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2010 Olympics
Urban Planning + Architecture

Time for Vancouver to Tear Down Its Viaducts?

Removing leftover chunks of freeway could transform part of the city.

Geoff Meggs 16 Oct

Geoff Meggs is a Vancouver city councillor and member of the Vision Vancouver party.

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What could be there instead?

On or about Feb. 12, 2010, security personnel preparing for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games will close the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, shutting down the last elements of what city fathers once believed would be a massive inner-city freeway system.

The freeways were defeated in the 1960s in an all-out citywide debate that saved Chinatown and Strathcona and turned Vancouver away from the destructive development embraced by so many American cities.

But the two viaducts remain, pumping traffic through eastside neighbourhoods and bisecting what could be a new, sustainable North False Creek neighbourhood in the heart of the city.

Now, at last, the Olympics will close them.

When other cities picked the car in the 1960s, Vancouver picked community, neighbourhoods and sustainability.

The Olympic shutdown, as well as pressure for development on the north side of False Creek, challenges us to ask if it's time to make that choice again. Are the viaducts pointing to the future or holding us in the past?

San Francisco's experience

If an earthquake shook the viaducts down, would we rebuild them?

If our future looks better without them, should we continue to assume they must remain?

San Francisco confronted this question when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down the Embarcadero and Central Freeways. Although voters had just rejected a 1986 plan to tear it down, fearing gridlock, drivers soon adjusted to its absence.

The Embarcadero's removal in 1991 revitalized the city's waterfront: part thoroughfare, part parkway and part park, it began to revive a neighbourhood damaged from decades of neglect triggered by the freeway.

A redesigned False Creek road system, without the viaducts, could transform today's landscape of asphalt and freeway pillars into a new neighbourhood. Up to five city blocks -- each with the potential of another Woodwards project worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- could be freed from the concrete and opened up for people.

Idea backed by architect Bing Thom

That's why many of the city's leading planners and architects keep returning to this problem as major developments around False Creek move forward.

Notable among them is architect Bing Thom, who gathered expert engineering and traffic analysis that supports the feasibility of removing the viaducts, as well as the potential revenue that could flow for taxpayers.

This new neighbourhood would not only connect Yaletown, Chinatown, City Gate and the Downtown Eastside with each other, but opens the door to a careful long-term planning process for the East False Creek Flats, the city's last major brownfield development opportunity.

How planners and engineers solve the complex road and traffic issues on the Flats –- with its rapid transit, passenger and freight rail links as well as its incredible development potential –- will have an impact on neighbourhoods all the way to Boundary Road.

But any solution is likely to be second-best if we fail to test the options for the viaducts first.

Vestiges of a rejected freeway

The viaducts remain a dark force in an otherwise blossoming downtown. Despite the 1968 decision against freeways, they continue to shape the development of the city.

No major development around or on the north False Creek lands can go ahead without confronting the viaducts, with their massive bulk, traffic and noise.

A case in point is a report expected to come before council on Oct. 22, when Vancouver city council will consider proposals for a major increase in density around BC Place, GM Place and the Plaza of Nations.

These new developments, if approved, would be in addition to long-anticipated projects by Concord Pacific on the remaining Expo Lands, adding thousands of new jobs and residents to the area.

For residents on all sides of northeast False Creek, who have been waiting a long time for a promised Creekside Park in the middle of the area, this is all disturbing news.

It seems to them that parks and other amenities generated by Concord's plans may also be forced to meet the needs of the new residents in other projects. The park will be asked to bear a bigger load even before it is built.

Park development will only come when two conditions are met: Concord is ready to develop two parcels on the future park's western edge and the province has delivered on its commitment to clean up contaminated soil. Could the park design being changed achieve a better community resource, reduce the cost of clean-up and move forward the day it is built? There is compelling evidence it could, but planners still have their backs against the wall formed by the Georgia Viaduct.

Explore the options

Infrastructure like the viaducts can't be discarded lightly. New road connections would be needed. But the purpose of infrastructure is to support sustainable development, not hold it back.

The viaducts are the remnant of a road strategy citizens rejected 40 years ago, but they remain in place, reducing Vancouver's opportunities to grow.

A council decision on the northeast False Creek proposals doesn't need to wait for the fate of the viaducts to be resolved.

But the Olympic closures are a good time to ask some basic questions.

Do the viaducts help us ensure a better future for Vancouver?

Or is it time to replace them with something better?  [Tyee]

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