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Urban design panel weighs in on the Robson Square re-design

August 28th, 2008 · No Comments

There was, fortunately in the eyes of many, no clamshell to pass judgment on. That idea, emanating from Victoria, got deep-sixed early on for this landmark site in Vancouver, the below-street ice rink that is part of Arthur Erickson’s famous Law Courts.

But Vancouver’s urban design panel, this city’s unique process for having major buildings vetted by a volunteer group of local architects, engineers and others from the development industry, still scrutinized the new and much more restrained re-design and found one part of it wanting.

They liked the new domes that will go over the expanded rink. Instead of the dark glass they are now, they’ll be clear. They’ll also be almost three feet lower than they are now. They liked the new lighting, frosted glass over LED lights, that will create a luminous ceiling over the rink and light up what has been a fairly dark place (essentially, the bottom side of Robson Street, which passes over the centre of the rink).  They felt like they could live with the GE logo on the wall, which will only be there for three years.

But they didn’t like the plan to create two new staircases down from Robson Street to the border of the rink, which were intended to try to draw people down to this terribly under-used space.

Everyone on the panel said that two new sets of stairs weren’t needed. The area already has two grand sets of sets, one at each end, that lead down to it — one from the Law Courts, one from the Art Gallery plaza. It also has two other sets of stairs from the sides. Several of them said it would be better to take the money being spent on new stairs and use it to make the existing stairs more appealing. But, most important, they said that adding two new sets of stairs weren’t going to solve the plaza’s essential problem, which is the lack of people activity down there. Even though Robson has some of the heaviest pedestrian traffic of any street in North America, the plaza and stairs leading to it are almost always near-empty.

“You have six ways of getting down there now. But if there was something people wanted to get down there for, they’d find a way without having two extra sets of stairs,” said architect Mark Ostry.

He and all the others said the plaza’s biggest problem is that there’s nothing to draw people down to the space and it has been in a downward spiral for 20 years, as the uses on that level get more and more “reclusive.” Richard Henry, another architect, even suggested buying out the existing tenancies and trying to put in something that would attract people.

The panel discussion ended up being a bit of a trip back in time, as people recalled what used to be down there: the Mozart Tea Room, the Old Bailey, a food court. I’d forgotten about those long-ago features until now, even though I spent a few lunch hours myself sitting on the courthouse steps with a plate of food-court Chinese noodles in the ’80s

Ultimately, the panel didn’t come up with any definitive ideas for what might bring people back to the plaza, except the ice-skating, and some recalled that the reason there are no restaurants down there any more is probably because they didn’t do very well.

Restaurant planning aside, the panel ultimately approved the re-design, except for the two new staircases.
Another Olympic legacy on the way, folks.

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