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Murray St. closure to receive more study

A quiet Murray Street on a sunny day in Amherstburg

 The possible closure of Murray St. between Dalhousie St. and Ramsay St. is still on the table as town council has voted 4-3 to move forward with consultation on the matter.


After three hours of debate on the transportation master plan Monday night, much of which was devoted to the Murray St. issue, the motion put forth by Councillor Don McArthur to consult with businesses in the area on a Murray St. closure in that block passed with Mayor Michael Prue, Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb and Councillor Linden Crain also supporting.


Councillors Peter Courtney, Molly Allaire and Diane Pouget opposed the motion, some vehemently.


Keeping the issue alive went against the wishes of four delegates, three of which came from Thistle Masonic Lodge No. 34 and other organizations affiliated with the Lodge that also use the building. Linda Saxon, a long-time accessibility advocate, also voiced her concerns on the matter and called for council to reject the recommendation.


Prue said a lack of consultation with groups such as Thistle Masonic Lodge was a sticking point with him, but didn't reject the idea altogether of closing that block of Murray St. He said the eight spots lost if the street were to close could be made up in other areas of the downtown core, such as more parking in front of the former Duffy's lands and a new line demarcation system nearby.


Noting he has travelled abroad and seen how closed streets can work in a community, Prue said the results can be “remarkable” if done correctly. He noted such things as deliveries and similar issues could be done off-hours or other arrangements are possible.


“I want staff to go back and do the homework that needs to be done,” he said.

The street could be closed simply by bollards, he added.


Getting a report back helps interested parties on both sides of the issue, the mayor believed.


“I think if we don't do this, we're doing a great disservice to both sides,” said Prue.


“I think it's an idea worth exploring,” McArthur stated.


McArthur recalled being on the economic development advisory committee in 2019 where it was recommended that a pedestrian promenade be the use for that block of Murray St. He noted the consultants from TYLin, who developed the transportation master plan, said it would have its benefits and that closing the streets would create a gathering place for people.


Closing the streets would create a “stickier” downtown were people would stay longer and visit more businesses. He believed it would be a tourist draw as well.

“It's returning the streets to the people,” he said.


Allaire believed it was “putting the cart before the horse” to proceed in this fashion, and opposed the motion because, in part, it didn't include residents.

“We did it backwards,” she said. “That's not a good idea.”


Crain countered by stating he believed the process wasn't done backwards, and that it's up to the town and not the consultant to gather input. Crain believed there are “a number of benefits” to closing the street and didn't want to defeat it Monday night.


“It's an excellent proposal,” said Crain. “I'd like to look at it more in depth.”


Pouget said she could not support the motion and wanted it turned down. She noted the Masons and the groups that use the Lodge stating they may have to relocate if the street was permanently closed.


“What part didn't we understand?” said Pouget. “The Masons said it was going to put them out of business. Yet, we're still saying we are going to reach out to them? We'll get the same answer.”


Pouget added with regards to the recommendation: “This should end now.”


The downtown core of Amherstburg needs diverse options and a “good mix,” said Courtney, who joined Pouget in being adamantly opposed to considering a street closure further.


“Murray St. has a lot going for it already,” said Courtney.


Courtney said “I'm going to protect history” and agreed with the Masonic Lodge's request to vote against the closure. Stating the transportation master plan has a lot of good ideas, Courtney was clear he didn't think the closure of one block of Murray St was one of them, calling it “terrible.”

“Permanent closure is an absolute no,” he said.


Courtney stated council should stick to policies and budgets and said Amherstburg is a small town that is trying to “cram” more amenities into it.


“We're closing down streets that are meant for cars,” he said. “Sandwich St. is a funeral procession now on weekends. I'm tired of closing down roads where cars are meant to drive.”


Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb believed the majority of town wants a vibrant downtown core and that he thinks people want the town to try a road closure. He added council has to do what is in the best interests of the entire community.


“My opinion is we have to try this,” said Gibb. “The people of town want this. I think it's right for Amherstburg.”


Closing the street could cost upwards of $91,000, according to the consultants, but Amar Lad stated he didn't think it would end up costing that much. Lad, one of the representatives of the firm along with John Grieve, noted the idea came up at the firm due to brainstorming people had there. Grieve noted surveys during the transportation master plan process showed 61 per cent wanted to pedestrianize that street.


Michael Weber was one of three delegates connected with the Masonic Lodge that were opposed. Weber said he also has an office within the building. He said he was sharing thoughts that were from many of the user groups.


“No one had received any prior notification (of the recommendation),” he said, adding he received a property tax notice but nothing more from the town.


Weber outlined the history of the Masons and their contributions in Amherstburg.


“The very first mayor of Amherstburg was a Mason,” he said. “We have contributed to our community in many ways.”


Fundraisers are often held at the Lodge in addition to meetings, with people and supplies often needing access to the front of the building. Other groups from Shriners and Freemasons also use their Murray St. location, he said.


“Closing that street would affect people who store their property in our building,” he said.


The presence of a Masonic Hall could be threatened with a street closure, he believed, adding current members have an obligation to see the organization last into the future.


David Cozens said he has been a member of Thistle Masonic Lodge No. 34 for about 45 years, and currently serves as the treasurer. He said they have been looking to find ways to utilize its main floor space while keeping the second floor as a banquet hall. He said they would be devastated financially if the street were closed, asking council members to think of the impact if a street were closed in front of their homes.


“Just think about the time you walk from your car to the front door,” he said.


Cozens said they only have access to their building from Murray St., noting the other sides border on private property. He added the sidewalks on Murray St. are relatively unobstructed and can handle crowds using them.


