Keefer Steps: when public space is private

The Keefer Steps

The Keefer Steps

The graceful cascade of steps from Stadium/Chinatown Skytrain station to Keefer St. in International Village — the Keefer Steps — is a vital pedestrian link from the Downtown Core to Chinatown.

The steps are also the most visible example of a growing problem in the city, which for years has negotiated — or “extracted” in developers’ parlance — public benefits in return for increased density.

This important public thoroughfare is actually private property, owned by Henderson Development (Canada) Ltd., which is building the dense commercial and residential complex at the west end of Keefer.

Henderson created the link in return for density granted at the rezoning many years ago, and has transferred a share of the maintenance, cleaning and security costs to residential condo owners through their strata fees. It owns parking underneath the steps and continues to be the owner of commercial property it developed in the complex.

The modest but monthly fee is frustrating to condo owners, who pay the piper but do not call the tune. After I made an inquiry on their behalf at city council, the city’s agreements with Henderson were clarified to ensure residents would not be charged for security and surveillance on the steps, as well as basic maintenance charges, but the costs have not been taken over by the city as residents had hoped.

In fact, the Keefer Steps question has triggered a wider look at these amenities and the policy issues they raise. There are many examples: the public walk through the Shangri-La, the soon-to-be-open square at Woodwards, the new and vastly-improved Dunsmuir entrance to the Granville Skytrain station, and the new elevator from the Georgia Viaduct to Costco and GM Place are just a few.

They are public benefits provided by private owners, but as the Keefer Steps controversy illustrates, the “benefits” of the original negotiation can fade with time and new players. In each case, the developers have done exactly what they were asked to do and do not appreciate any suggestion to the contrary.

Often, there isn’t a problem.

But in high profile locations like the Keefer Steps, there are serious issues for the city: should public thoroughfares be maintained by the city directly, even if owned by others? And if so, should taxpayers simply take on the burden, even when significant benefits have already been given to private interests? These are questions that need to be clarified to ensure that “extracted” amenities remain a real public benefit, not just a private burden.