It’s 2019, and you’re spreading out a picnic blanket over the grass at 17th Avenue’s Tomkins Park. The sun shines while you take a sip from a refreshing, fizzy beverage. The strange thing is, it’s not a Diet Sprite in that plastic cup, it’s a mojito. And it’s entirely permitted.
This is the scenario that Troy Wolfe is pushing for. As franchise owner of the Mount Royal Pet Planet, a red brick store right in the heart of 17th’s retail and entertainment district, he would like to see 17th Avenue become a little more vibrant again.
He said last summer was a tough one for 17th Avenue businesses. Drivers will know the same feeling. Since the beginning of last summer, 17th Avenue pavement has been torn apart, blocks at a time, to replace 30-year-old road and 100-year-old utility infrastructure.
“We expect based on our research that we’ll lose 73 per cent of our customer’s sales once they block off the entire street in front of us,” explained Wolfe.
He adds that other businesses are experiencing similar numbers. “Restaurants survived a little bit better than retail last summer, not much. 60 per cent was the average loss in sales for restaurants.”
“Businesses really are at the mercy of the city. Many have moved, you see a lot of For Lease signs, if the leases were up, those businesses decided to move and not risk, which is the smart thing to do. But if you’re tied to a five-year lease, you can’t just walk away.”
There’s a long road ahead, as the $44 million project crawls west from MacLeod Trail to 14th Street S.W. It’s expected to last at least until fall 2019, and is currently six weeks behind schedule.
In an effort to put a little more action back onto the sidewalks, Wolfe is assembling a bold proposal to take before city council in March: that alcohol consumption be allowed in the retail and entertainment district of 17th Avenue.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has said ‘yes, it’s a great idea, anything to bring more people to the area will help,’” said Wolfe. “I think if the proposal is given a fair hearing, people will be on board.”
Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley, “provided some guidance as to how he thinks it would be best presented,” explained Wolfe. “He’s positive about any changes that will help the corridor be more vibrant.”
One of Woolley’s key suggestions was to throw a block party of his own.
“Plan an event on a weekend where you might do one or two blocks, small, and create a proposal for an event like that where you could test the waters, and then see how it goes. If there’s no problems, kind of grow it from there,” described Wolfe.
“Rather than trying to do the whole corridor in one shot without a liquor law change. The downside to that is that businesses are going to be suffering dramatically very soon, in five months.”
For Wolfe, the more difficult challenge might be winning over the provincial regulators at the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC). While the city has control over zoning and enforcement, it ultimately comes down to the AGLC, and there are currently no provisions in place to allow drinking in a public setting on a long-term basis.
“It works fine for special events, but what we’re talking about is a whole other deal,” added Wolfe, who is working with contacts in the AGLC as well as a municipal lawyer to create the strongest possible proposal.
“The AGLC rep was interviewed by the CBC, and he said it’s not impossible. The NDP government has given them some motivation to update liquor laws. We’ve seen that with some of the patio changes.”
Between enforcement, timing and safety, there are a lot of variables to answer before Wolfe meets with council in March. He says he understands concerns that people may have.
“What I’ve heard is, ‘We don’t want a bunch of drunk people spilling into the community.’ And I wouldn’t want that either,” he said. One way to help? Avoid the rowdier crowd entirely.
“You put the restriction back in place at maybe 9 o’clock to start with, maybe 10,” Wolfe explained.
“But at 9 o’clock, if there’s any of those identifiable containers found off the strip, then you get a ticket just like you do today if you’re found with liquor in public.”
Wolfe’s proposal also dictates that the only open alcohol permitted would be in specially marked plastic cups, purchased from establishments along 17th.
“The way other municipalities have done it is, they legislate a certain sized container with a certain colour so it’s easily identifiable by bylaw officers or police,” he continued, “so that if it’s seen containing any liquids outside of the boundaries of the zone that you want to create, it’s really easy to enforce.”
That doesn’t necessarily alleviate all of Bob Lang’s concerns. As president of the Cliff Bungalow-Mission Community Association, Lang represents the residents of the higher-end apartments and homes extending south from about half of the area in question.
“When you’re in a bar, there’s some oversight on how much you’re drinking and how you’re acting, things of that type. Unless the police increase their presence on 17th Avenue, that wouldn’t happen,” said Lang.
Calgary Police constable Alasdair Robertson-More thinks it’s feasible.
“You can buy alcohol just about anywhere, but there are very few places where you can legally consume it,” said Robertson-More. “I think if you could go to the park and have a picnic with a beer or two, I’d be okay with that, I think it’d be alright.”
Alberta isn’t the only jurisdiction keeping booze indoors. No places in Canada permit open alcohol in public, except for a few municipalities in the oft-rogue province of Quebec. In 12 U.S. municipalities, however, the party can be taken to the streets.
They vary in size and circumstance: some are tourist hotspots like Paradise, Nevada, home of the Las Vegas Strip, and New Orleans, Louisiana (but only in plastic cups). Others are smaller cities who initiated the policy more recently to revitalize their downtowns: Hood River, Oregon and Erie, Pennsylvania.
Community president Lang had more concerns. “Noise is number one. Urinating on people’s lots, and sometimes vomiting,” he continued. “Those kinds of things are not uncommon when there’s a bunch of people and they over-imbibe because of the enthusiasm of the moment.”
Tom Nickel lives in a house tucked between the four storey apartments along 18th Avenue, and he doesn’t necessarily share the same concerns as his community president.
“The yelling and shouting was mostly after nine, and mostly on the weekends,” he explained.
“For the most part being just a block away from 17th, I feel pretty safe, and relaxed. But if I just walk for a block I’m right in the meat-and-potatoes of 17th. It’s nice, going back and forth.”
Given the time restrictions, Nickel is on board with the idea. “I think it would bring a lot more traffic around, and be kind of an exciting atmosphere for the area. I think it would bring a lot of people to the businesses downtown.”
“In other parts of the world with open liquor, it’s not like there’s a bunch of degenerates walking around. It’s just really in Canada that we can’t have open liquor.”
Editor: Mackenzie Jaquish | email@example.com