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

Skytrain-oriented development at Joyce/Collingwood

Aberdeen Park, Vancouver

Aberdeen Park, Vancouver

Metro Vancouver’s elevated rapid transit system, Skytrain, is now 30 years old. Over time, Skytrain development — real or promised — has supported construction of at least 150 residential towers, some of them located in isolated, pedestrian-unfriendly clusters away from services.

Public space, low-rise high-rise development, near Vanness Avenue

Public space, low-rise high-rise development, near Vanness Avenue

Joyce/Collingwood, at the eastern edge of the city of Vancouver, may be the most liveable of the post-Skytrain tower developments. The tower landscape has been softened by continued construction of four- and six-storey buildings, parks and pathways, and a neighbourhood house (social services and recreation centre) paid for from development charges. Retail and commercial services are available along historic Kingsway up the hill. But there’s also a plan to build more towers, and this is creating tensions in the community. Continue reading

The phantom Skytrain extension — a Vancouver perspective

Recent medium-density housing, 10th Avenue near Ontario St.

Recent medium-density housing, 10th Avenue near Ontario St.

Our previous post on the proposed Clark-to-Arbutus Skytrain extension was picked up by Price Tags, a definitive urban affairs site for the city of Vancouver.

This generated a number of messages to, including the following from MB, who supports a Broadway Avenue project rather than the 10th Avenue dig that was contemplated in our report. I have transposed one sentence for clarity, and added a couple of editorial notes.

The 10th Ave alignment has many challenges related to the disruption of an old, established community. I suggest severely disrupting resident’s lives over 25 blocks for cut and cover would have a much greater political pushback than disrupting traffic on Broadway. Using C&C on non-arterials in historic neighbourhoods is engineering from the Dark Ages. Continue reading

The Arbutus Skytrain extension – a phantom tour

1-Arbutus transit extension.jpg

J Trudeau

During Canada’s recent federal election campaign, Prime-Minister-to-be Justin Trudeau promised funding support for transit in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland — “to extend rapid transit along Broadway to Arbutus, bring light rail transit to Surrey, and increase SeaBus service during peak periods.” It’s part of a commitment to invest C$20 billion in Canadian infrastructure projects over 10 years. This announcement may breathe new life into a transit project that, judging from online discussion, appears to have lost momentum over the past three or four years.

Track's end, near VCC

Track’s end, near VCC

The proposed extension of Skytrain into the west side of the City of Vancouver has been on the books since the Millennium transit line was built in the 1990s. The Millennium line runs west from the Coquitlam border through Burnaby into Vancouver, ending abruptly near Vancouver Community College, almost at the dividing point between the east and west sides of the city. The western extension of the line would relieve pressure on Vancouver’s Broadway Avenue bus corridor, home of the limited-stop B-99 services that had 55,000 boardings per day in 2013. Continue reading

The East Village — “the heart of East Van”?

New commercial + 3 structure at Hastings and Templeton, Vancouver

New commercial + 3 structure at Hastings and Templeton, Vancouver

Vancouver’s Hastings Street east from Templeton Street is seeing rapid change. Ageing one-story shopfronts are going down in favour of four-storey complexes like the one pictured above.

I walked through here recently with my sister Morna, who has lived close by for more  than thirty years. The big fruit and vegetable stores are hanging on, but the Italian deli is gone, and the shoe stores. Instead, the trend is to latte bars and niche veterinary practices. It’s becoming more like Kitsilano, an affluent and sought-after quarter over towards the University of British Columbia. Continue reading

On South Fraser Street

Fraser St 1 reduced

My niece recently left home and moved to a different part of the world. From counter-culture Commercial Drive, she made the six-kilometre trek to South Fraser Street and found an affordable rental apartment.

A rare example of side-street excitement, South Hill, Vancouver

A rare example of side-street excitement, South Hill, Vancouver

They say the resident mix is evolving, although there’s no influx of trendy cafes or retail stores at this stage. The South Fraser area is beyond walking distance from rapid transit; in Toronto, many such areas would be served by streetcars, but this is not Toronto. There’s a standard Vancouver high street, heavy on ethnic butcher shops. There’s a low-rise condo project under construction; limited multi-unit housing on the side streets, with a couple of seniors complexes a bit further away; and rental mini-houses popping up in the laneways, Kitsilano-style. The park on 41st Avenue is the home of little league baseball in Vancouver. Continue reading

Along the Number 20 Line

Grain terminal in Port Metro Vancouver, seen from Powell St.

Grain terminal in Port Metro Vancouver, seen from Powell Street

Vancouver writer Rolf Knight published Along The No. 20 Line  in 1980. It’s a book of working-class memoirs and oral histories about the Vancouver of the 1940s.

Cordova Street

Cordova Street

The title essay recalls a 1949 trip on the Number 20 streetcar through East Vancouver, from the intersection of Kamloops and McGill streets, near where the author grew up, to Cambie and Hastings, “the informal boundary of Vancouver East’s downtown.” Continue reading