Design & Development
May 29, 2018

Downtown Vancouver Viaducts Teardown — Explainer

From About Here founder Uytae Lee — part of the team at Halifax-based PLANifax — comes the following video, entitled “Why are we getting rid of a highway in Vancouver?”.
It’s a cogent and thorough backgrounder on Vancouver’s viaduct teardown project.
It runs 5:28. It’s light, heavy, serious and fun at the same time. And it’s worth every second.

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The Northeast False Creek Plan is currently before City Council and city staff are recommending three tall towers that will pierce the 300 foot height limit established for the site under the Vancouver View Corridor Policy. The rationale for the two 425 foot, 48 storey towers at the intersection of Georgia and Pacific (and these are the words of the Council report) are to provide a “counterpoint”and a “gateway”. Just to balance things out another over height 400 foot tower is also proposed, as if to make the two 48 storey towers less obtrusive. You can view the plan here.
There are a lot of finer ways to make a focal point or gateway without building through the view corridor policy that has been so carefully defined and adhered to by previous city planners and councils. The whole point of the View Corridor Policy and the establishment of view cones was to ensure views of the mountains, sea, and adjoining areas from different vantage points in the city. To suggest this is negotiable is just the same as telling developers they can build roof top gardens instead of providing contributions to park acquisition. Look at Sydney Australia where wayfinding is challenging due to tall buildings and the lack of any view policy protecting harbour views and corridors. Is this Vancouver’s future?

Urbanist Melody Ma picked up on this Price Tags Vancouver piece dated April 2016 when Neal LaMontagne posted the following: “While checking in on Twitter yesterday, I caught an interesting tweet by Larry Beasley on view cones and corridors. I thought it was worth a post:

If Vancouverites were to weigh in on what public amenities matter to them, the view cones will be right up there with the seawall and beaches as a treasured public asset. Instead of cramming more housing in where it is crowded and blocks views, lets open up some new communities.

As always, Larry provides a insightful and thoughtful perspective (filtered, as always, through his own distinctive point-of-view). My own take is similar as I’ve come to truly appreciate the value of the view corridors. Although I am less enthusiastic about their value in maintaining specific views (the views you see when you stand in just the right spot), they have a hugely valuable role in creating a dynamic quality to our downtown towerscape. View corridors are part of a wonderful Vancouver tradition of maintaining a sequence of views, from the intimate (outside the window) to the neighbourhood, to the broader (city and nature) and they create variation in the towerscape that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
I am sensitive to arguments to rethink the view corridors. Many people I speak with are surprised that they are as intensely enforced as they are, but in a City with a great tradition of discretionary planning and where the spirit of the law is more important the specifics of the letters, view corridors are often absolute. Speaking from the perspective of a member of Vancouver’s Urban Design Panel, there are often projects where we are frustrated by the specific application of the corridors. But on the whole, they serve the city well and must be vigorously defended.”

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A request from Michael Alexander:
If you support removal of the viaducts and approval of the North East False Creek plan, send emails today. Council is holding public hearings today, with many delegations opposed.  We need to sway votes to yes.
Send a comment:

  1. Go to vancouver.ca
  2. Click “Tell the Mayor”
  3. Follow the link to the web form.
  4. Please support the NEFC plan.

A plan summary is here. The full report is here.

Of course, people can comment about any aspect, but the key is support for removal of the viaducts and approval of the plan.
Even if this passes, there is still much to do. This starts the viaduct’s removal process, and is the framework for future work to come on detailed design of the park and other elements of the plan.
 

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This excellent YouTube video provides a perfect way to occupy a dry day in Vancouver~printing t-shirts on manhole covers. The “Raubdrukerin” group (that roughly translates to “Pirate Printer”) does this in Europe, going to cities and searching out surfaces to ink and create bags and t-shirts right in the street.
What are the picks for the best surfaces to print in Vancouver? There’s the manhole cover “Memory” by First Nations artists Susan Point and Kelly Cannell for starters. This design was the winner in a 2004 City of Vancouver design competition for storm sewer and manhole covers. The design depicts the life of a frog from egg to tadpole to frog, and is a very apt reference for sustainability and the importance of water.

The YouTube video shows the technique for printmaking from city infrastructure.

 
 
 

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It took decades to move the conversation on smoking, but now it is pretty much a social faux pas to light up. Once, it was the epitome of in-crowd behaviour and carried a certain sophistication.
Will we ever get there with cars? We are, it seems to me, right in the middle of the process now.  And despite progress, the outcome remains uncertain.
An article in the Oxford Academic Journal of Public Health, published in 2011, introduces the topic this way.

Caution:  no words are minced in these paragraphs.

