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Downtown changes could be worth the pain

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  |  Posted: Saturday, May 31, 2014 06:00 am

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Downtown struggles and cities go together like Rob Ford and scandals. Letís face it, most municipalities in North America are struggling to make their downtowns attractive, vibrant, relevant and user-friendly. St. Albert is no exception.

So itís reasonable that the city is shaking things up downtown. Sometime within the next week or so, Perron Street will be reduced to a single driving lane in each direction. The speed limit will go from 50 kilometres per hour to 40 and angle parking will take effect along most of its length.

These changes will create 29 additional parking spaces and itís hoped they will also make downtown safer and more appealing for pedestrians. The ultimate goal is to attract more people downtown and improve the business climate.

There will certainly be difficulties. Inevitably, despite the cityís efforts to communicate the upcoming changes to its citizens, many people will be surprised when they first encounter the new Perron Street.

The street will be a much less appealing route for drivers cutting through downtown. Since St. Anne Street will not change, its usefulness as a thoroughfare between Grandin and St. Albert Trail will not diminish Ė a good thing, since few other options exist. But Perron Streetís reduced capacity could create traffic bottlenecks, at least until drivers adjust their habits. (This will happen naturally as traffic, like water and electricity, always finds the path of least resistance.)

Will it hurt downtown that some commuter traffic is diverted elsewhere? Probably not. The businesses that exist downtown do so despite the heavy vehicle traffic, not because of it.

Likely the biggest adjustment, and greatest potential for grief, will come from Perron Street angle parkers backing out into the travel lanes. Patience will have to become the operative word for those who drive on Perron.

A 2005 Cornell University study analyzed the downtowns of 11 small U.S. cities with reputations for vibrant downtowns and found several interesting conclusions. For one, there was no standard template for creating a successful downtown. However, some common denominators were: walkability, mixed-use developments, the presence of retail and entertainment, and broad public and private investment. Most of these elements are present to some extent in St. Albert.

The downtown could certainly use more reasons for people to venture down there Ė more options for shopping, dining and evening activities. Parking is a factor in this equation, as is the pedestrian friendliness.

The cityís initiative is an inexpensive way to prod these improvements along. Will it succeed? Itís too soon to tell. The city is wise to have made this a one-year pilot project and assess it after a year. Weíll see then whether or not the plan worked. Before then, judgment is premature.


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