By Korie Marshall
Two separate issues around parking on 5th Ave. came up at Valemount Council recently. And while they are distinct issues, they are both worth consideration, especially in light of an upcoming review of the zoning bylaw.
The first issue deals with parking requirements for new businesses. Two new businesses have not yet been granted their business licenses; Deputy Corporate Officer Braden Hutchins made a report to Council to seek direction on the final impediment – parking requirements.
The Village’s current zoning bylaw, passed in 2007, requires a certain number of off-street parking spaces and loading areas, depending on the business. Existing buildings are exempt from these requirements but new businesses are not. If the spaces can’t be provided, they can be located close by, or the business can pay a fee that goes into a special fund intended to address future parking issues, but there hasn’t been any money put in the fund yet.
Hutchins’ says in his report the regulations were put in place to prevent parking and loading from becoming an issue in commercial areas, but “at a time when the Village would like to encourage development, the regulations may actually discourage development, as they may place significant hardship on both property owners and independent business owners.”
Michael Lewis, who is hoping to open his new business Three Ranges Brewery soon, says his situation is especially confusing. According to the bylaw, providing parking spaces is the responsibility of the property owner, but Lewis understands the property owner would want to pass those costs on to the business owner. Some parking spaces are available, but more would be required for Lewis’ lounge, which he hopes to open in the spring. The empty lot next to the building is available (it is owned by the same owner) but because of the wall and curb built as part of the downtown revitalization project, access from 5th Ave. would have to be exactly where the planned patio will be. Access from the back alley, Lewis feels, would cause a bottle-neck situation.
It seems ironic that a project intended to improve our downtown core is actually creating some new difficulties.
During debate at Council on the issue, Councillor Bullock said that while she appreciates the planning and thought that went into the parking regulations, she also appreciates new businesses in the Village.
“I don’t think our central problem right now is parking, and I think previous Councils recognized that too,” Mayor McCracken said. “People will talk to us if they think we don’t have enough parking.”
So at this end of the street, it seems we have plenty of parking, and I think it makes sense that Council agreed to Hutchins’ recommendation – to have the businesses apply for development variance permits. This will let Council review on an individual basis if the parking requirements can be relaxed. This is Council saying “we’ve got rules that are strict enough, we can relax them sometimes.”
At the other end of 5th Ave. is another problem: a bottleneck of snowmobile trucks and trailers in the wintertime.
At the west end of 5th Ave. there are a number of hotels that met the requirements for parking spots, and yet there is still a problem, because the vehicles our winter tourists bring are often much larger than the cars normally envisioned when considering parking requirements.
Village staff suggested using an empty Village-owned lot on 5th Ave for parking for a trial period. It will require permits which will go to public review. If approved, the current plan calls for a snow fence and signage to be installed, and brochures provided to local hotels.
Mayor McCracken noted during discussion that there is less parking available in the area because of the new Big Foot Trail, but Hutchins noted the trail itself did not remove any of the hotels’ spaces. It may seem that way though, because the trail leaves less room for vehicles to squeeze onto the road’s shoulder. Our winter visitors often bring not only larger trucks laden with sleds but sometimes really big trailers, and when parking was designed for cars, there is inevitably overflow. Councillor Latimer, who also manages a hotel that has made great efforts to provide secure and convenient parking for its customers, wondered if some of those businesses might be interested in buying or running the lot, since providing that space would definitely be to their benefit. I agree.
There was only one person in council chambers who had lived in the Village long enough to know what the parking was like there 15 years ago, and he said that parking has always been like that, trucks parked up and down both sides of the street, but he felt it’s never been an issue.
I think it is an issue, and not just a risk of sled trucks taking out the posts and blocking the walking trail, which might as well be considered our sidewalk in the area. The volume of vehicles parking haphazardly is dangerous, both for other vehicles and for pedestrians, and it gives a sense that you have reached the end of the street. As much as some people might feel the empty Saas Fee property makes people think our community ends at the clinic, I think all those sled trucks, with their occupants jumping out and crossing the street with no regard for oncoming traffic, makes it seem that our community ends right there. Come winter, I avoid that corner whenever possible, and I think some travelers might feel the same. And that is sad for the space we consider to be the entrance to our community.
I know these hotels have ample parking in the summer, and some have made provisions in the winter for the larger trucks and trailers. I think those businesses have some responsibility in dealing with the issue; their guests shouldn’t have to park on the street, and block our trail, and they shouldn’t be allowed to. But I don’t want to put undue hardship on those businesses, and the reality is there are not a lot of options for those businesses to acquire more parking.
A trial run is a good way to see if this issue can be ameliorated, and it could even be another business opportunity, if someone wanted to provide secure parking.
So we seem to have enough parking in the downtown core, and we don’t have enough near the highway. I think these examples speak to a need for us to think more outside the box. Parking is just one example, and our issues may change drastically in a year, or in five or 10 years.
Our Village office and Council need to be nimble enough to react to upcoming changes quickly. When the zoning bylaw gets updated, I think we need to consider writing it in a way that makes addressing those changes easy, and less in a way that ties us to details that prove to be barriers in many situations.