January 21, 2021

Waterfront Station: A Cautionary Tale – Part 2

Yesterday, Michael Alexander told the story of New York City’s fabulous (and fabulously expensive) new Moynihan Train Hall, and the less happy history of Penn Station, which it serves. Today: what are their lessons for Vancouver? And what are Vancouver’s public transit opportunities (and the region’s) for the coming decades? 

Like the glorious original Beaux-Arts Penn Station, historic Waterfront Station is privately owned by a large developer. And as in New York, that private developer wants to maximize its profits. In New York, the result was to bury most of Penn Station in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Here, developer Cadillac Fairview plans a private, ultramodern 26-storey office tower on a wedge of parking lot next to the station. It was quickly nicknamed The Ice Pick.

Nearly 13 million riders pass through Waterfront Station each year, about five million more than users of the next busiest Translink station. As the pandemic wanes, ridership will increase. The historic 1914 building is protected by heritage regulations, and serves as a stunning public entry and meeting hall.

The actual transit facilities are underground, or in a shabby shed attached to the building’s north side, a construction mirroring the tawdry underground Penn Station that New Yorkers and visitors have suffered since 1968.

Connections are so poorly designed that to transfer between Skytrain lines, you go up two flights, through fare gates, down two flights, and through another set of fare gates.

Translink rents this space and office space in the upper floors from the developer, Cadillac Fairview.

That’s not the way it has to be, or the way the city has said it wants it. Since 2009, the city has had preliminary plans which include a great, glassy public hall, a transit and visitor entry to Vancouver, with views of water and mountains, transportation and history, urban commerce and pleasurable public space. Something like this:

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For those who want to keep up with the latest in cycling around the world, here’s the latest from John Pucher (well-known to cycling advocates in Vancouver) and Ralph Buehler:

How to make city cycling—the most sustainable means of travel—safe, practical, and convenient for all.

After discussing the latest cycling trends and policies around the world, contributors consider such topics as health benefits; cycling facilities, including traffic-protected bike lanes; cycling incentives; the needs and preferences of women, children, and older adults; and equity and social justice.

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From Friend of PT, Michael Alexander:

Earlier this month, New York City opened its new train station. The Moynihan Train Hall, built inside an elegant and gigantic former post office building, is fabulous.

It also cost one point six billion U.S. dollars. It also serves only half the train lines of its predecessor, and it will cost another billion to restore all the service New Yorkers, commuters and visitors once enjoyed. Therein lies a cautionary tale…

In the first half of the 20th century, long trips in North America were mostly by train. Railroads were private businesses, which built stations sized to the communities they served.

The Canadian Pacific Railroad built Vancouver’s Waterfront Station in 1914, replacing an earlier station and hotel on the Burrard Inlet shore. In New York City four years earlier, the Pennsylvania Railroad had built Penn Station on the west side of Manhattan. Both were imposing structures, but Penn Station was spectacular: it was designed by the august architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, and was considered a Beaux-Arts masterpiece.

By the mid-1940s, Penn Station served more than 100 million passengers a year, commuters and intercity. But starting a decade later, air and interstate highway travel led to dramatic rail passenger declines. Looking to improve its bottom line, in 1962 the Pennsylvania Railroad sold the station’s air rights to a private developer, to build the Madison Square Garden sports complex (MSG). In exchange, the railroad got a 25% stake in MSG, and a no-cost, smaller underground station in the MSG basement. It wasn’t… elegant:

The demolition of the McKim, Mead and White building, and its sad replacement, caused an international uproar. “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat,” the architectural historian Vincent Scully famously wrote in the New York Times. Public outrage catalyzed the architectural preservation movement in the U.S., new laws were passed to restrict such demolition, and landmark preservation was upheld by the courts in 1978, after the private Penn Central RR tried to demolish New York’s other great railroad treasure, Grand Central Station.

Today, Penn Station serves more than 600,000 commuter rail and Amtrak passengers on an average weekday, and arrivals and departures have doubled since the 1970s.

So why is this a caution for Vancouver? Tune in tomorrow.

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Council will soon be debating a motion from Green Party Councillor Michael Wiebe for A Community Safety and Well-being Framework.

Its aim:

…. to provide strategic direction for working together with community and key stakeholders to make the best use of available resources to enhance community safety and well-being across broad and critical priority areas, such as personal health, social development, safe public spaces, homes and amenities, crime prevention and reduction, transportation safety, climate safety and emergency management.

I remember motions like that when I was on Council (in fact, I moved some of them).  They’re so broadly worded and well-meaning that it looks, at first glance, difficult to vote against.  Hence the need to be cautious.  What, you will want to know, are the unstated implications?.

From a staff point-of-view, the reaction is likely to be ‘Oh gawd, another of those time-filling, resource-eating, mind-numbing requests that hopefully will go nowhere – unless, of course, it can be used to increase our budget.”

From senior government’s point-of-view, it might look to be an opportunity to download some responsibilities for open-ended social programs in health and welfare otherwise out of the city’s jurisdiction.  ‘You want to take on mental health in the name of crime prevention?  Please do – here’s a program or two to fund.’

