In the shadow of Vancouver’s traffic viaducts

Vacant lands next to False Creek in downtown Vancouver. The city government’s plan will see the removal of two elevated roadways, the extension of a waterfront park and up to 20 new residential towers.

The first Georgia Street automobile viaduct was built in 1915 as a bridge over railways and industrial lands. The current Georgia and Dunsmuir Street viaducts are orphan remnants of a failed plan to run a freeway from Highway 1 into downtown Vancouver.

2011 study reported that the viaducts carry about 40,000 vehicles every day. However, Vancouver Council voted in 2015 to tear them down and tidy up the underlying street network. The viaducts are ugly, and they’re a waste of land: it’s estimated that their removal will enable the development of housing for as many as 10,000 people.

A photo of the Georgia and Dunsmuir road viaducts from the City’s January 2017 “Northeast False Creek Directions” document. An elevated SkyTrain guideway is to the right.

This land use concept is presented in the City’s March 2017 “Northeast False Creek Park Design” document

Public discussion around the City’s decision has focused on a “traffic chaos” scenario where unfortunate commuters will have no access to their downtown jobs. City Council is fortunate, in this context, that many affected commuters come from outside Vancouver and have no real vote in the matter.

In any case, the traffic concern is overblown, at least as it relates directly to the viaducts. I’m writing as someone who commuted over the viaducts in past years.

Carmaggedon” almost never happens, in Fraseropolis or elsewhere. In the weeks before the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver news media issued dire warnings about impending chaos related to Games events and street entertainment in the downtown. But as the 2011 study notes, the change in traffic volumes was barely detectable during the Olympics as motorists switched to transit. Motorists adjust; and they will need to continue to adjust, as tower development continues to the north, south and east of  False Creek over the next decade.

A different debate in the viaduct zone will take place around the sharing of land between park expansion and residential construction. Under an agreement signed by the Social Credit government of B.C. in the 1980s, the lands around the viaducts belong to Concord Pacific, a property developer that has completed billions of dollars worth of projects further west. The land use concept shown above shows a generous area of public park; some local residents say it’s not enough, but Concord obviously has an interest in getting a financial return from its property.

The next step, according to the City of Vancouver website, is a final Northeast False Creek area plan, to be drafted in summer and fall of 2017. There is no date provided for demolition and construction.

Co-tourist Morna McLeod and I walked around the viaducts on a Saturday morning, stopping for a chat at the Concord Pacific information office and enjoying a fine brunch at The Union, a bar-restaurant on Union Street.

New housing at the Main Street ramp off the Georgia viaduct

Looking from near the Dunsmuir viaduct to the International Village, an early 2000s development built near the Chinatown-Stadium transit station

The site of a former Jimi Hendrix shrine, Union at Main. The musician’s grandmother lived and worked near this corner.

Part of the space under the viaducts functions as a combination skateboard facility and refuge for the homeless

Pitt Meadows 1 — Osprey Village

The recently completed commercial core of Osprey Village. The brick-faced structure in the foreground was approved as a live-work development, with shopowners living above their businesses.

The city of Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, population 18,500, has shown how a small municipality can function effectively in a large urban region. Residents enjoy relatively low property taxes and much the same services as  Surrey, a nearby city with a half a million people.

Osprey Village, a Pitt Meadows neighbourhood overlooking the Fraser River, was built over the past decade with patience and (I think) good taste, at least compared with the competition in other Fraseropolis suburbs. The commercial zone pictured above is short on everyday services and heavy on dog spas and craft galleries, but it’s attractive and cozy, and is now a mini-tourism destination for cyclists and for families looking to walk along the river. (Osprey is at the western end of a regional pathway network, and not far from the Golden Ears Bridge; cycling links to Coquitlam and Langley are excellent.) The 2009 land use plan adopted by City Council in 2009 provides for up to 25 live-work units on the main street or immediately behind, and the community hall by the river park acts as a regional conference centres, so there’s continued pedestrian traffic in the Osprey village centre even on weekdays.

By my reading of the plan, the area is designed to house close to 2,000 people. The mix of housing is fair, with a big selection of townhomes, although the location and style make Osprey more expensive than most other neighbourhoods in the outer suburbs.

Pitt Meadows is 45 minutes by car from downtown Vancouver in mid-day traffic. Pitt was an 18th-century British prime minister, as in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Local farmers petitioned for independence from the neighbouring District of Maple Ridge in 1914, and the two communities ever been rivals ever since. Most recently, the shared parks and recreation commission was shut down, leaving both cities to go their own way.

The Pitt Meadows town centre, with retail and professional services, is a 40-minute walk from Osprey. We’ll take a brief look in our next post.

Trail along the Fraser River, Osprey

Townhomes north of the Osprey Village core

Transit funding and election speculation

Focus on Surrey: the B.C. government’s $2.2 billion transit announcement, March 31, 2017. Transit minister Peter Fassbender, MLA for Surrey Fleetwood, is flanked by Marvin Hunt, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, first elected to Surrey City Council in 1988; and by technology minister Amrik Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, formerly a prominent RCMP officer in Surrey. The photo by Arlen Redekop is clipped from the Vancouver Sun.

British Columbia’s Liberal government took a surprising step late last week with a rapid transit announcement that exceeded most expectations.

The Province will match the federal government’s $2.2 billion pledge toward Phase 2 of the 10-year transportation plan put forward in 2016 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors Council. This phase includes construction of a Clark Street to Arbutus SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and the Newton-Guildford light rail line in Surrey.