Results:   Private cars cause significant health harm. The impacts include physical inactivity, obesity, death and injury from crashes, cardio-respiratory disease from air pollution, noise, community severance and climate change. The car lobby resists measures that would restrict car use, using tactics similar to the tobacco industry. Decisions about location and design of neighbourhoods have created environments that reinforce and reflect car dependence. Car ownership and use has greatly increased in recent decades and there is little public support for measures that would reduce this.
Conclusions:   Car dependence is a potent example of an issue that ecological public health should address. The public health community should advocate strongly for effective policies that reduce car use and increase active travel.

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The Walk21 Conference Series held its 17th conference last week.  Canada is the only country that has hosted the conference three times~it was in Toronto ten years ago, Vancouver in 2011, and this year in Calgary. It is a unique conference series bringing together health advocates, planners, architects and interested community groups vested in creating communities where walking comfortably and conveniently is seen as a way forward to creating livable cities. The 2018 conference will be in Bogota hosted by Mayor Enrique Penalosa, brother of “8 to 80” bicycle advocate Gil Penalosa.
I first heard Dr. William Bird OBE (order of the British Empire)  speak at a Walk21 Conference  about the synapse between public and personal health, city design, and the need to create active walkable cities through better urban design. Hearing him speak about the need to create “blue gyms” where people can walk for exercise, sociability and neighbourliness drastically changed the way I perceive city planning. That sentiment was also expressed by Andre Picard in the Globe and Mail who observes “the benefits of living life at five kilometres an hour extend well beyond the individual. Walking is good for the environment, crime prevention, community-building and the economy. Conversely, the most unhealthy, unsafe, anti-social and costly thing people do routinely is drive.”
Andre Picard notes that there is a need to redesign cities to make them people first, instead of around motordom’s wish to design streets for vehicular life at higher speeds. The most powerful example is New York City’s Times Square which used to have 89 per cent of space devoted to cars, with only 11 per cent to pedestrians. This ratio was almost the reverse of what was happening~90 per cent of people were walking in Times Square, with only 10 per cent in vehicles. By returning road space to pedestrians, New York City experienced falling crime rates, less pedestrian injuries, and a 172 per cent increase in retail sales. By creating a sense of space as if pedestrians belong “you need to build inclusive diverse spaces.” Walking infrastructure such as wider sidewalks, street furniture, public toilets, and mixed use development make walking interesting and achievable. “No amount of health promotion will make up for a hostile environment. “
The City of Vancouver is using many of these principles in the planning for the Northeast False Creek area as reported by  Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail. Instead of emphasizing walkways and bicycle paths, vibrant areas that have visual interest and are walkable are being planned along the waterfront , with restaurants, shops and entertainment at ground level. Another band of retail will be on the ground level of each residential building, some with storefronts only 25 feet wide to attract independent businesses and entrepreneurs. The third retail area will be in the area currently occupied by the Georgia Viaducts and will also reference Hogan’s Alley, the vibrant community of African-Canadians who worked on the railway and used to live at this location. By creating laneways that are designed for pedestrians and not vehicles, the City is referencing the laneways of Melbourne Australia in attracting walkable, accessible and diverse  retail spaces for a new community where access by foot will be paramount.
Andre Picard observes that “walkability needs to be imbued into the DNA of urban planning.” The work that the City is undertaking in creating  diverse vibrant retailing environments in Northeast False Creek best explored by foot is a very good start. You can find out more about the City of Vancouver’s planning process for this area here.

 
 
 

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Planner and thinker Eric Doherty has written an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun
and provides a historical context on why “urban highway expansion must be the last resort, not the default option”  and why projects like the Massey Tunnel Replacement need to be rethought.  Despite pressure to further expand the road network,  in the 1970’s Premier Dave Barrett and his cabinet ingeniously supported the “SeaBus, still one of the best-loved parts of Greater Vancouver’s transit system. Freeways never flattened Chinatown or cut off the West End from the waterfront…”
Today the thought of a third road crossing to the North Shore is not seen as a priority, and as Eric notes the SeaBus was an inexpensive option instead of a freeway bridge or tunnel. Barrett also was instrumental in the building of the region’s rapid transit and light rail, using the right of ways established by the old interurban railway. And surprisingly, he had envisioned a light rail tunnel to be built beside the Massey Tunnel to serve South Delta and Tsawwassen”.
We forget how transformative transit over freeways was in the 1970’s. The new Premier Horgan “sides with the other 20 Metro Vancouver mayors who oppose the Massey Bridge, and favour funding the rapid-transit lines in the regional transportation plan instead”. It’s telling that “Only one mayor supports defeated premier Christy Clark’s multibillion-dollar plan to build a 10-lane freeway bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel”.
Eric also reminds us that  the “B.C. Liberals once proposed to replace their Massey Tunnel freeway expansion plan with bus lanes and rapid bus. In 2009, then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon told the Richmond Review that the bus lanes and tunnel upgrades would be sufficient “for easily another 50 years.” The B.C. Liberals built some of the bus lanes, but cut back on bus service through the tunnel instead of providing the frequent, rapid-bus service they promised”.
Going forward Eric sees the importance of enhanced and increased bus service through the Massey Tunnel and bus lanes connecting Richmond’s Canada Line as necessary.  “Rail transit to Ladner and Tsawwassen, and to the North Shore, may be worthwhile next steps — but buses and SeaBuses work. The much bigger step Horgan needs to take is to reorient transportation priorities across B.C. to reduce the climate pollution that is fuelling ever more destructive wildfires and floods. The B.C. NDP promises to slash greenhouse gas pollution from transportation by 30 per cent in only 13 years, and the federal-provincial Climate Framework commits B.C. to shift infrastructure spending from road expansion to transit to fulfil Canada’s Paris climate commitments”.

