Ottawa city council turns sour amid debate over closing streets during COVID-19 pandemic

What started as a proposal to help councillors fund street closures in their wards to help residents practice physical distancing quickly escalated to a combative 70-minute debate at Ottawa city council Wednesday, with some labelling the dustup as “shameful.”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper started with a motion asking council to open up the funding envelope available to councillors to pay for street closures in their wards — an initiative that can help pedestrians to keep their distance from one another on crowded sidewalks during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Leiper said that he’s been paying for these closures of his office’s traffic-calming budget — funding normally earmarked for longer-term projects such as speed bumps — and that he’d like to have access to other city funds to finance short-term pandemic-related initiatives.

Mayor Jim Watson immediately proposed a replacement motion that would give street-side businesses along the proposed closed routes veto power, should they feel their shops would be negatively affected by closing a lane of traffic and associated parking spaces.

Watson proceeded to read a number of letters from businesses in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South protesting proposed street closures in the area.

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“The reality is, this is going to hurt businesses when many of them are just holding on by their fingernails,” Watson said.

The replacement motion caught Capital Coun. Shawn Menard off-guard, as he said he has been working with city staff for the past few weeks to institute lane closures on one side of Bank Street stretching from Glebe Avenue to Third Avenue.

While many councillors indicated immediate support for Watson’s motion on the grounds of supporting Ottawa’s struggling retailers during the pandemic, Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, who seconded Leiper’s motion, said it was a “false equivalency” to pit small businesses against active transportation.

Theresa Kavanagh, the councillor for Bay Ward, said she was “extremely disappointed” council was even having the discussion.

“It just feels wrong that we’re treating this as some sort of turf war,” she said.

Following more than an hour of back-and-forth between Ottawa councillors, Watson’s motion won out over Leiper’s, and Menard’s amendment was rejected.

After the meeting, Menard tweeted that the discussion on the issue was “shameful,” and lacked a needed focus on pedestrian health.

For his part, Coun. Leiper said the lack of funding support for street closures was “discouraging,” but that he’ll move forward with a project to close a lane in front of the Home Hardware on Wellington Street where lineups have regularly disrupted foot traffic in the area.

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