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Get rid of Vancouver viaduct, copy SF's 'spectacular' choice: planner

Demolishing Vancouver's viaduct mini-freeway connecting Main Street and Strathcona to downtown is a no-brainer according to a planner who saw the "spectacular" results similar moves created in San Francisco.

If that city's experience is any guide, removing the vestigial freeway from Vancouver's heart won't create traffic messes, but will knit together now divided neighbourhoods and create bustling new public spaces, according to Michael Alexander.

Alexander moved to Vancouver after 42 years living in San Francisco, where he was on that city's major planning body. He said the 1989 earthquake that fractured two of the city's freeway spurs proved in some ways to be a blessing. San Franciscans debated whether to restore the freeways, eventually deciding to tear them down.

One spur was the Embarcadero freeway that curved around the northeast waterfront and into Chinatown, delivering drivers to the outskirts of the financial district. Without the multi-level freeway and its various off-ramps, traffic surely would snarl in such a busy corner of the city, critics warned.

But the effect on traffic was "negligible" Alexander said, as motorists used surface streets to find various other routes to their destinations.

Eliminating the freeway barrier caused a once "derelict" row of piers to quickly be transformed into "the most spectacular addition to San Francisco's waterfront," Alexander told The Tyee. The once "essentially dead" Ferry Building now houses one of the most vibrant farmers markets in the Bay Area and forms the centre of a busy destination for locals and tourists alike.

Similarly, Alexander said, the demolition of a cracked, raised stretch of freeway dividing the city's Hayes Valley and replacing it with a surface boulevard has enabled that area to become "the city's hottest new neighbourhood."

Alexander, who has urged Vancouver's city council to tear down the viaduct, expects results similar to the San Francisco experience.

"It would open up six blocks owned by the city of Vancouver," said Alexander, who pointed out the raised roadway was intended to be part of a freeway slicing through Gastown and Chinatown that never was built.

If the viaduct came down, what should the city do with the freed up land? Alexander said dense housing developments slated to be built close to the renovated BC Place stadium and a nearby entertainment zone instead should be built where the viaduct stands. Having so much housing close to the noise and milling crowds that come with late night events is "a political nightmare in the making for city council" Alexander predicted.

Defenders of the viaduct say those who want it gone, led by Vision city councillor Geoff Meggs, are chasing big development dollars at the expense of commuters. Alexander said the freeway teardowns in San Francisco did create "several billion dollars worth of new development." But the average citizen gained many benefits as well, he stressed, including a more walkable, livable city.

And when the viaduct was closed during the Olympics the traffic disruption was "minimal" according to Alexander.

Tonight Vancouver's city councilors will debate whether to authorize a $695,000 engineering study that will investigate six options for the viaduct:

1. Maintain the viaducts with no changes.

2. Alter the viaducts so they come down to merge with Pacific and Expo boulevards.

3. Alter the viaducts so they come down at Main Street with a bike connection to Union Street.

4. Keep Dunsmuir Viaduct, and remove the Georgia Viaduct.

5. Remove both viaducts with either a connection between Georgia and Dunsmuir west of GM Place or cul-de-sac of Georgia and Dunsmuir.

6. Remove both viaducts and consider elevating/realigning the SkyTrain guideway.

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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