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:
Where that preliminary design imagined a small building on the parking lot, our group* boldly foresees a vibrant public square:
That’s part of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework approved by Council in 2009. Staff began a review, but unfortunately, progress has been … slow. In the meantime, Cadillac Fairview has begun the permit process for its office tower twice, and has had city advisory panels recommend against it each time.
Should the Ice Pick be built, making Waterfront Station the fully functioning centre of Metro Vancouver’s public transit system for the 21st century would likely be severely compromised.
But there’s a new opportunity, involving all three levels of government. Last month, to help the country’s economic recovery once the pandemic is contained, Ottawa’s federal fiscal update promised to spend “up to $100-billion” on “smart investments that have value now, and well into the future.” The Globe and Mail quickly recommended “some big investments in public transit.”
Here’s one: the federal government joins with the province to buy Waterfront Station, insuring the opportunities for transit and public improvements. All other Metro transit stations are publicly owned.
Waterfront Station’s 2020 assessed value is only $68 million, down ten percent from last year. Ottawa could provide the cash, or join with the province and city to trade for another downtown development site. We’ve identified two: a 1960s city-owned parkade in a great location, and an underused federal property. Surely, there are others.
Public ownership has many benefits: Translink could improve transit connections for commuters, airport travellers and tourists on the adjacent cruise ships. For visitors, Waterfront Station becomes the welcoming entry to historic Gastown. The parking lot becomes a public plaza with spectacular water and mountain views that define Vancouver. Future station planning and operations become much easier and less expensive.
Here’s a recent Canadian example. Toronto’s Union Station is owned by the city. Eighty percent of its upgrade funding came from provincial and federal governments. Public space was enhanced, and its heritage value was preserved.
It’s no crime for a private company to maximize its property values. But losing the opportunity to maximize public transit benefits for future generations— that would be a crime.
*The Downtown Waterfront Working Group, a voluntary non- partisan group of mostly retired planners, architects, and urbanists has been working hard to put plans before projects and help create a spectacular waterfront.