Fassbender and the government had previously suggested they would pay less than Ottawa and impose conditions on the regional transportation authority, but the conditions appear to have been forgotten.

The announcement took place in the city of Surrey, and came just six weeks before a scheduled provincial election. It triggered scornful comment on the news chat threads and from the political opposition. Light rail will transform Surrey, but this was overlooked in the media. The Vancouver Sun‘s Vaughn Palmer, perhaps the most astute political journalist in B.C., suggested that the government’s thinking is much more short-term, pointing out that the nine provincial seats in Surrey may decide the election. He speculated that the Liberals’ dramatic turnabout on transit may indicate that they’re running scared.

Do the Liberals face defeat, after 16 years in office? Coming up to the 2013 vote, B.C. was awash in polling results that promised a big win for the provincial New Democratic party. The NDP lost, of course, and since then we have seen other and more significant embarrassments for the polling profession with Brexit and then Donald Trump. Most polling firms are shying away from the publication of voter-preference polls in B.C., with the bold exception of Mainstreet Research*, and their numbers offer no clear trend, except for the rise of the Green Party in parts of Vancouver Island. Students of the political occult can check out “Too Close to Call”, which presents elaborate hunches built on available polling information. As we write this, “Too Close” gives the NDP a 61.5 per cent chance of winning B.C., and the Liberals a 38.5 per cent chance.

The transit announcement was nearly the last of a long series of funding announcements from the Liberal government — funding for hospitals and highways, seniors’ services and apprentices and much more, in all regions of the province. The common theme through all this was that the government has money to spend, thanks to their management of the public treasury — unlike governments in most other provinces which, for various reasons, are broke.

We will see on May 9 whether the Liberals’s many funding decisions will keep them in office. As of today, April 5, the election campaign has officially turned negative. Surrogate organizations on both sides have been running attack ads for several weeks while the political parties stood clear. But from here on, the New Democrats will spend millions to spread the message that the Liberals are “working for there rich donors.” The Liberals will recall the NDP time in government in the 1990s, when thousands of people left B.C. to look for work elsewhere.

The provincial transit commitment is a good thing, and I don’t care about the motive. As for predicting the election result, political culture in B.C. is fragmented by region, and increasingly divided by language and culture, and by the countless echo chambers on the internet; whichever party wins, it may be difficult to explain why it happened.

*Mainstreet Research is unrelated to Main Street Communications Ltd., which is our consulting firm based in suburban Vancouver. 

Surrey LRT – the vision. Graphic from the City of Surrey.

They’re stackin’ ’em in at Brentwood

Space between apartment towers off Rosser Avenue in Burnaby’s Brentwood district, looking to Gilmore

A rendering of the Shape Properties “Amazing Brentwood” development plan as published in VanCity Buzz

The City of Burnaby is on track to win an award, if it exists, for the most extreme residential densification in western Canada.

Tower development at Metrotown has leapt into an affordable rental housing zone and displaced hundreds of long-term tenants. People protesting against these “demovictions” occupied the office of Mayor Derek Corrigan in early March. At Lougheed Town Centre further east, Shape Properties has set up a site office for “The City of Lougheed”, promising 23 or more “stunning high-rise towers” in close proximity, stretching as high as 55 storeys. The same developer has started construction on “Amazing Brentwood”, depicted here, to include 11 residential towers as well as a redeveloped shopping mall and street-facing retail space. Continue reading

Metro Vancouver’s homeless report: where to from here?


With a growing number of homeless camps (now estimated at 70) dug into Metro Vancouver communities, conversation on the issue has veered into a world of personal attacks and draconian proposals. One sample “solution,” endemic in community news chat threads, would re-establish the vast 1905-era asylum on its hillside in Coquitlam and lock homeless people inside.

This is a waste of time, of course. There’s no cheap or easy route to rolling back the homelessness problem. In fact, a new report from the Metro Vancouver regional authority is daunting in describing the actions that would be required even to hold the status quo. Continue reading

Riding the Evergreen Extension


My Facebook friend Trevor Batstone has posted a rider’s eye view from the front of the new Evergreen Extension elevated train through Coquitlam and Port Moody, stopping at Lougheed Town Centre.

We’ve reported in the past on Evergreen Line construction and anticipated effects, most recently in October 2016. The line opened in December. After a late reconfiguration, the track from Coquitlam City Hall (Lafarge Lake/Douglas) to Lougheed Town Centre has been renamed the Millennium Line, Evergreen Extension. The traveller gets a close look at the extensive high-rise development that has been mentioned on this site.

The train continues through Burnaby, (that is, beyond where the video takes us). With a transfer to the Expo Line at Broadway/Commercial the trip from Lafarge Lake to downtown Vancouver takes about 45 minutes.

Semiahmoo: 2030?

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Ave. captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

A 2008 proposal for the Semiahmoo core, looking up 152 Street from 16 Avenue. This rendering was captured in early 2017 from the Amanat Architect website

The City of Surrey’s 2014 official plan contemplates a city of 300 square kilometres organized around a city centre, intended to rival downtown Vancouver as it grows up, and five large-scale town centres.

Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey, 2014 city plan

The Semiahmoo Town Centre within South Surrey

Each town centre is supposed to act as “the distinctive social, cultural commercial centre for its community… Support transit-oriented development…and build complete, walkable and green neighbourhoods.”  A successful town centre offers housing choice, walkable services, business and employment opportunities, and frequent transit. Continue reading