Elgin businesses optimistic in face of redesign road closures


As someone who likes to think of himself as a glass ​– make that cup ​– half-full kind of guy, Happy Goat Coffee co-owner Ahmet Oktar is trying to put a positive spin on the city’s plan to close down Elgin Street to vehicular traffic throughout 2019.

The local coffee chain opened its newest location in the former Starbucks space at the corner of Elgin and Lewis streets in February, and Oktar says his only complaint up to now is he wishes the store had room for more seating to accommodate all his customers.

“It’s been great so far,” he said.

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Still, he’s worried about the effect the city’s decision to keep cars off Elgin for a full year will have on his bottom line. Though parking will be free at the City Hall garage on evenings and weekends for the term of construction, Oktar is concerned drivers will avoid Elgin and get their caffeine fix elsewhere.

“It’s going to impact our business, I think, a lot,” he said. “I’m trying to be positive. I hope everything will go as (the city) said.”

Pedestrian and cyclist focus

Oktar was one of dozens of residents and business owners who attended an open house at City Hall Wednesday night to see the revised plans for the $36-million Elgin Street renovation project that is slated to begin in earnest in January. The proposal will see a 1.2-kilometre stretch of Elgin between Gloucester Street and Queen Elizabeth Driveway completely rebuilt to replace aging infrastructure and make the popular downtown thoroughfare more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

Pending council approval, the street will be reduced from four lanes to two, with turning lanes. The speed limit will be lowered to 30 km/h between Lisgar and McLeod streets, and raised intersections designed to slow traffic will be built at four major crossings.

In addition, sidewalks will be widened and the number of parking spaces along Elgin will be cut from 120 to 90. And following a wave of complaints from the public at the first two consultations, the city has also decided to bury the overhead hydro wires that currently line the street.

The plan does not include separate bike lanes, however. Instead, cyclists and cars will travel the same roadway, guided by so-called “super sharrows.” Bars and restaurants will also be allowed to install patios in place of parking spots with the city’s approval.

Digging deep

I Dig Elgin

Robin Coull, the owner of Pot & Pantry at the corner of Elgin and Cooper streets, said she sees the traffic shutdown as short-term pain for long-term gain. She’s banded together with other nearby business owners to launch the “I Dig Elgin” campaign as a means of encouraging people to keep frequenting the street during the construction period, which is expected to last into 2020.

“I’m remaining incredibly positive,” said Coull, who opened her cookware store about two years ago. “I think that it’s all about community support.”

I Dig Elgin has a website where shoppers can get updates on construction, information on local events and links to city material on the project. Coull and her partners set up a booth at City Hall Wednesday night to alert residents to the campaign.

“I Dig Elgin is the pep squad cheerleaders of Elgin through the whole process,” said Christa Blaszczyk, the co-owner of the Gifted Type and Boogie + Birdie. “Our job as we see it is to promote all the great stuff that’s happening on Elgin.”

Blaszczyk said she’s confident her businesses will continue to thrive even if shoppers have to walk several blocks to get there.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of positive feedback from customers saying they’re still going to be coming in,” she said. “Everybody kind of supports each other.”

‘Elgin’s going to bloom’

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who represents the area, said “businesses are nervous, and rightfully so” about their prospects for the year ahead. But she said local merchants persevered through previous rebuilding projects on Bank and Preston streets and thinks the city will be even better prepared to weather the storm this time around.

“Hopefully, we’ve learned from all of those projects how to enhance the pedestrian experience and make sure that we keep drawing people to Elgin Street,” she said.

“We’ve got to keep these businesses healthy for a year. You won’t able to drive down Elgin Street, but everything else will be in place.”

Oktar said he’s hoping for the best.

“The thing is, am I going to be able to pay rent? As long as I make the money for that and employees, then I’m fine, but I’ll have to hang on for a year, year and a half,” he said, adding he plans to apply to put a patio in front of his shop this summer.

Once it’s complete, Coull said, the Elgin redesign will breathe new life into one of the city’s most important commercial streets.

“I’m really excited about how it’s going to look,” she said. “Elgin’s going to bloom. It’s going to be the main street that it could be.”

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