If there is a positive example to be found in how the pandemic has changed Vancouver from a car-serving city to one that has become more friendly to pedestrians, then Joanne Facchin is looking at it.
In fact, Facchin sees it every day that she steps outside the side door of her Coco et Olive café at Main Street and East 21st Avenue.
What was once a stretch of street for moving and parked cars is now a plaza, complete with picnic tables, umbrellas and large planters, where people are free to dine, socialize and just hang out in the neighbourhood.
She didn’t ask for the plaza, but welcomed its addition when city staff showed up one day and asked Facchin and others in the area whether it would be a good fit.
It was when it opened in August 2020 and still is in June 2022.
“It’s been fantastic for us,” said Facchin as she overlooked the space where people stopped to dine and relax at noon on Wednesday.
“It’s been a total lifesaver because we couldn't have the tables inside for a while [because of public health restrictions]. For us, we kind of pivoted and got rid of all our tables and segued into retail, and people have just been eating outside.”
The plaza will soon be open for adults to legally consume alcohol, as part of a seasonal program that extends to five other sites in the city.
Coco et Olive doesn’t serve alcohol, but Facchin said she welcomes the plaza being open to people who want to have a beer or a glass of wine with friends.
City council approved Wednesday another round of public drinking at plazas, with the East 21st Avenue and Main Street site being the only new addition to the list. The program kicks off June 15 and runs until Oct. 16, with public drinking allowed between 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
“I have no concerns,” she said, noting Coco et Olive, the Little Mountain Neighourhood House and some residents are designated stewards of the plaza, which means they keep an eye on the place and report any problems to city staff.
“This is going to continue to get better, we’re going to get new tables this year and slightly more money will be invested to make this a better space.”
Added Facchin; “It’s entrenched, it’s part of the community. If the city was going to take it away, people would be very unhappy.”
Rachel Magnusson, the city’s branch manager of street activities, told council in March that neither the Vancouver Police Department nor Vancouver Coastal Health raised any concerns over last year’s program and locations.
“We may not hear about all health and safety issues that are in the plazas, but certainly from the perspective of our partners and ourselves, there didn't seem to be any issues,” said Magnusson, noting surveys returned a 92 per cent satisfaction rate with the program.
Seasonal patio program
She also pointed out that the city’s monitoring of the plazas showed only about 20 per cent of people were consuming alcohol. Magnusson said the “core purpose” of the program was to give “low-cost flexible options for socializing.”
The plaza program is part of wider strategy the city ramped up since the pandemic was declared in March 2020 to open up public spaces for people. That’s come in the form of a seasonal patio program for restaurants and bars, and reallocating road space for pedestrians and cyclists.
More than 20 plazas have popped up in the past two years and the park board has designated 22 parks for the legal consumption of alcohol — all moves that Coun. Lisa Dominato sees as giving residents more options to socialize and access public space, particularly for those who don’t have a private backyard or a shared common room.
“While the pandemic has been difficult, there was some positive things that emerged, and I think the more open public spaces for gathering is one of them,” Dominato said.
When asked why it took a pandemic to roll out what have been largely successful programs, Dominato said the move to activate public spaces had been in the works prior to the pandemic, noting various plazas were set up pre-COVID-19.
But the need for social distancing coupled with providing areas where people could dine — and, in turn, keep businesses afloat under public health-ordered no dine-in restrictions — sped up the urgency of making Vancouver more friendly to pedestrians.
“I think it adds vibrancy, I think it adds to the enjoyment of the city — that's what I hear from people, that [these programs] are really positive and well received,” said Dominato, noting she and her family regularly visit a plaza in her neighbourhood and she has visited others in Kitsilano and on Fraser Street.
She pointed out that council recently approved a development in Marpole where public space and a public plaza are part of the build-out of the project.
“That is really important because it is being intentionally considered and included in those developments,” she said. “So if you’re going to build a 12-storey or 18-storey building, you need public space for people to gather.”