From the point-of-view of community activists, it’s another opportunity to control the agenda, especially when you’re being given special mention:

The framework’s development and implementation should be reflective of the community and include multi-sectoral representation and engage people with lived experience and knowledge responding to the diverse needs of community members..

From the point-of-view of those whose responsibility it is already for community safety – like, say, the police department – they will check the motion to see if there’s any mention of those on the front line and how they will be involved.  And in this case, sure enough, not a word.

Oh wait, there is one mention of the police:

According to a Vancouver Police Department report in October 2020, crime rose in the following categories in 2020 compared to 2019:

• The number of homicides increased: 14 in 2020 vs. 9 in 2019.
• Serious assaults, which includes assault with a weapon, assault
causing bodily harm and aggravated assault, are up by 14%.
• Intimate partner violence is 4.6% higher than 2019.
• Anti-Asian hate crime incidents increased by 138%.
• Break-and-enters to businesses increased by 18%.
• Arson incidents increased by 39%.
• Assaults against police officers have gone up 47%.

Note those categories that saw the largest increases in crime rates:

  • No. 1: anti-Asian hate crime incidents – up 138%
  • No. 2: assaults again police officers – up 47%
  • No. 3: arson incidents – up 39%

One has to be cautious with these kind of stats: what was the base from which the increase occurred, and what’s the definition of ‘incident’ and ‘assault’?  Nonetheless, when there are assaults of any kind against those whose responsibility is community safety, and whose effectiveness is based on trust and respect, there’s an issue here.  But in era of ‘defund the police’, it’s not likely to result in increased resources for the safety of those whose first responsibility is the safety of us.

Or possibly I misjudge.  Perhaps in the upcoming debate, there will be a recognition of the police’s role, that councilors will state publicly their respect and support for those accountable for community safety, that they want the police officers’ input in this process, at least in equal measure with those with lived experience.

Because one thing I did learn in office: when it comes to considering council priorities, ‘peace and order’ is the most important lived experience for most of the public most of the time.


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If you saw this headline in the Daily Hive, what would you conclude?

Might you think that Canada’s big cities have seen a drop in their populations?  Easy conclusion, but wrong. 

That is not what this Stats Canada report says, as should be evident in the headline:

Not only is population increasing in the big CMAs (Census Metropolitan Areas), though not as fast as a year earlier, but they’re still growing faster than small urban centres – the opposite of what the article in the Hive implies in sentences like this.

Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver continued to see more people moving out to other regions of their province rather than moving in.

During this one-year period, Toronto saw 50,375 people leave, while Montreal saw 24,880 people leave — a record loss for both cities.

There’s now a meme that cities like Vancouver are being deserted by Covid-fearing residents for small towns.  And there’s a modest indication of something like that happening: more people moving out to surrounding CMAs of the big three cities than those moving in from nearby.  But those are still relatively low numbers, more than offset by the international immigration that constitutes 90 percent of population growth in big CMAs.

The important story is actually the increase in ongoing urban sprawl accentuated by the shift to those smaller regions, which will also likely see marked increased in traffic congestion since their urban form is more car dependent.  Meanwhile, the big CMAs may seem some relief in the upward pressure on housing costs and traffic growth.  But that doesn’t fit the meme.


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Want to learn how cities and communities work and change over time? The CITY100 Series is a collection of practitioner-taught introductory courses in fields dedicated to shaping and building livable, sustainable and inclusive communities.

The series currently includes the following courses, with more in the works:

CITY101 Planning for Non-Planners | Feb 18, 25, Mar 4 (evenings)
CITY102 Housing Policy Fundamentals | Apr 8, 15, 22 (evenings)
CITY103 Transportation Planning and Mobility Fundamentals | May 4, 11, 18 (evenings)
CITY105 Regional Planning Fundamentals | Jun 1, 8, 15 (evenings)
CITY106 Community Data Fundamentals | May 6, 13, 20 (evenings)
Whether you’re starting your journey into these fields as an emerging or established professional, or as an engaged citizen, these classes are built with the beginner in mind.

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On February 9, join us for an online info session to learn more about the unique learning opportunity the CITY100 Series provides.

CITY100 Series Info Session
Tue, Feb 9 | 6 p.m. PST

You’ll have a chance to connect with our instructors:

Eric Aderneck, Urban Planning
Margaret Eberle, Housing Policy
Elicia Elliott, Transportation and Mobility
Christina DeMarco, Regional Planning
Craig Jones, Community Data
Sam Walker, Community Data

You can register for this free webinar here.

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It’s no secret that when election ballots were alphabetized in the City of Vancouver that they seemed to favour people who had names at the top of the alphabet. You can take a look at this list of Mayors and Councils dating back to 1887. From my unscientific examination that there appears to be a heck of a lot of Councillors with last names beginning with the letters  “A” to “D”.

In 2005, six councillors had their last names with the initials “A” to “D”. In 2008 there were four Councillors that had their last names starting with  “A” to “D” initials. The City of Vancouver Council has ten members, as well as the Mayor.

If you have a slate of councillors you want to get elected with, knowing that their last name started with a letter from the front of the alphabet has historically helped.

