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Should Vancouver’s viaducts come down?

October 19th, 2009 · 19 Comments

I’ve been away in the Kootenays doing a media workshop in the town where I got my first-ever newspaper job 26 years ago, Creston, so excuse my lateness on various burning urban issues that broke out in the last few days.

As a result of my sojourn (and digressively, I must say, was it ever beautiful to drive through these mountains, where even the fir trees’ outer branches turn a brilliant chartreuse in the fall), some loyal posters have taken it upon themselves to provide commentary for me even when I hadn’t yet posted the news item. Here below is Lewis Villegas’ comments on the issue of taking down the viaducts in Vancouver. As far as I can tell, this discussion was kicked off by a piece that Councillor Geoff Meggs wrote for The Tyee. I can’t figure out where it came from as I’ve never heard anyone at the city ever talk about this previously, except that Larry Beasley used to refer to that whole area — viaducts, unused garbage strewn land underneath and quasi-freeway boulevards running through — as “our own little piece of LA.”

Anyway, here’s Lewis

“Hearing radio spots on taking down viaduct, and one Councillor being quoted. Just a publicity grabber or something more?

The structure is probably not up to seismic code. Beefing it up is a matter for an engineer to address, but let’s assume the economics are not there. What to do?

Downtown is ringed by bridges, and the viaduct is one of the longest. There is a bonus to traffic management to having a bridge: no intersections, traffic lights, and pedestrians crossing. Thus, traffic exiting the downtown in Vancouver gets a kind of “mini ride” on long uninterrupted spans. It would be very difficult to talk about removing the viaduct is we did not have a good transit option in place.

What about an urban design plan, for full build out, complete with a calculation of new tax increment to city coffers.

We’ve never done that. North Shore False Creek was a private developer’s plan. SEFC was the City acting as a private developer. In each case, the street pattern was either accepted or extended. As public space NSFC is a bit of a dud. The park looks and feels like a big lawn, or should we say “yawn”. SEFC put a park on the edge of the water as well. That’s going to be a Civic non-starter. Let’s wait and see if any of the smaller spaces work.

Taking down the viaduct opens up the possibility to look at urban design as a civic project with the focus on creating both memorable sequences of urban spaces, and a truck load of building sites for private development.

The transportation is already in. And the three biggest projects facing the City are there as well:

1. False Creek Flats (private ownership)
2. Port Lands (huge economic potential)
3. Revitalization in the so-called downtown eastside (the job that never gets done)

Getting the Viaduct lands right would have important repercussions. If it were a civic project it would give Vancouver the opportunity to become what everyone always talks about: a world class city.”

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Yes, Lewis . . . I’m with you all the way . . .

    The viaduct is a wonderful free ride full of view and “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT”

    But seriously an urban design plan would be great. Michael G tells me Alan Jacobs already has one to mediate Pacific Boulevard and all the spaghetti engulfing the arenas . . .

    And yes, I would also like to see a serious rebuttal to the NEFC High Level Review as a contiguous part.

  • Joe Just Joe

    I would put East Fraser Lands ahead of some of your top 3 projects the city is facing. At 15+K residents upon buildout it’s going to have a large effect.

    The viaducts coming down would not open up all that much developement space. They would have to be replaced with something unless we are talking about dead ending Georgia and Dunsimir. Even in that case, the additional floorspace wouldn’t be all that large. You would also still have the skytrain tracks acting as a thrid viaduct across the area. We aren’t talking about removing those are we? The viaducts themselves aren’t too bad, they are elegantly designed (the old light standards were better looking). They also don’t intererupt the street gird below. I feel the reason people dislike them is the dead area around them. That will soon change with the coming buildout of NEFC. The build out will be done independent of the fate of the viaducts. So if upon NEFC being completed we still think there is a need to remove them there would be nothing stopping it.
    I have my feelings that when all is said and done that they will blend into the environment nicely.

    Don’t quote me on this but I beleive they were sesimic upgraded a number of years ago and installed expansion joints. Mind you I could be wrong on this.

  • Blaffergassted

    Does anyone know if there’s any asbestos in that giant concrete behemoth? Canada’s ‘miracle mineral to the world’ was a popular additive back in the day.

  • Chris

    As far as I know, the first person to call for their removal was wonderkid Paul Hilsdon, on his blog back in January.

  • JJJ ” . . . NEFC. The build out will be done independent of the fate of the viaducts.”

    Ummmmm hopefully, not!

    That is the problem! Every urban component part designed “independently”!

    Please segue to Lord Christopher Monckton’s lecture on GW: an influential contrary contribution to present city thinquing . . . a more responsible approach to urban design, Eco-density, and Green Vancouver . . . lest we waste more effort and treasure . . .

    . . . especially as it coalesces the vagaries of “climate policy”, “eco-density.”

    Plans afoot to connect Georgia, Dunsmuir and PB. Build over the tracks to ameliorate noise etc . . .

    This could save Mayor Gregor a bit of embarrassment if he is receptive and, of course, if he can do a political back-track.

  • grounded

    There was some brief discussion of removing the viaducts at the recent SFU Urban Studies hosted View Corridor Debate between Richard Henriquez and Larry Beasley. I’m not sure how the idea got to Geoff Meggs as he wasn’t in attendance but the idea definitely caught the attention of attendees. There is brief mention of it in a summary of the event here: Perhaps Meggs got it from the aforementioned Paul Hillsdon blog post.