 

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Price Tag readers made some very good comments about how New York City’s High Line is markedly different from Vancouver’s Georgia Viaducts which are scheduled for demolition if the funding can be found. The High Line was an unused railway between a few kilometers of warehouse buildings. But a better parallel is the newly opened Seoul Skygarden which is built on a former motordom “flyover” that connected several locations with the railway station.
Built at a cost of  roughly 65 million Canadian dollars, the bridge took two years to be redesigned by the Dutch architects Mts MVRDV. As written by pfsk.com it was designed to  give “qualities of walkability, neighbourliness, human scale and shared enjoyment of its places…The Skygarden isn’t the first project designed to revive Seoul; the Cheonggyecheon stream was opened in 2005.”

Called the “Seoul-lo 7017 after the age of the original construction, the Skygarden “ is both a symbol and an instrument of the shift from car to foot. The original concrete structure has been strengthened, and lifts, stairs and escalators have been added where necessary to connect it to the ground. Bridges also connect to adjoining commercial buildings, who have to pay for the uplift in value. Other uses – cafes, performance spaces, a market – are scattered across the site.”
The overpass was planted with a “library of 24,000 plants, all native to Korea and arranged in the order of the Korean alphabet. Once plants mature, they will be sold and replaced, making the library also a nursery according to Winy Maas of the Dutch group MVRDV.
Young Joon Kim, the current city architect who also worked as the coordinator of the Skygarden project, says that he is “very happy”. He acknowledges that not everyone is pleased about handing over road infrastructure to pedestrians – drivers of cars and commercial vehicles, for example – but says that “when you look at things over a longer period it’s clear that citizens have to have car-free zones. It’s not a kind of taste, it’s the way to go, like many other cities.”

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In a not surprising but still stunning reversal  the proposed 12 storey tower by Beedie Development on Keefer Street was rejected by a Council vote of 8 to 3. In exchange for extra storeys the development was to contain 106 market housing units and 25 low to moderate income seniors’ units with public spaces on two lower floors.
There was passionate response for and against the project  which in the words of one commenter, “could make Chinatown more like Gastown”. As Mayor Robertson noted “In my almost nine years as mayor, no issue or project has yielded such a passionate, emotional response as this rezoning application. The Beedie group put significant effort into this project over the years … and went to extraordinary lengths to adjust and revise the project based on public and community feedback. Yet, council heard overwhelming opposition from several generations of Vancouver residents on the rezoning for 105 Keefer, and concern about how to manage Chinatown’s pace of change. For that reason, I voted “no” to this rezoning proposal.”
While there is clearly the need for more housing for Chinese seniors in the neighbourhood, there were concerns about overshadowing the Chinese Classical Garden and detrimental impacts from allowing a large for profit strata in the area. Many of the people who came out to speak to Council against the development had also been involved in stopping the freeway in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A new generation of concerned citizens also got involved in understanding and championing the issues.
Matt O’Grady in Vancouver Magazine notes that the Chinatown conversation is also being played out in other Vancouver neighbourhoods. How do you allow density but still keep a neighbourhood relevant to locals with neighbourhood character? In his article Matt speaks about Director of Planning Gil Kelley’s observation that it is not density that will move us forward in this conversation, but a look at how to make 20 minute walkable neighbourhoods, where locals can access all shops, services and walk their kids to school. He notes that while this can be accomplished by a certain percentage of increased density in most neighbourhoods, Chinatown already is tangibly walkable for local residents. The question is how to ensure that housing affordability and the conservation of cultural attributes are preserved for the future.
As Gil Kelley says”“I think we can rescue and preserve Chinatown and revitalize it so that it’s not simply a museum but actually a thriving place again. It may not be exclusively Chinese. And that’s okay.”

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