It made sense to randomize the ballot, but what to do with the very long slate of names, many names people voting for Councillor might be unfamiliar with?  Alex Strachan reported in a 1993 article in the Vancouver Sun  that “studies show voters choosing a slate from the list of 40 names or more may choose several selections at the top of the list before realizing they have a few choices left”. 

Sadly it appears to be human nature that people go to the bottom of the list and then work their way up~”overlooking the names in the middle”.

In 1993 the ballot was randomized, with the order of ranking on the ballot being decided by names being drawn from a ballot box. The successful mayor, Phillip Owen was number two on the ballot; his main opponent, Libby Davies was in the 11th spot.

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If you have not met Melina Scholefield, Engineer and Manager of Green Infrastructure at the City of Vancouver, here’s your chance.  Melina is the facilitator for this 12 week  online course through Simon Fraser University.

Green infrastructure and related nature-based solutions are gaining widespread support as effective components of healthy city building as well as climate adaptation strategies. The course provides an overview of how GI systems work, the ecosystem services they can provide, and how they can be employed effectively.

The aim of the course is to foster a network of professionals engaged with the challenges and opportunities of blending nature and infrastructure

The course has four parts that together provide a substantive overview of the current green infrastructure policy, design, and practice and the associated challenges and opportunities.

Part One – The Grey to Green Transition explores the reasons that motivate cities, suburbs, and towns to adopt and expand GI systems, identifies the different types of GI and the multitude of benefits associated with them, and showcases successful employment of specific GI strategies.
Part Two – Design and Implementation discusses the principles and practices behind successful GI design and implementation, identifies targets and guidelines used to regulate GI implementation, and considers the data needed to inform GI design and implementation decisions, and potential sources for the relevant data.
Part Three– Policy and Governance focuses on the policies, institutions, and systems that govern and drive green infrastructure employment in cities around the world, highlights specific tools and regulations for GI, and compares and contrasts GI policies and governance.
Part Four – Planning for Green Cities reviews recent advances and most innovative examples of GI design, science, and practice. This section showcases bold views of what GI will offer cities in the future and how these progressive visions might be realized.
This course is developed and offered by Simon Fraser University, Faculty of Environment’s Professional Programs and Partnerships. Funding for this course is provided by Adaptation Learning Network, an initiative supported through Natural Resources Canada BRACE and the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The course is part of a series of courses intended to inspire climate action and improve professional capacity for climate change adaptation.

Facilitator: Melina is a professional engineer with over two decades of public and private sector experience. She has a long-standing dedication to sustainability and innovation in the municipal sector, leadership development and collaboration across disciplines. Melina is Manager of Green Infrastructure Implementation for the City of Vancouver. She and her team are leading City’s ambitious and multi-award winning Rain City Strategy, a cross-departmental green rainwater infrastructure and urban rainwater management initiative. In 2020, Melina was named Water Steward of the Year by the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association for her impact within the Canadian water industry.



February 15, 2021 – May 3, 2021

Duration: 12 weeks, 30 hours

For further information click here.


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In 2016 when a report  on  Point Grey Road becoming the Seaside Greenway went to Council, there was much discussion about separating walking from biking, and ensuring that sidewalks were adequate and wide enough. You can reference that report here.

Of course some residents had usurped public city owned boulevard property as their own, by adding in shrubbery and fences, and were none too pleased when the City needed that public property for public things, like sidewalks and boulevards.  There was even discussion from residents that they would be more likely to crash into pedestrians and cyclists with the hedges and trees removed. You can’t make this stuff up.

It is always instructive to look back at what people feared of and to look at how things actually progressed. When the Seaside Greenway was approved, real estate values on Point Grey Road apparently  increased by 30 percent. It is a traffic calmed, quiet street.  And yes, there is an elephant in the yard, in the 3600 block of Point Grey Road.

I have written that  privately owned landscaping on public property may always be challenged. As the city grows and enhances walking and cycling mobility there will be more vigilance to ensure that homeowner landscaping does not impede proposed city works, or indeed, city owned property.

Sadly, the Point Grey elephant’s enclosure does take up some publicly owned property too, and the fence was not moved as part of the improvements for the Seaside Greenway.

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At the end of Cameron Avenue accessed from Alma Street is a steep public staircase that has exactly 54 steps. There’s two landings as well, but those are not counted in the poem posted at the top of the stairs.

The poem is written by Robert A. He may be the gentleman that stopped at the top of the stairs, told us it was his 72nd birthday, and he had just scaled the stairs eight times to celebrate.

Part of the  poem reads:

“I am fortunate. Around the corner from My house there are 54 Steps.

Down to a Rocky Beach. We call it “the crab beach”. Always can delight Little and big kids.

By gently lifting a rock Watch the baby crabs Scuttle away.My steps are my Meditation, My aerobics

My beautiful outside Stair masterView of the City Over English Bay, Mountains, boats

Ever changing light. And weather

Twenty times a thousand steps Give or Take. “Doing the Steps” Understood by family, friends.”

And then there’s the view. You can look north at the boats, east to the city, and south to the cliff side mansions along Point Grey Road.

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