The Town of Banff plans to continue its popular downtown pedestrian zone from May long weekend until Thanksgiving long weekend each year.
The town has decided to permanently fund the project, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most of the funding for 2024 coming from permit fees for sidewalk patios and retail displays.
It is, however, unclear whether the town would continue to allow outdoor restaurant patios in that pedestrian zone, after Parks Canada raised concerns about the ongoing commercialization of public space.
“Notwithstanding Parks Canada’s concern with the patio component, I am happy Parks Canada has expressed its support for the pedestrian zone,” Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said Wednesday after town council decided to continue with the pedestrian zone.
Council also decided to seek an outside legal opinion related to the issue of commercial development on public lands in the national park.
Town council put the decision on hold last week after it received an unexpected letter from Parks Canada.
Salman Rasheed, a superintendent for Banff National Park, said in the letter that he supports pedestrian-friendly plans but raised concerns about commercial activities in the area.
“The Banff Avenue pedestrian zone was first implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for the required social distancing,” he said in the letter. “At the time, this was a reasonable response to unprecedented events taking place globally.
“Now that the unprecedented times are behind us, the proposed ongoing commercial use (e.g., restaurant patios, outdoor merchandise displays) of public space, is contrary to the laws which ensure this special place is protected.”
Parks Canada added in a statement that it is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping national parks unimpaired for future generations.
“Canadians have, through decades of public engagement, made it abundantly clear that public space in Banff National Park is to be respected,” it said.
Rasheed met with DiManno and the rest of the town’s council before Wednesday’s meeting.
Both Parks Canada and the town said the conversations so far have been constructive.
“We are listening to one another, we are trying to understand each other’s positions as they relate to this issue and we are working toward trying to find a path forward together,” DiManno said during the meeting.
Difference in interpretation
She said, however, that the town needs some clarity around Parks Canada’s interpretation of the new Banff Park Management Plan as it relates to the definition of commercial development.
“We continue to believe the Canada National Parks Act legislates commercial space through gross floor area, which was measured through the four walls and a roof of every commercial building. And commercial space has since been allocated to only buildings since 1998,” said DiManno.
“We need more time to unpack this fundamental difference in interpretation.”
The town, she said, will continue talking to Parks Canada and will also discuss the matter with the community through its Banff Community Plan steering committee.
Before Wednesday’s decision, town council received public input on the plan.
Some residents raised concerns about the permanent closure of the blocks on Banff Avenue, because it diverts that traffic through their neighbourhoods and could block an exit route in a potential wildfire evacuation.
Tourism officials, though, said the pedestrian zone has been extremely popular with visitors to the mountain town and the businesses that operate within the park.
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