The City of Kingston completely altered the landscape of downtown Kingston streets during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Love Kingston Marketplace, in partnership with the Downtown Kingston! BIA and Tourism Kingston, was designed to provide more space for pedestrians and businesses in the downtown core.
“The City is reimagining parts of downtown to create more public space for pedestrians and businesses, and create opportunities for new, creative experiences aimed at rejuvenating the downtown over the next several months,” reads the Love Kingston Marketplace page on the City’s website. “This will also allow businesses more room to operate with physical distancing and help residents to shop local in a safe way.”
Unfortunately, a number of downtown business owners were shocked and disappointed to find much of the on-street parking occupied by cement barriers, effectively limiting vehicle and delivery traffic to their storefronts.
While the City’s aim was to allow businesses to expand into outdoor spaces, and provide extra room for pedestrians to maintain physical distance, the execution of this project left many businesses with low traffic, even considering the pandemic, and difficulty restocking their stores.
“My personal experience with the barrier in front of my business has been frustrating and time consuming,” stated James Smith, owner of Smith Army Surplus. “I need to unload supplies and inventory from my storage facility on a daily basis and was unable, due to the barriers, without stopping traffic or waiting for after-hours, which is inconvenient for me. I noticed walking traffic, and seldom was the extra space ever used by pedestrians. In my opinion, the barriers served no purpose but to take four parking spots away and give the impression of a closed off business area. I do support the barrier for restaurants who use them on a regular basis but in our case not necessary.”
Michael Tenenhouse, owner of A One Clothing , echoed Smith’s sentiments. “I have no problem with barriers used for patios or sidewalk sales for restaurants and stores, but if the barriers are up and no one is using the space effectively then it is a complete waste of parking space,” he said. “This is what happened this year – many businesses were offered space behind barriers and never used them. This is not good for the downtown and wastes parking spaces for no reason.”
The downtown merchants are quick to point out that there is a time and place for such barricades and expansion beyond the sidewalks, but their opinions make it clear this was not an initiative appreciated by the downtown business area as a whole.
“It is a great relief that the barricades are gone,” shared Rudi Mogl, owner of Tara Natural Foods. “While a few restaurants made excellent use of their extended patio space and deserve congratulations, the vast majority of the space blocked by the barricades was a barren wasteland. Downtown Kingston has never looked as uninviting as it did this summer.”
“Those blocked wastelands came at a cost for retailers, like myself, and other businesses who lost parking and close pick-up zones which our customers and delivery people had relied on,” Mogl continued. “I trust that the city will learn from the mistakes they made in spending $250,000 on this project and next year will propose an idea that considers the needs of all of the people who shop, work and play in the downtown.”
It’s not only the merchants who felt the barriers were more than just an eyesore this year.
“This morning a customer came in and stocked up for Christmas,” Amanda Stewart of Amanda’s House of Elegance shared with Kingstonist on Friday, Dec. 1, 2020. “The first thing she said was ‘I was waiting for the barriers to be removed before coming downtown. I’m older and get a little flustered with parking so trying to navigate around barriers, pedestrians, and busy streets was too much to handle.’ I think this customer’s statement says it all.”
“Some barriers are now removed and already what a difference,” Stewart continued. “And let me point out; the people who utilized the barriers, fantastic! I’m glad it worked for them. But it didn’t for everyone. And the barriers put up but never used? BEYOND frustrating.”
Susan Cooke from Cooke’s Fine Foods also had customer feedback to share. “There was a marked reduction in tourists to Kingston this summer which was expected. The tourists and locals that came to Cooke’s did not hesitate to express their displeasure at the lack of parking,” she shared. “Anyone that has lived here even for a short while knows that the moment parking is affected in the downtown that residents will stay away. On Friday Nov. 27, a customer mentioned the lack of parking yet again and how the City was making it hard to shop downtown. She was delighted to know that barriers were being removed Dec. 1st.”
“As a downtown resident I found the concrete barriers were an eyesore,” Cooke continued. “So many of the spaces created were not used by any business or restaurant. Driving down Princess Street was a nightmare some days, with delivery trucks blocking lanes because the loading zones were gone. I understand that the original idea to close streets, and make a more pedestrian friendly atmosphere, came from Mayor Patterson. Regrettably, it was instituted with little discussion or consideration to all who would be affected. More space for restaurant patios would help their recovery from the shut down, but the needs of a retail business are quite different.”
A sticking point with the downtown merchants appeared to be the lack of communication from the City and the Downtown Kingston! BIA.
“I feel like the DBIA has hit the nail on the head on a few initiatives they’ve taken on (Holiday Shopping Passport and Downtown Dollars are working fabulously), but when it came to these cement barriers, what a miss,” expressed Stewart. “The lack of communication between the City of Kingston, DBIA, businesses owners and consumers alike was astounding. Thoughtless efforts and decisions, without research, made by folks who don’t own businesses downtown (and didn’t consult with owners) was a major disappointment that resulted in a significant hit for retailers.”
“Yes, other downtown cores in other cities simulated the idea, but they aren’t heritage areas that already struggle with downtown parking, commercial trucks making deliveries, and students moving in and out of the units above,” she continued. “And let’s not forget, you can’t paint restaurants and retail stores with the same brush. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all. I appreciate the fact that everyone was trying to help. But if there was just an open table for communication then I believe the outcome would have been different.”
Susan Cooke said she was, and still is, appalled that she found out about street closures and barriers on the CKWS evening news.
“I have been quite open about my feelings regarding the concrete barriers that were installed on downtown streets late June,” Cooke shared with Kingstonist. “The initial plan was to close Brock Street from Ontario to Wellington, which would have blocked my access to the laneway on my property at 57 to 61 Brock Street. I immediately contacted the City which put me in discussions with the Project Coordinator and the Traffic planner.”
“Several Zoom meetings ensued with the compromise that only the north side of Brock Street would be closed to vehicle traffic. When the barriers were installed, and the streets closed, our customers were shocked. We told everyone to contact the City and Downtown Kingston! to express their displeasure. The citizen’s voices were heard and the streets re-opened but the concrete barriers remained.”
“For five plus months Brock Street was a mess during the business day,” Cooke continued. “Tractor trailers double parked because loading zones had been removed and the ‘10 Minute Pick-Up’ spots were occupied by cars for far longer. One parking spot was created in front of my building, however, because our laneway access is visible, motorists decided it was a parking spot and we were constantly blocked from both exiting and entering our property. The worst offenders were the take-out food delivery drivers however the public did the same.”
Cooke also shared that her in-store business was greatly decreased throughout the summer months. She said they were prepared to deal with regular line-ups of customers, but that was not required. Instead, Cooke’s saw an increase in delivery requests, including gift baskets, and their very popular coffee, which were difficult to organize with the lack of street space, and vehicles occupying their laneway.
“Cooke’s experienced a tremendous reduction in the number of customers visiting our Brock St. store. We launched our on-line store last month and the response has been very positive. These would be customers who would normally make the trip to Kingston to shop and place their orders,” Cooke pointed out.
“Rudi [Mogl of Tara Natural Foods] mentioned to me that there is discussion to repeat this fiasco in 2021. I suggested that we need to have a discussion with Councilor Rob Hutchison and let him hear how strong the opposition was, and is, to this happening again. There will be businesses that do not survive this pandemic and there could be many vacant store fronts. I truly hope that the DBIA and the City will take the time to really listen to the feedback from those of us in the downtown core.”
Kingstonist reached out to both the City of Kingston and the Downtown Kingston! BIA in order to include their side of this issue. Neither provided information by time of publishing.