Searching for alternatives

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Almost 7,500 students from UW, Laurier and other universities crowded Ezra Ave. in March of 2013. A search for an alternative is ongoing (Photo by Shelby Blackley).

Students may not get the same St. Patrick’s Day party they were hoping for next year.

The St. Paddy’s bash that has occurred on Ezra Ave. for the past two years — where approximately 7,000 young adults gathered on the street just behind Wilfrid Laurier University — has sparked a discussion between the two local universities, the city and the Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) about the future of the event.

At a “town and gown” meeting in the summer, the city of Waterloo and WRPS have addressed concerns to the universities, as well as the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union (WLUSU), about the growing magnitude of the yearly drinking event. In April, WRPS also addressed safety concerns about the event and submitted a report to its board of directors.

As a result, the various groups involved in the discussion are looking for alternatives to divert the massive party from occurring on Ezra Ave. again.

“We’re not assuming responsibility for it to allow it to happen or not happen, we’re simply there to try and make things safe in the event that [disaster] does happen,” explained Supt. Kevin Chalk at WRPS. “Our concerns are entirely safety related, and our opinion has grown so far to the point now that there are some legitimate safety concerns. We’re strategizing around how we can make sure it’s a safe environment.”

While the party on March 17 on Ezra Ave., which featured drinking, music and large crowds on the lawns and the street, only calculated about $50,000 in damages — mainly in the form of theft and damage to private properties — protective police equipment was stored in the Bricker Academic building in case an issue was to arise.

“They had riot gear and what they said was that they had enough to accommodate a crowd of 2,100, and around 10:30 in the morning  [on March 17] it easily surpassed that number,” said Annie Constantinescu, the president and CEO of the Students’ Union.

While Constantinescu noted she understands where the city and WRPS are coming from, she believes that having an area where students can come together to have fun is sometimes a valuable aspect of university life.

“I don’t want to say it’s a stress reliever for everyone, but there is merit to having some sort event around that time of the year,” she said.

However, according to Chalk and Inspector Kevin Thiel at WRPS, students from Laurier or the University of Waterloo didn’t cause most of the trouble on March 17, but it was instead the people who had come from out of town.

Due to the high volume and concentration of people on the relatively short street of Ezra Ave., WRPS is worried that students’ safety is at risk, especially if emergency services have difficulty accessing the street.

“The main problem is not St. Paddy’s day, it’s just of the concentration of so many people in one area — that’s the concern,” continued Chalk. “What I would like to see is being held not on a street, but in a private venue, whether that is a field somewhere. Somewhere where there are no buildings around, no real danger.”

He added, “It’s a broader community issue, and the broader community has to come up with some other suggestions, whether it is private venue or multiple events to draw away from the main site.”

But there are no plans for WLUSU to take on such a party, especially since St. Paddy’s is on a Monday in 2014, which directly conflicts with academic programming.

“The entire university approach is that we just don’t want to take this on, we don’t want it to become a Laurier event,” explained Constantinescu. “It’s grassroots, it’s not something that the universities have any part in. But as soon as we take that over, there’s a huge liability that falls on us, a whole different set of rules that we need to start playing by.”

In 1995, when the so-called “Ezra Riots” occurred on the street, the Students’ Union decided to host the Year End Party in a controlled environment the following year to divert students from gathering on Ezra. It used to be an annual tradition of having a street party on Ezra until it got out of hand in April 1995.

According to Thiel and Chalk, though, the memory of what happened on Ezra Ave. in 1995 doesn’t have an impact on the discussion about the St. Paddy’s party, but they’re still worried about the growth of the party.

“The other thing that we’ve been noticing is that as the crowds increase, so do the people who really don’t have a connection to the city. They’re not local students and they’ve heard about it through social media,” explained Thiel.

When asked about the fact that St. Paddy’s in on a Monday in 2014 rather the weekend and whether or not that has an impact, Thiel and Chalk believe that the party still has the potential of getting bigger, even on a weekday.

At this point, however, the universities, city and WRPS will discuss potential strategies and alternatives in September for the next St. Paddy’s party. What those strategies may be are unknown at the moment until after the discussions take place.

“We want to work collaboratively with the city and the police to be part of a solution,” said Leanne Holland-Brown, the dean of students at Laurier’s Waterloo campus.

“I think the most important message is that we’re looking to collectively— the city, the police and the universities — looking to ensure that student safety is paramount in considering St. Paddy’s.”

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