With COVID 'behind us', Parks Canada opposes patios on vehicle-free Banff Avenue

Park superintendent Salman Rasheed said allowing restaurant patios on street represents over-commercialization of public space

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Park’s Canada’s Banff chief has voiced opposition to the mountain town’s plan to resume turning two blocks of its main street into a patio-pedestrian zone, forcing a pause in its approval.

During a special meeting of the town’s council Wednesday, Mayor Corrie DiManno said lawmakers were blindsided by an “11th hour” letter filed Jan. 9 by Parks Canada Banff Supt. Salman Rasheed, which states plans to continue allowing patios onto the artery while blocking parts of Banff Avenue to vehicular traffic during the warmer months violates the federal Banff National Park Management Plan.

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In his letter, Rasheed said allowing restaurant patios on the street represented over-commercialization at a time when the reason for the policy — to provide social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic — no longer exists.

“Now that the unprecedented times are behind us, the proposed ongoing commercial use (e.g., restaurant patios, outdoor merchandise displays) of public space is contrary to the laws which ensure this special place is protected, and that both the Town of Banff and Parks Canada remain committed to,” he stated.

“The management plan commits to maintaining the long-standing legal restrictions to commercial development that have come to be appreciated by so many Banff residents and leaders, and by so many visitors, for their foresight in protecting and maintaining the character of this amazing place.”

Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue is busy with open patios and visitors on Saturday evening, June 12, 2021. Marie Conboy/Postmedia file

Banff National Park management plan supersedes town policies

Rasheed said the provisions of that plan supersede any policies enacted by the town, and requested Parks Canada and Town of Banff officials discuss the issue before local lawmakers finalize plans for the pedestrian zone in its budget discussions.

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During Wednesday’s meeting that might have enshrined the temporary road closure, DiManno said Rasheed’s letter was an unusual, last-minute contribution from a Parks Canada that hadn’t involved itself in recent hearings. In a 5-2 vote on Dec. 18, council tentatively approved the pedestrian space for another warmer months tourist season.

“We informed him the pedestrian zone was going to be discussed on Dec. 18 and that if Parks Canada wished to provide input, then that would be the appropriate time to do so,” she said, adding the matter has been subjected to months of public consultation.

“With no further comment from Parks Canada on Dec. 8 and Dec. 18, we believed the issue related to the pedestrian zone was done.”

She also noted Parks Canada had given its consent last September to an outdoor patio outside a business’s commercial development allotment.

DiManno said the town has reached out to Rasheed’s office to schedule a meeting on the issue, which is to be addressed at a council meeting Jan. 17.

Banff Avenue
Artist’s concept of a car-free Banff Avenue, looking south from Wolf Street. Jackson McCormick Design Group

Some local Banff residents also oppose pedestrian-only zone

The Banff Avenue pedestrian zone policy has also met with opposition from town residents, who say it diverts heavy traffic onto residential side streets and presents a safety hazard by possibly blocking a main evacuation route.

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One resident addressing Wednesday’s council meeting asked if any of the lawmakers lived on streets gridlocked by rerouted traffic.

“None of you can appreciate how miserable you’ve made our lives — we’re tired of the congestion and air pollution,” said Lori Dowling.

Resident Katie Penner said she’s concerned about how the traffic closure could impede the town’s evacuation in the event of a rapidly growing wildfire.

“If a fire actually started underneath the (Sulphur Mountain) gondola or closer, we’d have literally minutes, and people running door to door (to raise the alarm),” she said.

“We need the top scientists looking at that.”

The Banff Avenue pedestrian corridor running from the May long weekend to Thanksgiving started as a pandemic pilot project in 2020 but has continued since then, hailed by supporters as providing a social gathering plaza and as an economic recovery initiative.

DiManno, who favours extending that practice, questioned the ramifications of Parks Canada’s stance on it and if the letter was “a direction . . . or a suggestion?”

“What are the specific laws and sections of legislation that he mentions in the letter? Are they suggesting a ban on restaurant patios in all areas of town, such as Bear Street, Wolf Street, Caribou Street, and elsewhere in Banff National Park at ski hills, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise?” she told council.

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“The letter suggests all commercial use of public space is restricted. What are the implications for commercial transportation, tour operations, commercial events like the Craft Beer Festival, carriage rides and e-bike rentals?”

In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, a Parks Canada spokesperson said the federal agency is in favour of a vehicle-free Banff Ave. and that its “main concern is the proposed expansion of commercial restaurants onto public sidewalks and roads and is not suggesting a ban on all commercial use in national parks.”

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