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Urban Planning + Architecture

City Offloads Viaduct Traffic Dilemma to Vancouverites

Experts, not community panel, should decide best new route to downtown.

Maria Stanborough 2 May

Maria Stanborough has been working as an urban planner throughout B.C. for more than 10 years. She is an admitted data geek and is a fan of transparency in community planning. She currently works at C+S Planning Group.

Vancouver may soon be saying goodbye to its viaducts, but what will take their place as the new gateway to the downtown?

It’s a decision that requires robust cost-benefit analysis. But rather than rely on paid experts, Vancouver’s planning department wants a community panel to choose one of three potential routes — each with at least one negative impact for the community.

In 2015, a staff report addressed the question of where the viaduct traffic would go by recommending to city council that “an at-grade road network would be able to accommodate 100 per cent of today’s traffic volume, and can be designed to handle future traffic volumes more efficiently.” The then-directors of planning and engineering signed the report, long before any network had been determined.

Fast forward to 2018. Vancouver’s transportation department is co-ordinating a community panel to choose one of three options for the promised new road network. This new network will have to be able to accommodate 100 per cent of today’s traffic volume, as per the 2015 report.

The city used a similar approach in 2014 when it reached a stalemate with residents about the contentious Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, which included proposed rezoning changes. In response, it created a 48-person citizens’ assembly to offer advice.

The assembly was designed only for those residents most committed to the process and with the most flexibility in their schedules. Participants weren’t paid and had to devote a lot of weekends to the process. After two years of the citizens’ assembly, the area plan was passed in July 2016 following a heated council debate.

Now, the city is looking to create a community panel to address one of its most challenging transportation decisions as the viaducts come down.

The at-grade road network west from Main Street to the downtown core seems to have been decided, but the continuation of the road from Main Street to the east is unclear. Each of the three proposed routes — which will go through a mostly industrial part of town that includes some homes, parks and bike routes — has at least one significant negative impact.

Handing the decision to a community panel seems to be a way for the city to save face on what will ultimately be an unpopular decision. These are the three potential routes.

1: William Street

This route has a number of complications, the biggest being that it would run through Strathcona Park, further reducing the amount of green space on the east side of Vancouver and separating the community gardens from the park. This option would require the Vancouver Park Board to endorse a plan to reduce the size of a well-loved and well-used park, a very uncomfortable decision for any politician.

2: Malkin Avenue

The biggest consideration for this route is that it would force the many large businesses that operate along Produce Row to relocate. Produce Row, a cluster of wholesalers on the edge of Chinatown, was a historical hub of employment for many newcomers and remains an important centre of food and vegetable distribution today.

The logistics and economic impacts of this displacement have not yet been presented to the public.

3: National Avenue

This third option may be the least economically feasible. It would require the construction of a large overpass to span existing railway tracks, and the relocation of the Chess Street Fire Training Facility, the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue site and some of the National Works Yard. It would also result in a complicated dead end into Clark Drive in close proximity to the very busy First Avenue crossing. Clark Drive is the main truck route from the port as well as a main commuter route from Vancouver to Richmond and other lower mainland municipalities. A new intersection at National Avenue two blocks north of the already busy First and Clark intersection could lead to more congestion than it currently has, which is bumper to bumper at rush hour.

Other considerations

There are other potential impacts that have been mostly kept under the radar.

The road reconfiguration could hurt Trillium Park — a relatively new park that’s well used as it has two of a very limited number of all weather fields in the city. A new arterial road will make the park hard to access as it will be isolated to the south of a new road network, with no provisions to preserve the nearby parking.

The reconfiguration may also isolate the Commercial Drive neighbourhood from Strathcona. This could have significant impact on the Eastside Culture Crawl — the largest event to promote local artists in Vancouver. The Culture Crawl currently flows seamlessly between the two neighbourhoods, but with the new road network, this connectivity may be halted.

The third great unknown is how the new location for St. Paul’s Hospital will figure into this road network. The new hospital campus is currently being planned for the False Creek Flats area. There is little to no information available on how the design of the new hospital campus fits in with the road network options.

The cost of upgrading and maintaining the existing viaducts was one of the main reasons given for removing them. Unfortunately, given the lack of detail provided about the proposed transportation routes, it is impossible to fully understand the potential price of a reconfiguration.

There is a fourth option that the city has not yet proposed.

4: Rely on paid experts

Community consultation doesn’t always work out.

Strathcona residents were asked for their input when the removal of the viaducts was first proposed. The residents requested that the city reroute the bulk of the traffic that currently flows from downtown on Prior Street through their neighbourhood. The residents were hoping for an alternative road network as the primary route from Main Street to the east.

While city staff assured Strathcona residents that they would be exploring an alternative route, they did not provide information about the tradeoffs that might have to be made such as the potential loss of green space in their neighbourhood, limited access to Trillium Park, or the negative impacts on the Eastside Culture Crawl. When the community later learned that they might lose their community gardens, a number of activists formed Save Strathcona Park in response.

Had the people who engaged in the public consultation known all the impacts of an alternative transportation route, they may have provided very different input.

This is why the city needs to provide a full cost-benefit analysis of the road options that will take the viaducts’ place.

Despite the army of paid experts who work for the city, this critical decision is being offloaded to a community panel who may or may not have knowledge of transportation planning, and who may or may not have access to the amount of detailed information needed to make such a complex decision.

A lot is up in the air regarding the three options. Could increased traffic diverted onto Clark Drive affect commuters and the port? What are the costs of sacrificing park land? What are the costs of displacing a major food distribution hub?

From my perspective, the design of a community panel is a bit of urban planning sleight of hand. Let’s not put a panel of community members into the uncomfortable and unpaid position of choosing one of the three evils. Let informed, expert judgment pave the way.  [Tyee]

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