“I don't think there's any issues with pedestrian traffic flow,” said Cozens. “I don't understand how a full closure will benefit access to businesses.”


The Lodge has been in Amherstburg over 170 years, he said, agreeing with Weber they have contributed to the town and its citizens over that time.


“We look forward to celebrating our 200th anniversary in 2049,” he told council. “We need your help to make that happen.”


Paul Hooper, a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, said many of their members are older and would have difficulty accessing the building. He cited a recent chili fundraiser and stated heavy pots of chili have to be carried into the building, something that couldn't be accommodated if they couldn't park directly in front.


Club rules say women have to wear long dresses and Hooper indicated that becomes an impediment should they have to walk farther to get to the building.


“If Murray St. is closed off to vehicular traffic, this would make it impossible for members to attend meetings,” he said.


Should the street be closed, Hooper believed it could see his club have to relocate with the nearest Masonic Hall being in Essex. That could come as soon as the end of this year, should a road closure receive final approval.


Saxon said she was appearing before council as a person with a disability and noted she also heard from others who had reached out to her. She added she was also appearing on behalf of the Amherstburg Residents Forum. She noted National Accessibility Week coincided with the launch of Open Air Weekends this weekend, voicing concerns about barriers being created for those with disabilities.


A vehicle is an assistive device for some with disabilities, she added, and said those with disabilities have to counter dismissive attitudes from some who simply say they should use different ATM's, hair salons or other services.


“Some people laugh,” she said. “People with disabilities should not have to accommodate the majority. It should be the other way around.”


Walking distance is a barrier for some, Saxon added, and that people with “hidden mobility issues” have difficulty walking 35-50 feet. She called for the town to exceed AODA standards, questioning why they wouldn't.


“You have an opportunity to prevent barriers and increase inclusion,” she told town council.


Grieve, director of transportation planning with TYLin, believed there was value with closing streets all year long. He thought it was in line with the town’s strategic initiatives. Prue noted the 2019 recommendation from the economic development advisory committee, adding “council did approve the economic development committee’s recommendation to close Murray St. and passed it on to staff,” the mayor said.


Pouget added the current council was not made aware of that and the issue was “not on our radar.”


Grieve said other small towns and larger cities like Guelph and Ottawa were closing streets successfully.

 

SLOW ZONE

A recommendation for a 30 km/hr “slow zone” in the downtown core will not proceed as the motion put forth by McArthur didn't gain a seconder.


That portion of the transportation master plan also received its fair share of debate, but town council couldn't arrive at a consensus to move the matter forward. Allaire believed the town was “a little bit backwards” on this issue as well, noting emergency services were not contacted before the recommendation came before town council.


Staff Sgt. Brian Caffarena of the Windsor Police Service – Amherstburg Detachment believed dropping the speed limit from 50 km/hr to 30 km/hr is a drastic change that could put a strain on police resources. He believed other traffic calming measures to help slow down traffic would be a good approach.


McArthur questioned why the same number of officers patrolling couldn't hand out tickets the same way speeders are stopped in a 50 km/hr zone. Caffarena said more enforcement would be required, noting resident complaints would rise with the knowledge the speed limit was lower.


“It pulls from other areas we're currently policing and emergency calls we are able to respond to,” he said.


McArthur favoured a lower speed limit, noting accidents would be less severe and that there would be fewer collisions if drivers had greater time to react. Allaire said not a lot of people surveyed want lower speed limits but rather traffic calming measures.


“The motion shows it will protect kids lives. It will save the lives of the elderly,” he said.


Manager of engineering Todd Hewitt noted there would be a sign expense if the speed limits were reduced, noting 50 km/hr zones don't have to be signed.


Crain believed 50 km/hr was high, as that leads drivers to go 60 or 70 km/hr.

“There can be issues, for sure,” he said.


Gibb said his colleagues were hung up on numbers and suggested simply passing a motion calling for traffic calming measures be enacted. The motion was defeated with council members, who believed such concepts are already included in the transportation master plan, the latter being approved in principle.


McArthur followed with his motion to lower the limits to 30 km/hr, stating he knew it would be criticized, but didn't get a seconder. Prue had previously noted town council could have picked 40 km/hr or another number, if it had wanted one, but the issue was dropped and council moved on when McArthur's motion failed.

 

SIMCOE & MELOCHE IMPROVEMENTS

Town council approved improvements to the intersection of Simcoe St. and Meloche Road, near the Libro Centre. That will include such things as narrowing laneways and putting a four-way stop at the corner.


During Grieve's presentation, he said speed limits were recorded at 70-90 km/hr in the area despite it being a 50 km/hr area.


McArthur said improvements to that intersection can make it safer quickly, telling Grieve that “you are right, it is a dangerous intersection.” He questioned why not a roundabout or a traffic light. Grieve indicated that roundabouts take more room and property may have to be required. As for lights, he said capital dollars may be spent even if lights aren't absolutely necessary.


Pedestrian safety was also a factor at that intersection.


Both Pouget and Allaire cited concerns over width of lanes as farm equipment and transport trucks need room to navigate through that area. Grieve indicated drawings in the report were conceptual and Hewitt added the project would be put out for tender with more specific measurements required to accommodate larger vehicles.


Courtney didn't prefer a roundabout, believing there are drivers who couldn't use a roundabout properly. He questioned the issue over additional property, noting smaller roundabouts and intersections in the town core were recommended for small roundabouts.


More information on other items in the transportation master plan will be reported on next week.

Murray St. closure to receive more study

By Ron Giofu

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