Architecture
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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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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From Frank Ducote:

 

The so-called Ice Pick proposed for the parking lot at 555 West Cordova Street next to the CPR Station is back for public review and comment and – they hope – City approval.

In order to enlarge the discourse, the DOWNTOWN WATERFRONT WORKING GROUP has been working for five long years to propose and enlist support for an alternate vision for this key site on our waterfront. Here are some ideas for a strong public realm for a long-overdue plan for Vancouver’s Central Waterfront.

The main key to unlock this potential is for the two main property owners to collaborate or joint venture for their own and the City’s greater good.

This concept proposes the office building be reconfigured and placed away from Station Square, east of the Station itself.

This concept proposes the office building be reconfigured to provide a major gathering place. A taller joint venture building could be placed behind The Landing (centre left in the photo).

Second, it is important to not have a bus road through Station Square! That would be a horrible blow to the enjoyment of any public square, and is simply not required here if the much-needed Granville Street and Canada Place road extensions can do the job. A pedestrian and wheel-friendly link here from the Square to the waterfront is most appropriate.

Third, the new land uses over the rail tracks cannot be just for office uses; that would be a killer for life in the evening and on weekends. Hotels, shops, cafes and possible some ancillary residential uses to help animate this precious resource should be incorporated.

Next, public gathering and viewing spaces of various sizes should be provided along with development. These sketches show a few opportunities for such features to whet your appetite for this major redevelopment site.

Last, and this is most important, no individual development should receive approval until the 2009 (!) Framework is updated into a coherent and firm vision and adopted by Council.

Let’s not squander this once in a lifetime opportunity, Vancouver!

 

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In 2015, Toronto-based developer Cadillac Fairview attempted to get approval for a 26-storey office building at 555 Cordova. Dubbed “The Icepick”, the iconoclastic development would have been shoe-horned up against the east side of Waterfront Station in Vancouver.

Cadillac Fairview owns Waterfront Station, and since it opened in 1914, the proposed remnant building site has been the station’s eastern access and parking lot.

The proposed site is not a separate building lot, and far too small to accommodate a giant office building. The Icepick was turned down by City Hall in 2015, following wide-spread objections from neighbours and the public.

Now Cadillac Fairview is back, this time with Icepick 2, a slightly revised version of the original.

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