national park law and policy, with a joint statement on the Town of Banff’s website outlining next steps.

“It says nothing will be different this year,” said Darren Enns, director of planning and environment.

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