  • MB

    I think the idea is worthy of further exporation. Paul Hillsdon’s blog contains some fairly recent comments (link provided by Chris above).

  • Perhaps those more knowledgeable about development challenges could chime in here, but isn’t there possibly some kind of grand bargain to be made here? i.e. taking down the viaducts in tandem with covering over the railyards to maximize new park space along with new opportunities for commercial and residential development?

    A grand plan for the area could integrate existing railways and Skytrain routes, add a street-level cable car system connecting Chinatown and Gastown to the downtown transportation corridor, and might even accommodate a tunnel for cars exiting/entering the downtown in place of the viaducts. It would also make it possible to extend the seawall to the new Carrall Street Greenway.

    If feasible, it would also make it possible to provide redress for the lack of park space in the area, 1/2 as much park space per person as residents of Point Grey enjoy.

    Isn’t there a way for the city to plan on that kind of larger scale, as they did so brilliantly for Granville Island?

  • Joe Just Joe

    There is nowhere near enough land recoverable to make that possible with private money.
    And although NEFC/Creekside will be below city guidelines for parkspace/resident they are still in line with many other neighbourhoods. We should be asking is how to pack more people into Point grey to bring their ratio into line, but that’s a much different subject.
    The viaduct removal has been a pet project of Bing Thom for at least a decade. The problem has been though how to connect D/T with the lower escarpment better then the current system. There is obvious room for improvement, but how and who will pay?

  • Granville Island was a Federal CMHC Ron Basford project . . .

  • Frothingham

    Nn idea with great potential… it should be seriously looked at. My quick overview is that it would be a relatively easy project to accomplish. Do we really need the Georgia Viaduct given the way that part of the city is developing….

  • SV

    Back when I used to be on the Strathcona Resident’s Association’s traffic committee the idea of eliminating the viaduct would pop up every once in a while, usually when the city was trying to sell something else to the neighbourhood-the city would also suggest that at some point Prior would be “calmed” as traffic coming west to downtown would have to find another route.

  • Rick

    I remember reading some Vancouver magazine or maybe Georgia Strait piece back in the 90s where a bunch of planner/architect types were asked about their one big idea for the city and one of them suggested blowing up the viaduct so I think the idea has been around for a while…as for this being a simple or cost-effective or even a green project I seriously have my doubts….the viaduct isn’t really much of a time saver for drivers and there are lots of other things that make the area unattractive to residential development (honey the hockey holigans and the football rowdies and the casino creeps have formed a conga line on the balcony…you didn’t hear them cuz of the SkyTrain going by…) and all that concrete is going to get recycled into bike bridges?

  • gmgw

    The area of the viaducts may be unattractive for development, but that hasn’t stopped the half-dozen developers with holdings in the area from proposing a massive increase in densification in the area of the stadia and in NEFC which would surpass the density of False Creek North (west of Cambie). Removing the viaducts will accomplish nothing but freeing up more space for towers, and if there’s anyone out there who’s naive enough to believe that won’t happen, I’ll be happy to sell you one of those viaducts, cheap.

    As for Beasley’s comments about the collection of trash etc. on the Concord site being “Our own little LA” (and idiotically but typically self-serving comment for Larry, and ironic coming, from a guy who grew up in Las Vegas), maybe he should be asked why, when he was head of Planning, he never put any pressure on Concord to clean up the trash and barrels of toxic soil they’ve had stored on their site for years–*and* to build the park on the site that they’ve been obligated to build for over a decade now. It certainly hasn’t failed to come about due to lack of pressure by local residents, who have been screaming about this issue for years, only to have it fall on the deaf ears of Beasley and his successor.

    It should be noted that there has been an interesting discussion on this issue over at the Tyee, following Meggs’ story.

  • Bill Lee

    The city still has plans for the freeway from the viaduct to the 401 along Venables on file.

    Isn’t the idea to clear more land for the Aquilini’s to build thin towers now restricted this elevated railway.

    There used to be fishing boats tied up as recently as the 1950s just behind the Chinese Gardens now. That is one reason there was an elevated road across the end of the creek
    See one of Neil Roughley’s gorgeous histories of local railways: The station building is still there as SUP bookstore on Pender.

  • MB

    Perhaps a linear park with a generous canal from False Creek to the Dr. Sun Yat Sen garden or thereabouts would help soften the hard nature of future development in NEFC.

    Toxic soils remain a problem throughout False Creek, north + south, including under the building GMGW lives in.

  • Frothingham

    “See one of Neil Roughley’s gorgeous histories of local railways:


    Anyone recall or know if there was once a park across the way from the CNR station.. i t would have been on the west side of Main street where there are now apt buildings. …

  • gmgw

    There was never a park across Main from Thornton Park in my memory, but that only goes reliably back to the late 60s. I believe it was all commercial/light industrial.

  • I was there protesting the opening of the viaduct together with other members of SPOTA. This was part of the freeways dream of the City Engineering Dept of the day which included an elevated freeway would run from the 3rd crossing along Coal Harbour, through Gastown/Chinatown/ Strathcona and Grandview Woodlands. The freeway dream died as Vancouver became N. America’s most liveable city but unfortunately the viaduct remained dumping high speed traffic onto Prior and Main Streets from downtown. It is overdue that a better use for the ramp lands be identified through a comprehensive planning process. Hooray for Geoff Meggs, Bing Thom and others who are championing this idea!

    The views expressed here are my own and not those of BOB.