Architecture
January 20, 2021

Waterfront Station: A Cautionary Tale – Part 1

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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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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It’s not looking good in New York:

In Manhattan alone, new car registrations rose 76% and in Brooklyn, registrations climbed 45%.

D’autre part:

Then came the coronavirus and a national lockdown. With practically no traffic, even non-urbanists like me suddenly realized how much space we’d given over to cars, and we envisioned these same streets as quieter, cleaner public spaces that could contain something else.

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Curbs are being poured along Beach Avenue from Stanley Park to Hornby Street.

The City approved this permanent change from cones to concrete after a few months of consultation – albeit a ‘temporary’ permanent change, subject to the English Bay master plan currently under design by PFS Studio and Snøhetta.

 

These interventions also deal with some of the confusion and conflict resulting from this fast pandemic response in the spring when bikes were removed from the seawall.  Cyclists tended to ignore stop signals primarily designed for vehicle traffic – so now the crossings provide clarity, safety and a slowing down of two-wheelers.  (Hopefully eye-level signals for bikes will be installed where necessary.)

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Regular commenter Alex Botta responded extensively to the Return of the Icepick in a post below.  But his remarks deserve this separate treatment, with updated illustrations:

This thing keeps popping up like Dracula’s curse, first on hand then a body emerging from the ground. Cue the night moon, mist and pipe organ. A stake needs to be driven into its heart once and for all. I’m not convinced the Heritage Commission has enough sway to do that, though the majority certainly drove home the message that the Icepick will destroy any sense of heritage preservation with its gross intrusion.

This project cannot be compared to other singular buildings (e.g. The Exchange) because the context is completely different. The proposal is also too clumsy and inelegant by comparison to other stand-alone heritage conversions. The old CPR Station, which will be pierced by the Icepick, resides at the terminus of a preserved low-rise 19th Century streetscape. The closest high rises are separated from the Station by the 26 metre-wide Cordova Street. Moreover, it overlooks the low-rise waterfront (with the exception of the intrusive Granville Square tower). Context is everything.

There is also the conflict between public use (transit) and private use (the Icepick is a private office development as part of Cadillac Fairview / Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund). The Station is a privately-owned public use space, which seems superficially contradictory, but a dominant public use relationship that could be protected with strong long-term leases. The Icepick will be 100% private space. This is symptomatic of the confusion between public and private, and a diminishment of the role public space has in our economy. Public uses are stabilizing forces while the private economy chugs up and down the market’s peaks and valleys, occasionally getting knocked to its knees by tectonic occurrences, like pandemics that put the question to the need for so much enclosed office space. My view is that good science will win the day and allow indoor social gatherings again, but that still doesn’t justify the Icepick from a design and use perspective.

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