Four myths about Viaducts replacement: straight goods on traffic, development, seismic risks, Main St.

Road to the future or remnant of a dead end?

The future of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts could be decided by Council as early as Wednesday this week.

With council ready to debate the Viaducts replacement report this week, a round-up of reality checks on  main misconceptions about what four years of study has established.

Myth 1. Traffic will get worse.

Actually, no. All the studies show traffic should improve, given that the new road system will have 100 percent of the road capacity of the Viaducts but have superior connections to nearby neighbourhoods.

Residents of Strathcona have been pressing the city for many years to downgrade Prior St. as part of the Viaduct proposal. Since 2013, the city has taken a number of steps to address concerns, including allowing more on-street parking and new pedestrian activated signals along Prior.

But it’s important to recognize that these issues would not have been discussed were it not for proposal to take down the Viaducts. In fact, a detailed traffic analysis done by city staff over the past two years shows that Prior St. is expected to have 10% less traffic with the Viaducts taken down – which is before any other possible improvements such as a new connection along Malkin Ave. Every study done by staff during the past four years has shown that Prior St. stands to benefit with less traffic with the viaducts removed and a new two-way street along Pacific.

For all the focus on traffic and the viaducts, it’s important to remember that the viaducts carry just six percent of vehicle traffic into downtown, and they currently carry half the vehicle traffic they were designed for. The new road network at grade will be able to handle all of the current traffic.

Diversion of Prior St. traffic to Malkin Ave. will trigger problems for the warehouses in that stretch. This is an issue that must be resolved through the East False Creek Flats planning process now under way, as well as through remedial measures in the near term.

Myth 2: this is a giveaway to developers.

It’s a quick leap for some: the entire discussion about the Viaducts is not about the city, it’s about developers. Not so. This is about benefits for the city, not developers.

The decision to remove the viaducts has major implications for Concord Pacific, but not for the reasons people often think. Concord doesn’t stand to gain a massive amount of land from the viaducts being removed; the change is in the configuration of the land. Concord already has development rights to that land and has had since the 1980s. And as staff highlighted this week to the public, the new configuration is a 13 percent increase in a public park in North false Creek, with a 25 percent gain in waterfront park.

The official development plan for North false Creek already outlines that development will occur on the land owned by Concord. The Viaducts decision does not change whether or not that will happen. What changes is that the city stands to gain access to a sizable amount of public land that can be put towards the public good, particularly the blocks on either side of Main Street between Québec and Gore.

The Concord lands in North False Creek that have not been developed are the last remaining part of a 25 year project dating back to the Expo. They will be developed. The question is how much public benefit can we gain? With the viaducts out of the way, we stand to gain a lot more, both in terms of additional park and in lands on either side of Main that could be used for mixed-used projects, including affordable housing.

Myth 3: they’re earthquake proof

A recent Vancouver Courier story cited comments from a former member of Vancouver’s engineering department claiming that the viaducts are perfectly fine, as well as that a 2009 city staff report that showed that the viaducts were in good condition. Yes, they are fine, but not in an earthquake.

That 2009 report was a preliminary analysis, and done long before this spring’s announcement that the province intends to move forward with a new St. Paul’s Hospital in the False Creek Flats. This triggered a more detailed seismic analysis done this spring, all of which is posted publicly and you can read here. With the new St Paul’s Hospital in the Flats, the city needs to ensure that the viaducts go above and beyond seismic standards to ensure they are usable during an earthquake. The results of that third-party analysis? That the viaducts aren’t even close to being at that level, and would require an estimated $65 million to bring up to code.

The bad news: with the upgrade, they might not fall down in an earthquake, but they would probably be unusable.

As for the former engineer’s claim about traffic concerns, the city staff traffic analysis and impact studies are all posted on the city’s website. I trust those reports more than someone who left the city seven years ago. The Viaducts currently carry only half of the car traffic for what they are designed for, and the new two-way road along Pacific would have the same capacity as today’s system, with better connectivity.

Myth 4: it’s about new condos on Main St.

Replacement of the Viaducts would free up two city blocks on either side of Main St. at Union. Would they be condominiums? Perhaps some, but these two blocks offer a unique opportunity to increase housing affordability in the area with a mixed-used approach that would allow Chinatown to reconnect with Main down to Terminal.

By removing the Viaducts, the city can use land that it owns to build affordable housing, at this location and others on lands now under the Viaducts.  The Main St. sites fall within the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood plan, which has inclusionary zoning requirements of 20 percent affordable housing for new developments. You can see a rendering of what such a development could look like on the city’s website.

Equally important, the city can work with the black community to restore what was lost when Hoggan’s Alley was restored and make sure Chinatown has a chance to rebuild south along that stretch.

All about condos? No, all about city benefits, including opening up land now locked under freeway ramps.