The Viaducts: credit where credit is due

Frances Bula’s short note on my Tyee piece about revisioning the Georgia Viaducts has produced a welter of comments, including the important note that this issue was passionately and persuasively raised by Paul Hilsdon on his blog earlier this year. I had added a note to that effect to the Tyee piece, but it fell under the editor’s delete button. Credit where credit is due.

The idea of removing the viaducts is not new, but was never raised seriously until Concord Pacific began developing the Expo lands. Until then, the viaducts made sense. The first viaduct carried Georgia St. over the rail yards, industry and warehouses that sat between CPR’s False Creek operations and the port. Its replacement in the 1970s was at the heart of a proposed massive freeway system, but also served to lift traffic over an industrial area.

The prospect, at last, of redeveloping the area between Yaletown and Chinatown, brings the future of the viaducts into question.

Hilsdon’s post reminded me of my own years in Strathcona — we owned a townhouse on Jackson Ave. — when local activists launched the community gardens on the south side of Prior. It was life-threatening to cross Prior until city engineers finally relented with a modest pedestrian crossing at Hawks.

The destructive effects of traffic, despite the victory over the freeway, were plain to see, but then Mayor Mike Harcourt, who started his career in the anti-freeway battle, did not advocate removal of the viaducts. He believed the answer was a new connection to Clark Drive along Malkin Ave., a proposal that remains alive in the city’s long-term plans.

The 2010 Games, with their two-week viaduct closure, raise a real question: does 21st century Vancouver need the viaducts at all? The only time I have seen Grandview community leaders smile at the mention of the Games — their poll was the only one in the city to vote No in the referendum — was when a city engineer told them of the closure in a briefing earlier this year.

As Bula’s respondents have noted, former city planner Larry Beasley has often mused about the viaducts, but the most intensive analysis has been done by architect Bing Thom, as my article pointed out. He believes removal is feasible financially and that the traffic problems can be solved.

Response to the article so far has been overwhelmingly positive, but I agree with those who argue that a great deal more design work must be done before the future of the viaducts could be assessed with any certainty.

Those interested in other cities’ experiences with freeway removal will find a wealth of examples here, a website devoted to case studies from around the world. Important note: in most cases, roads remain, San Francisco’s Embarcadero being a case in point. An earthquake shook the freeway down, but the renewed waterfront road moves cars, streetcars, bicycles and pedestrians.

A final note for those who wonder if it could be done: there was widespread speculation in the development industry that BC Place stadium would be torn down if Vancouver had not won the Games. It sits on enormously valuable land, just a few hundred meters from the viaducts. But we won the Games and BC Place is to get a new roof funded with cash from development around the stadium’s edge.

This project and the related development plans coming before council this week are combining with the Games closure to bring the viaduct debate into focus.