Guest post by Gareth Wasylynko
“Elevated expressways are a blight on cities and depress surrounding property values”
Jeff Speck, Walkable Cities
City officials are calling it a “once in a generation opportunity”, the Province of British of Columbia is suggesting we “take a pause here and catch our breath”, while the public sphere is encountering, as one might imagine, a wide range of emotions. The 2015 approval by Vancouver City Council to demolish its arterial downtown Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts is perhaps the largest land-use controversy in the City of Vancouver in recent memory. A landmark decision, this move would liberate up to 40 acres of currently undevelopable land around False Creek – most of which has been owned by one corporation, Concord Pacific, since 1988.
A sizeable chunk of this idle land on False Creek takes the form of “Concord Pacific Place”, a sprawling and fenced-off concrete field Vancouverites might recognize as the lot where Cirque du Soleil sets up its big top once a year. Concord Pacific Place is a rather unspectacular and forgettable piece of underutilized waterfront property. Promised by Concord Pacific to be redeveloped as a park to serve the residents of neighbouring high-rise buildings, the un-usable nature of this land currently is a source of great frustration for many locals. However, the re-promised park following the demolition of the viaducts would not be just for the locals. The conversion of Concord Pacific Place to an extension of Creekside Park would offer a breathtaking public amenity for all those who pass through False Creek or the seawall. It would offer a new beach park amenity in an area adjacent to East Vancouver, where increasing density leaves residents hungry for such access to high-quality outdoor space.
Representing two of the nine total vehicle entranceways into the downtown core (and two of five flowing through East Vancouver), the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are raised, separated, concrete causeways, three lanes apiece offering undisturbed traffic flow into the heart of Vancouver’s downtown core. Built atop loose soils used to fill portions of False Creek in the early twentieth century, then later rebuilt in the seventies as connecting infrastructure of an inner-city highway that never materialized, the viaducts have served downtown Vancouver for decades, and have even shaped the development of Rogers Arena and BC Place. As fragments of a freeway that was never built, they now reside in poor quality and in need of expensive maintenance. The viaducts are more representative of a downtown Vancouver that never was, rather than the multi-modal, non-automobile dominant downtown it has become.
Outlined in the City policy report subject “Removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts” (City of Vancouver, 2015) as the last undeveloped piece of Vancouver’s downtown waterfront, the vision of a post-viaduct Vancouver is to divert current raised viaduct traffic flow to a new road network at ground level. This process will free up the surrounding area for development, to be split almost 50/50 between the extension of Creekside Park and a future residential neighbourhood adjacent to BC Place and Rogers Arena (Figure 1). The project comes with a $200 million price tag on top of an additional $100 million for the construction of an overpass located east of the project boundary to divert traffic over the adjacent Railyard, however, as per CBC, this portion of the cost may be shared between the Federal government and the railway company (CBC News, 2015). Into this cost calculation needs to be factored that demolishing the viaducts rather than upgrading them for seismic stability will save the City an amount estimated between $50 and $65 million, thus bringing the relative price of the project down to about $150 million. Still, this leaves the City on the hook for about $150 million of neighbourhood redevelopment costs to be paid for by revenues gained from new development.
The “Removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts” report to Council builds a convincing case for the project. The three overarching outcomes cited are:
1) an improved transportation network,
2) an expansion of parks and open space (13.75 acres), and
3) new development opportunities, including some for affordable housing.
By removing the viaducts, the City will avoid the costs of seismic upgrades, provide better traffic connections into the downtown core, and repurpose idle city-owned land to raise money through amenity contributions on market housing and build much-needed affordable housing. The City also sees the project as an opportunity to enhance the area’s visual appeal and quality of urban design. The city further cites traffic counts indicating an under-utilization, even at rush hour. There are objections and risks, too, however. Some contest the City’s assessment that the viaducts are currently under-utilized by automobiles, and in doing so express concern about potential congestion and delays on what currently represents an interrupted link into downtown. They clearly don’t buy into the City’s optimism about “an improved transportation network”. Additionally, there is the question of emergency traffic management for access to St. Paul’s Hospital, soon to be relocated to a site just east of the viaducts (Figure 2).
While public support for the project can be found, major primary opposition in the public sphere seems to draw from concerns about whether the City can be trusted to provide affordable housing as part of the new housing development, traffic flow management, the high price tag of the project, and the resilience of the charmingly slow-paced Strathcona neighbourhood to the new design. Also holding back public enthusiasm for the project is a general feeling that the decision to remove the viaducts was predetermined behind the closed doors of city hall, perhaps even under the influence of property owners, rather than the public. As Fern Jeffries of the False Creek Resident Association put it ”It’s a done deal…This has already been negotiated behind closed doors. Concord has been asking for more [development opportunities] from the onset” (Cooper, 2015).
