You won't be able to drink in Kitchener parks this summer as council defers decision on pilot program

People won't be allowed to crack a cold one in Kitchener's Victoria Park this summer after city council voted to defer a decision on a proposed pilot project.

The idea to allow people to drink alcohol in Victoria Park this summer was brought forward by Coun. Jason Deneault in December. He said it would be similar to a pilot run in Toronto, which was largely seen as successful because there were few complaints.

Toronto now allows drinking in in parks so long as it's not close to a playground, splashpad, outdoor ice rink, skateboard or BMX park or outdoor swimming pool.

Toronto made the move after the province made amendments to the Liquor Licence and Control Act in 2019 that would permit alcohol consumption in public spaces, but it's up to municipalities to pass bylaws to designate those spaces.

"Seeing that Toronto didn't have a big issue during their pilot, but also with the increased intensification and density downtown, and people not necessarily having a backyard to host gatherings or friends, this just enables some of those people downtown to move on over to the park and have a beverage and have a get-together," Deneault told CBC News in December when he proposed the idea.

Police 'expressed concerns' with pilot

In a report to council Monday night, city staff recommended the pilot be deferred so staff could continue to work with police on details around a future pilot project.

The report noted the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) "expressed concerns with the proposed pilot citing capacity and public health and safety concerns."

"Without WRPS support, the pilot cannot be properly monitored, and age limits cannot be easily enforced as police support would be required as they are the only ones who can enforce laws related to operating a vehicle under the influence, demand identification, and address drinking underage," the staff report said.

Bylaw officers, the report noted, are not Smart Serve trained and so would not be able to assess intoxication levels or "effectively enforce regulations."

The report also noted the city's legal and risk management staff said there was "considerable risk and liability to the city" if the pilot moved ahead.

People walk through Victoria Park in Kitchener, Ont., on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. The area is under a heat warning.
During Monday's council meeting, Coun. Jason Deneault he was disappointed the city wasn't going to try to run the pilot project. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Changes to how alcohol is sold

The report said staff was also recommending deferring any decision so that they could monitor the province's plan to expand the "alcohol beverage marketplace and impacts to local communities."

Those changes include:

  • Starting Aug. 1, licensed grocery stores will be able to sell ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages in addition to beer, cider and wine.

  • Starting Sept. 6, eligible convenience stores will be able to sell beer, cider, wine and ready-to-drink beverages.

  • Starting Nov. 1, eligible grocery and big-box stores will be able to sell beer, cider, wine and ready-to-drink beverages, including in large pack sizes.

"The impacts to businesses and the consumption of alcohol because of these changes are yet to be seen," the staff report says.

Staff said they would report back to council "should there be an opportunity to explore a pilot program in the future." No timeline was given for that.

'Not the time to do a pilot project': Coun. Michaud

During Monday's meeting, Deneault said he did not support the deferral.

"I am disappointed we aren't at least going to trial it," he said. "I think, as Toronto has exhibited, the sky is not going to fall down if we allow people to have a beverage or two in a park."

He added that he felt people "can be adults and I think we are not giving people the chance to be adults in our city."

Coun. Christine Michaud supported deferring a decision on the pilot and said there's "enough troubling things happening in our community right now" and police "are taxed."

"This is not the time to do a pilot project of this nature until things, I guess, settle down in society somewhat," she said.

Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said he supported staff's recommendations to defer any decision on the pilot, citing that the city is dealing with "unique challenges" and Victoria Park is a very busy park.

"We've heard from our enforcement partners the challenges that this would bring. We know that the challenges that our security and bylaw staff are already dealing with in the park and I think it's important that we bring some returned stability to that park after a couple of years of some challenges," he said.

Coun. Dave Schnider said he felt it was "a great idea" but "maybe the timing isn't just quite right right now."

He said while it was being deferred, he didn't want to see it "fall off the radar" and he'd like to see the idea come back to council.