Wellington Street businesses ask if going car-free will help or hurt them

Montreal boroughs are announcing new plans to broaden public space for a summer of social distancing—pedestrian areas will be widened, and some streets closed entirely to cars.

But there’s a catch to that for some businesses. In Verdun, M.H. Grover and Sons is one of Canada’s best-known “big and tall” stores. It’s been open for almost a century.

Sales have had to move online-only recently and have slowed to a trickle. Now the store will be allowed to reopen, but the news that Verdun plans to close part of Wellington Street to cars has it scrambling with the new puzzle of how to go car-free.

“If they close Wellington Street, I don’t know where my customers are going to park,” said Kenny Grover, the store’s owner.

His neighbours on the thoroughfare also depend on trucks and cars and are now looking for workarounds. 

Sweet Lee’s bakery, for example, is limiting take-out orders and has started making deliveries. But to do that, it relies on driving. 

“We are businesses that receive deliveries. Trucks need spaces, and we don't have unlimited spaces for them to come,” said Liana Settels-Lazard, the owner of Sweet Lee’s. 

“People buy things that are heavy. They just can't carry every purchase that they buy down the street.”

The plan to close the central stretch of the street, however, isn’t just about letting people get more outdoor time, but is meant primarily to help businesses survive. 

Now that people need to line up two metres apart, and limited numbers are allowed in each store at once, it will quickly become impossible to get shopping done on this kind of crowded commercial main drag without allowing extra space, say local councillors.

“If all the businesses have lineups in front of them, it would be impossible to guarantee safety measures to keep people at a two-metre distance from one another,” said Verdun city councillor Sterling Downey.

“We don't want police to give tickets because people are in proximity to one another because they have no choice. If we don't do something, if we don't act, these businesses are going to close.” 

When the plan to make part of Wellington car-free was unveiled, locals reacted instantly, with many in favour.

“I think it's really important to get out, and with such high density on Wellington Street I don't think we can enjoy it without much space,” said Joanne Stratton, who lives in the area.

The owners of the local businesses, though, say they’ll only know in a few months if the gamble paid off—by whether they’ve stayed afloat.

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