While the City’s council report offers an answer for all of the concerns raised by citizens, there remains the overarching concern that the public simply does not believe the City can feasibly achieve all their stated goals without breaking a few proverbial eggs along the way. In addressing these concerns and in advocating for public faith in the project, Councilor Geoff Meggs stated this frankly – “The public needs to have a high degree of confidence that they’re going to get the benefits” (Bula, 2015).
The City faces other hurdles to proceeding with the viaduct removal project, from the Province of BC. Despite the optimism and ambition expressed by City officials, immediately following City Council approval of the viaduct removal, Provincial Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone sought to defuse the excitement by saying “nothing is a done deal” and “we have some very serious access concerns.” The BC Pavilion Corporation or PavCo, a crown corporation that operates the adjacent BC Place stadium, owns a parcel of land (site 10C on Figure 1) that stands to be directly impacted by a decision to remove the viaducts. Stone complained that the City had not meaningfully communicated with PavCo before reaching its decision. He echoed his concern months later stating “PavCo has, we think, some very valid concerns with respect to access to and from B.C. Place. We want to make sure that those concerns are heard and that they’re factored into the plans. There are concerns with respect to soil remediation. There are concerns with respect to access to the new St. Paul’s Hospital (Figure 2). There are concerns with respect to TransLink’s major road network and just overall traffic flow in and out of the city of Vancouver that, at the present time, is facilitated in part with these viaducts” (Meggs, 2016).
To recount the primary public opposition: concerns about the affordability of new housing development, traffic flow management, the high price tag of the project, impact on surrounding communities and a general feeling that the decision to remove the viaducts was predetermined behind the closed doors of city hall. The City’s official plan seems to directly address the first three concerns through devoting some city-owned land to affordable housing, promising a better functioning transportation network at grade and reasoning that the expenses saved from avoiding costly seismic upgrades coupled with the increased tax revenue make the project’s cost actually quite manageable. Upon addressing these, we are left with the concerns over the significant influencing power and financial benefits of developers rather than public stakeholders and the potential of undue influence on neighbouring communities like Strathcona; two concerns that will require a great deal of further political stickhandling.
If we look to New York City’s Highline and Chicago’s Millennium Park as comparative cases, we see the power of a strategic and radical transformation of urban design produced sought-after public space and, at the same time, tourism and urban development magnets. These precedents illustrate the potential scale of change that could arise from Vancouver’s viaduct removal project. They also illustrate how such projects have created their own set of public concerns. The introduction of High Line to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood is widely considered to have acted as a catalyst in the area’s rapid gentrification, while Millennium Park’s success represents a prioritization of public space over prolonged issues of poverty and school funding in Chicago. Both cases representing legitimate risks to Vancouverites as well. Delivering high-quality public amenities can bring outcomes that are difficult to predict.
Jeff Speck, author of Walkable Cities, presents both sides of the equation. At the same time that “elevated expressways are a blight on cities and depress surrounding property values” there are also real risks and “it is a mistake to think that similar designs will produce similar results in vastly different places.” We are left with a contradiction between what a beautiful city offers and how we attain an affordable city suitable for a wide range of people. With this in mind, we must envision the transformative potential of a reimagined causeway while simultaneously acknowledging the absence of one size fits all solution. Let’s be clear here, this project absolutely has the potential to invigorate a currently underutilized piece of Vancouver’s downtown waterfront; the potential for social benefits is significant. That said, if the new at-grade road network fails to streamline vehicular traffic more efficiently than our current system and if our City fails to develop a sustainable and meaningful number of affordable housing units, we risk a scenario of gridlock traffic ushering fumes to our new park and congestion to an unprepared Strathcona neighbourhood, while simultaneously limiting the surrounding residences to a select few property renters and buyers. If we fail to meet these keystone conditions of the project we risk shrouding any accomplishments achieved through the removal of Vancouver’s viaducts under a context of broken promises and mismanagement.
Bula, F. (2015). Vancouver prepares for life after the viaducts . Vancouver: The Globe and Mail.
CBC News. (2015, Oct 6). CBC News British Columbia. Retrieved 2016, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/multimedia/vancouver-s-200m-viaduct-replacement-plans-include-new-park-1.3258705
City of Vancouver. (2015). Removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts. Vancouver: City of Vancouver.
Cooper, S. (2015). Road to Riches: Public Weighs In on Removal of Georgia, Dunsmuir Viaducts. Vancouver: The Province.
Megs, G. (2016, January 21). Latest from Stone on Viaducts: “committed to sitting down with the city so we get this project right”. Retrieved from Geoff Megs: Vancouver City Councillor : http://www.geoffmeggs.ca/2015/11/02/latest-from-stone-on-viaducts-committed-to-sitting-down-with-the-city-so-we-get-this-project-right/