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4 min

Time to close Church Street to cars?

BIA looking to emulate Montreal's successful pedestrian-only gay village experiment

For the past five years, Sainte-Catherine Street has closed to cars to create a pedestrian-only artistic wonderland. Credit: Courtesy photo

For the past five years, something exciting and visionary has been going on in Montreal’s gay village.

During the summer months, Sainte-Catherine Street East — Canada’s largest gay strip — closes to cars to create a pedestrian-only artistic wonderland. As a result, tourism and business are both experiencing a boom.

So, why can’t Toronto’s gay village follow suit?

That’s a question being asked by many in Toronto, especially as the city looks ahead to hosting WorldPride in 2014, when the world’s eyes will be on Church Street.

David Wootton, manager of the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (BIA), says he’s impressed and inspired by Montreal’s efforts to bring vibrancy into the village with Aires Libres (Open Spaces), their pedestrian-only mall. This year, the celebration also marked the 30th anniversary of the creation of the city’s gay village.

Visitors to Montreal could stroll the village under a canopy of 170,000 little pink balls that dangled above the street, relax with a drink on the extended street patios, and share photos of the many interactive public art displays.

Wootton says the board is working on proposing a similar idea for Toronto’s Church Wellesley Village, even as soon as next year, and it plans to float the idea past area merchants at the upcoming annual general meeting on Nov 12. “I imagine some will be for it, others will not be for it.”

“That is ultimately what we’d like to do,” he says. “We are looking in that direction for sure. Instead of waiting for the properties to change their look and feel, we need to dress around them.”

Wootton says the BIA will also be approaching the City of Toronto for help ahead of WorldPride. “We want the same efforts that are being put to the Pan Am Games. We want to see more investment in beautification,” he says. 

Montreal’s gay village experienced a renaissance in 2006 when Sainte-Catherine Street was given over to pedestrians during the World Outgames. So popular was the move with bars and restaurants that it became an annual summer occurrence, according to Montreal‘s Gazette.

Bernard Plante, director of business development corporation for Montreal’s gay village, was not available for comment at press time.

Kevin Beaulieu, Pride Toronto’s executive director, says he is open to any ideas that generate excitement about WorldPride.

“[Church Street] has done it before, so there’s precedent,” he says. “If there are any road closures, you need permits for that, and there may be some bylaw issues, but it’s doable.

“We plan to work with the BIA and the local community to host a successful event, not only during the week of WorldPride, but also in the lead-up and the follow-up. This is a wonderful opportunity for everybody.”

Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says she is open to the discussion. “Church Street has always been a combination of daytime business and evening business. The daytime activities are always much quieter. So you don’t want to close the street and not have any animation.”

What works in Montreal may not work in Toronto, she says. “I understand people are very excited about pedestrian environments. Transplanting an idea from one city to another doesn’t always work as well as people would hope.”

Back in 2004, Church Street and Kensington Market were chosen to be part of a city pilot project examining the feasibility of closing streets to cars during the summer.

“In Kensington people love it, and it’s now become part of their cultural identity of the market,” Wong-Tam says. “We tried it on Church, but the merchants did not get involved.”

Wong-Tam points out that Church Street is wide, with four lanes of traffic. “Kensington already has very urban, intimate streets, with vendors spilling out onto the sidewalks. Church Street, without street animation, is just a four-lane-wide road
. . . It has a very different vibe.”

Yvonne Bambrick, coordinator of the Kensington Market BIA, says a group of volunteers stepped up at the beginning to keep the initiative going when the city was no longer involved.

“We found a way to keep it going,” she says. “We held a fundraiser the following year, worked with the councillor and found ways to make it a regular event. It was scaled down that second year, but we pursued it.”

Pedestrian Sundays are now a signature event in Kensington Market and take place on the last Sunday of each summer month. But in the beginning, and even now to a lesser degree, Bambrick says, there was opposition from some merchants. “Certainly, there will always be some who don’t like change, but there was enough local support to proceed with it.

“There are still some folks that don’t do a lot of business that day, but they recognize the value to the market overall in terms of bringing more energy and people to the neighbourhood . . . I don’t think anything other than a lack of community support should deter people from moving forward with street events.”

Wong-Tam points to the success of this summer’s Celebrate Yonge festival, which saw Yonge Street from Gerrard to Queen closed to two lanes, creating additional pedestrian space, green spaces and sprawling patios.

Abbas Doumani, from Thai Express on Yonge Street, says there was a big spike in business during the festival.

Closing the street partially to cars “was fantastic. It was so nice for the downtown. People came from all over to sit, have fun and enjoy on the patios. For us and the shops around us, we were all busy in every way, day and night. All the businesses were happy. We were making money.

“I’d like to see it happen again, and maybe for a longer time. Why not do it on Church Street as well?”

Meanwhile, some Church Street business owners and staff are enthusiastic about the idea.

“Church Street needs big ideas,” says Keith Jalbert at Big Johnson’s. “More activities and more events that bring people to the area. If you close the street, more people come out. People walk around, visit the businesses, stores, bars and restaurants. If Montreal can do it, we can do it here.”

Jalbert says Toronto has a bad habit of making planning decisions around cars instead of people. “Toronto has a lot of traffic. People think that if you close a street you’re doomed. But I don’t think that’s actually true.”

Originally from Montreal, Mitchell Luis is now serving at the Churchmouse and Firkin on Church Street. He says Toronto should follow Montreal’s lead.

“I am totally in favour of doing something similar in Toronto. It would make the village fun, create a feeling of celebration and bring a sense of community to the neighbourhood,” he says.

Tourism Toronto did not respond to Xtra’s request for an interview.