City staff laid out conceptual plans Thursday for what the area could look like should the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts be demolished. Photograph by: wayne leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun

This article was published originally on the Vancouver Sun on August 6, 2015.

Viaducts debate focuses on traffic and development

By Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun August 6, 2015,

City’s conceptual plans for area include parks, condo developments, subsidized housing

As the City of Vancouver begins to argue publicly for why it should take down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, questions are being asked about whether the city has fully considered traffic impacts and has a workable plan for the reclaimed lands.

Addressing a Simon Fraser University-hosted event Thursday afternoon, two city officials laid out conceptual plans for how the area would change if the viaducts — the remnants of a failed freeway project from the ‘50s and ‘60s — are to finally be demolished. The details came from Holly Sovdi, the city’s lead urban planner and Devan Fitch, the lead transportation engineer.

They outlined grand schemes that would see a viaduct-free Georgia Street brought down to False Creek and united with a redrawn Pacific Boulevard, and a 250-metre bike and pedestrian ramp that would connect with Dunsmuir Street. Part of the land under the viaducts would become available for the proposed False Creek extension park, but some would also go to Concord Pacific and other developers. Two blocks of city-owned land at the east end of the viaducts could be used for new housing. The city officials said there would be adequate room on redrawn roads to accommodate the approximately 55,000 vehicles that use the viaducts daily. The viaducts account for 15 per cent of the traffic coming into and leaving the downtown core.

The conceptual plan for the viaducts will go before city council in September. If accepted, two years of detailed public and community consultation would then take place, with the viaducts slated for removal in 2018, Sovdi said. Reconstruction and redevelopment of the area would take another two years.

But some of Vancouver’s best known architects and planners, as well as one of the original council members who fought to stop the freeway from being built in the 1970s, are raising concerns about how well defined the city’s plan is. They all said they support the demolition of the viaducts but are worried the city hasn’t properly considered the impacts.

“I don’t have a problem getting rid of the viaducts. I think there are solutions. I’m not sure they’ve found them,” said Marguerite Ford, who served as a city councillor from 1976-1986. In 1972, her TEAM party under Mayor Art Phillips abandoned plans to expand the viaducts into city-crossing freeways.

“The viaducts have served a useful purpose because of the amount of traffic and the fact we haven’t had adequate public transportation. I am not convinced that they really know what is going to happen with the traffic.”

Architecture critic and self-defined urbanist Trevor Boddy told Sovdi he’s worried the city is going to give “another sweetheart deal” to area developers.

Sovdi said removing the viaducts would unlock considerable land value available for parks, housing and bicycle and pedestrian routes. But when questioned by Boddy what that value will be and who will get it, Sovdi said he didn’t know.

That didn’t satisfy Boddy.

“What was clear today (is that) there hasn’t really been full thought about who is going to own what, how high, and how dense. And in the end I can’t get behind even a roadway plan until we know who’s going to own the plots of land, what the swaps are and how public benefit is going to be protected,” he said in an interview.

“Unfortunately, Vancouver has had a tradition of trading away a lot of public benefits for little results. I think we have to be careful because this is the single biggest city-building decision left for downtown Vancouver.”

Perhaps the most powerful words came from former city planner Brent Toderian, who told Sovdi, his former colleague, that the city has to do better.

Toderian, who was fired from the city’s top planning position in 2012, raised three concerns. He’s worried the city will allow Concord Pacific and other developers to build a tall, dense wall of towers that will shoulder the yet-to-be built False Creek park. The city’s plan for a new Pacific Boulevard could become another barrier.

And he is worried city council’s focus on building rental and social housing will hurt best planning practices for new neighbourhoods.

“We shouldn’t replace a barrier of viaducts with a barrier of towers,” Toderian said. “There has been a fair amount of discussion about replacing the viaducts with rental housing and social housing. I am well aware of the fact that this is a high priority for our city council.

“But we know that the best neighbourhoods are mixed neighbourhoods. It’s better for social housing, for rental housing, for community-building. So we should’t be emphasizing affordable so much that we end up with a single purpose, single type of neighbourhood.”

Sovdi and Fitch declined requests for an interview and referred questions to the city.