Vancouver Sun’s Dan Fumano talks about an interesting perception with the work of the current Vancouver City Council.  Dan was referring to  the council report on the “court house block” of  800 block of Robson Street and the potential decision to approve over five million dollars to create a permanent plaza at this location. You can read the report to Council on this here.

This has been a long talked about initiative and even the architect for the Robson Square court house Arthur Erickson had discussed the closure of this portion of street in the 1970’s. It is not a new idea and it is not something that the previous Vision party  dominated city council dreamed up.  But somehow in the last decade there is a sea change in the way that Vancouverites perceive that work initiated by the City is the “vision” of the ruling party, and not the result of careful reasoned work undertaken over the years by  city staff, who also embark upon extensive public processes to review and comment upon potential plans and projects.

The last Vision party dominated Council contributed to the perception of council as project mavericks by having Council members talk about projects instead of having experienced City staff explain elements of the projects they would have painstaking detail and knowledge of.

While this may have been a well-meaning strategy to give Councillors more media time, it also contributed to a growing distance between policy and the staff people who were actually working on and charged with implementing the policy. The street closure of the court-house block is a prime example of something that was done to connect the street for pedestrians and cyclists, and was a policy direction, not a political council initiative.

I have previously written before about the “Americanization of City Hall” where the previous Vision Council  majority abruptly fired the well-respected city manager Judy Rogers in favour of a political hire that would follow their mandate, Dr. Penny Ballem. That firing signalled the City of Vancouver becoming more like a city in the United States where city managers come and go with each administration.

But even a  new  city manager hired politically  must still deal with established city policy and bring forward to council any proposed amendments to the initiatives proposed and approved by previous city councils. As Dan Fumano observes, the pedestrianization of the Granville Bridge and the extension of the subway along Broadway are not creations of the previous Vision council, but were outstanding work objectives from city staff acting upon previously approved city policy.

Back to the closure of the Robson Square block of 800 Robson Street. You can see a  video of broadcaster Jack Webster touring through the Robson Square  park in 1978 when the court house’s public spaces were first opened to the public. Mr. Webster mentions that the old court house was sold to the City “for a dollar” and  still needed renovation to become a gallery. But in the images you can also see how the street functions as a mall connecting space between the old and the new court houses, and how it lends itself to be rethought as a public space for people not  for vehicles. The architect’s intent was that the entire three block area including the 800 block  Robson Street portion be closed to traffic. That was architect Arthur Erickson’s vision four decades ago, and a direction that has been explored by city staff over the years.



erickson anthropology.jpg

Arthur Erickson with model of Museum of Anthropology

Images: Glacier Media & Vancouver Sun



  1. Good article. I always enjoy your informed analysis. But once again I will being up one of my West End resident gripes.

    All the wonderful people applauding this initiatiive don’t take the Robson bus which now goes nowhere one would want to go. I know, I know, it is only three blocks outof the way, but when one is 70 years old, loaded down with parcels, and it is pouring rain, a cab is the solution instead of a bus outside Nordstrom’s as before.

    Has anyone in the City done an analysis on how many people actually use the mall—and on how many days a year?

    1. Seems to me the longer term solution is to shift the Robson bus to Alberni west of Burrard and Smithe/Nelson to the east so all of Robson can be closed to traffic. Then add a community shuttle on Nelson through the West End that serves Granville Mall.

  2. Interesting thought, although Nelson is already super congested. And with no traffic lights it is a bit of a speedway. I just can’t see all the traffic happily slowing down for buses stopped along the way to pick up passengers. I live on Nelson so I live with the commuter traffic day and night. They are going to have to do something long term because the Robson bus ia already usually full by the second stop—and all the new high rises on Davie aren’t even occupied yet. People seem to take the Robson bus more than the Davie one for some reason.

    1. Eastbound Lions Gate bridge traffic that used alberni , thurlow & robson now goes Nelson OR Georgia—— Close one street , more traffic on another—– The detour imposed on the Robson bus costs translink more $$$ for a worse service—— Expand the CBC plaza to the library instead minimal traffic disruption just lost parking spots

      1. There would be less downtown traffic if they removed most downtown parking & charged market driven user fees for the rest. __—– People would use a reliable bus that is not often congested instead

        1. Many people hate using (wobbly, slow, often too hot, often crowded) buses but love trains or subways. More buses are NOT the answer to Vancouver’s traffic woes.

          1. While the north shore waits for their Skytrain——–People will ride in a bus if they don t expect to find cheap parking for their S O V s .—– Build north shore skytrain instead before UBC subway .

    2. Is Nelson Street a “congested” parking lot or is it a speedway? Or just whatever bogeyman your argument calls for at the moment? Could it also be selling fentanyl or laundering money for the triads? I’ve heard Nelson St is pretty bad.

      1. Aww Danny Boy. Depends on the time of day. Haven’t noticed any triads or fentanyl from my balcony, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.

  3. There’s no pleasing 100% of the people 100% of the time. If Council shows a little leadership – whether one agrees with the direction of that leadership or not – they’re criticized for being dictatorial. If they show more deferment to their professional staff, they’re criticized (often by the same people) for being spineless and beholden to troll-like bureaucrats. Best to power through the criticism. Acknowledge your opponents’ injured feelings and move on.

  4. Of course a permanent plaza at Robson square is a good idea. Vancouver needs some beautification downtown as it is rather ugly as soon as you go a block off the water .. square, full of cars, almost no plazas, almost no pedestrian areas to walk .. no beauty really ..

    Suggestion: The ENTIRE Robson Strasse should be closed to cars and buses and be one long pedestrian zone from Stadium to Stanley Park !

    Downtown Vancouver needs FAR MORE less car oriented zones. Alberni too should be closed and made an indoor mall perhaps.

    The car culture with cars on every block is rather weird. Almost free parking in west end too .. why ? No toll on Lionsgate ? No tunnels to get traffic through Vancouver (say W Georgia) going south

  5. Hopefully the design won;t be studied to death or over-designed.
    The obvious thing to do is removed the curbs and continue the existing style of paving across the street to match either side.
    Not sure why it would cost $5 million – hopefully not “inserting” a new pavement design onto the former roadway. The last thing you want is a “strip” showing where the old road used to be.

  6. What I found heartening is that there were several new Councillors who spoke up for and really well articulated the importance of public space. Yes, this city faces big challenges with housing affordability…but let’s also notice people who live, work and visit downtown appreciate excellent public spaces. It is also heartening that Margaret, Lon and Jerry as our Engineering staff and representatives of the BIA’s shared that vision and really well articulated the importance of public space and the opportunities for some modest portions of street right of ways to provide that. As Jerry, our GM of Engineering Services said…folks are living in smaller spaces downtown… public space is their living rooms. Lastly…I appreciate that one of the Councillors said ‘this is a City Building opportunity.” For me…she was noticing that urban design is important and I was heartened to hear her saying that….our daily experience and use of public space is fundamental to a good life for everyone here.

    1. Eastbound congestion on Georgia street caused by the Visionless closure of Robson makes north shore buses unreliable . There is NO shortage of lightly used downtown roads that could be used for public space instead . —– Idling cars & buses won t make Vancouver the greenest city in the world… Perhaps Jerry will explain why he chooses NOT allow east bound bus lanes on Georgia

  7. People have been naturally gravitating to this spot and hanging out on the steps of the art gallery for many years now. It seems to be the natural thing to do.
    So you could say that “The People” picked this spot and the city is merely making it official.

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