The Viaducts: a decision made by the city for the benefit of its citizens

Because I was in the chair, I didn’t speak until the end of the Viaducts debate at council last night. There was a lot to say, but for me it came down to this: the city, on behalf of the people, should decide the future of this area. In the past, the decision has been elsewhere and by others. Here’s what I said.

Viaduct renderingThe decision council makes today turns the page on a long chapter in Vancouver’s history.

It spells the end to the freeway battle that defined Vancouver in the 1970s.

It points to a very different and better future for this critical area.

It opens up a world of possibilities right at the heart the modern city, reconnecting the historic city centre, including Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside — that rose from the ashes of the 1886 fire —  to the emerging communities in Yaletown, Downtown South, the Olympic Village and Downtown.

No wonder we have the support of:

  • former mayors Mike Harcourt, Philip Owen and Larry Campbell and now Mayor Robertson
  • our previous general managers of planning
  • key community organizations, including the Downtown BIA and the Downtown Vancouver Association
  • and the  countless interested citizens as demonstrated in four years of consultation

A positive vote means this council had made a strong statement that it will do its job.The city will decide the future of this area on behalf of all the citizens — no one else.

It hasn’t always been this way. This section of False Creek has gone from a fertile wetland to a rail yards, industrial and manufacturing hub to World’s Fair and now acres of asphalt.

Right after European settlement began in Vancouver, this land was allocated wholesale by Ottawa to the CPR.

The CPR covered it with rail yards and heavy industry that polluted False Creek and cut off Chinatown and Strathcona from the downtown peninsula.

That’s why the first Georgia Viaduct was needed — to leap over this obstruction.

Industrial use continued. False Creek was steadily filled in.

When the freeway proposal was defeated, the new Viaduct was built anyway. It did not link to existing streets at Main, like the old one did. In fact, it sucked traffic back and forth through eastern neighbourhoods — n o wonder demonstrators blocked the mayor’s car when he was the first to drive across it.

These were not the decisions the people of Vancouver wanted.

Eastern communities like Strathcona and Grandview Woodlands have been paying the price with commuter traffic ever since.

That’s an important point: the traffic concerns raised by Strathcona residents in this debate were caused by the Viaducts, not by their replacement. Action on this issue is 40 years overdue. Thanks to this debate, action is being taken.

The CPR’s control over this area ended in the 1980s with a massive land assembly conducted by the Province of BC. The Province took more than the land — it also took responsibility for the major soil contamination on those lands.

Then came Expo 86 — remembered fondly by most, but a first body blow at the low-cost and affordable housing stock of the Downtown Eastside.

After 1986, the province sold the lands at auction to Li-Ka Shing in a controversial deal that rocked the provincial cabinet, ultimately leading to the resignation of Grace McCarthy.

Again, these decisions were made elsewhere, not here.

The province remains a key stakeholder in the lands to this day, responsible for toxic soil clean-up and hopeful of a final payment for the entire parcel.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver created the Official Development Plan and Concord Pacific, the company that emerged as the developer, is now close to completing what was once the largest master-planned community in North America.

Only one parcel is left — and the Viaducts run across it.

Clearly, as the mayor has said, the city would be better off without the Viaducts — better in terms of traffic circulation, better in terms of park space, better in terms of the future for this entire section of the city.

But the impacts won’t stop there.

Imagine the changes that can reshape Georgia St. if it is finally properly connected to False Creek — all the way from the Telus building to the old Post Office, Larwell Park, BCIT, the Creative Energy facility and then down to a new public space on the water. This would be a new downtown.

Imagine the new opportunities for historic communities — like Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside — fronting on a new waterfront park.

Imagine what can happen in False Creek Flats, where these former rail lands can be reborn as an incubator of new, green jobs . . . jobs that can build on the 1,000 jobs already embodied in warehouse row on Malkin, which must be protected in any new traffic plan on the flats.

To realize this vision, we have a lot of work to do.

The city, the province and Concord need to complete their respective negotiations relating to the rezoning, the amended Official Development Plan and the sale agreement between British Columbia and Concord Pacific.

This will be a very complex and important negotiation, one we must undertake in any case  — but the potential upside for the city is much greater without the Viaducts.

Our staff need to be clear that the city will negotiate just as hard on behalf of the voters as Concord will for its shareholders.

This plan significantly simplifies the province’s commitment to manage soil contamination. That’s a saving to provincial taxpayers. It proposes increased density to Concord Pacific. That’s a benefit to provincial taxpayers. It provides for residential next to BC Place: a direct benefit to provincial taxpayers.

The province should participate iin this final phase of development in a way that respects the city’s planning responsibilities. That means — as in the new roof on BC Place — that the province acknowledges that benefits of our zoning decisions should benefit the citizens of Vancouver as well as the provincial treasury.

There are many ways this can be done — let’s decide what they are.

The financial discussion must be linked to improved public consultation.

That’s why I strongly support a revised approach to consultation, including a stewardship group like the one used to help guide Olympic Village planning, that combines the big picture with the needs of community stakeholders.

Of course, the Park Board needs to shoulder its responsibility for park planning.

But creating this stewardship group is another important first step to ensuring there is a city-wide perspective on the issues that affect all of us, not just neighbours — traffic management, park design, responsiveness to the arts, public space, the rights of First Nations — everything that will be required to make this the best project possible.

There is much more that could be said, but let’s get to work. Let’s realize the full potential of this crucial area of our city.