Viaducts removal and Vancouver's eastern expansion

Thursday October 27, a milestone in a several year personal and community struggle was achieved.

Vancouver City Council approved an amended staff report to remove the viaducts in principal, with the inclusion of a serious commitment to immediate downgrading of Prior Street and a new east-west arterial, as well as meaningfully honouring of Hogan's Alley and the black community displaced from there. — Still there is more work to be done, in particular regarding development and affordable housing, delivery of Creekside Park and the management of traffic in NE False Creek.

Earlier, I wrote the following op-ed:

This week, Vancouver City Council is expected to vote on removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts—although as many City Hall watchers suggest: It is already a done deal. The proposal to remove the viaducts has been an ongoing issue for several years now; one that has piqued concern and activism in neighbouring communities.

As many of us have been advocating for years: if we are going to remove the viaducts, let’s do it right.

(*Full disclosure: my political genesis was viaducts removal. After losing a close friend and neighbour to unsafe Prior Street traffic conditions, I’ve been advocating for safety improvements east of Main to be included in the viaducts planning.)

The removal of the viaducts is supposed to open up some 2.5 million square feet of residential and commercial development, provide new green space, and add thousands of new residents. More importantly, the development of Northeast False Creek is key to the eastward migration of Downtown Vancouver—an inevitability that urbanists and realtors have been describing for decades. 

At his 2015 Urban Development Institute address, Vancouver's pre-eminent real estate marketer Bob Rennie described "big game changers" that will trigger the movement of the city centre east. Bold moves like the relocation of St. Paul's Hospital to the False Creek Flats, and the removal of the viaducts are two of those game changers. But in any game changer, there are winners and losers. 

The winners, of course, will be the developers and landowners who stand to immediately benefit from viaducts removal. Concord Pacific who own and will develop much of that land; the Crown Corporation PavCo and the City itself have significant holdings that will open up; and Ian Gillespie's district energy company has inked a deal with the City to provide heat for all new development in the area. 

Optimistically, Vancouverites could be big winners if this project is done right—but the losers might well be the most vulnerable in our population, particularly as development puts the squeeze on housing affordability and new road networks bring more traffic.

Here are some caveats I outlined before council at first reading of the city staff report on October 21.

First, the City must commit to traffic management east of Main Street as part of the viaducts' removal.

One of the biggest concerns expressed by commuters and businesses is that viaducts removal will exacerbate congestion. According to the report, however, the proposed viaducts replacement road—a new at-grade “grand boulevard”—will accommodate viaducts and existing Pacific and Expo traffic streams, while actually increasing road capacity.

The City’s report offers no commitment to address that traffic flow beyond Northeast False Creek, however. To the east: the communities of Strathcona, Grandview–Woodland, the Downtown Eastside, and Chinatown lack the road infrastructure to accommodate the traffic from the new post-viaducts street network and millions of square feet of new development. 

As the plan currently outlines, the new Pacific Boulevard will connect to Prior Street. Prior, a narrow neighbourhood street without the setbacks and width expected of an arterial road, is the unfortunate legacy of the proposed freeway system that citizens managed to stop in the 1970s.

An In-Service Road Safety Review of Prior and Venables (prepared for the City in September by Urban Systems and Morr Transportation Consulting) concedes: “the collisions occurring along Prior Street are involving a higher number of vulnerable road users than other comparable corridors and are potentially more severe.” 

Of course, locals recognize the inherent danger for vulnerable road users outlined in the road safety review, and seemingly everyone knows someone who has been touched by reckless commuters racing through our neighbourhood. In Strathcona, parents won’t allow children to cross the busy street to the park as unsafe speeds and the running of red lights are all too common; in Grandview–Woodland, the same sort of situation manifests itself along Victoria Drive north of First.

The report before council does acknowledge the need to secure a new east-west arterial route, but defers that to an indeterminate plan to be considered in 2016 and contingent on securing senior government funding. In the meantime, uncertainty over the how or where of a new arterial is cause for concern among residents and businesses. We ask that the wording of the report reflect that those details be established before the viaducts are removed. 

Second, delivery of affordable and social housing must be guaranteed. 

Proponents of viaducts removal point to this as a great opportunity to build affordable housing, and indeed it could be—but the delivery of social housing relies on a complicated shell game.

Concord’s land development is contingent on former landowners (the province of B.C.) removing contaminated soil. In turn, if the City of Vancouver awards significant and sufficient densities to developers Concord, some degree of profit will be shared with the Province, which the City hopes will be directed to social housing.

If you aren’t confused yet, consider that profits will have to factor in the Developer Cost Levies and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs); the latter, paid by the developers, is negotiated behind closed doors and will be expected to help cover the cost of viaducts removal, parks, seawall, and a new road network.

At a recent SFU City Conversations on the subject, noted urban planner Lance Berelowitz questioned whether the math could work to deliver all the promises via CACs. One thing is for sure: if we are to extract maximum public benefit, these as-yet-to-happen negotiations need to be transparent.

Among the parcels for redevelopment, city-owned land is being considered for sale in order to finance viaducts removal and housing. The city has previously shown leadership in advocating for a housing land trust—and these locations would be a wonderful opportunity to build leasehold public housing on city-owned land.

On the blocks flanking Main Street in particular, the City could further honour the black community of Hogan’s Alley who were displaced to make way for the viaducts, by embracing the idea of retaining public ownership of the land rather than selling it to the highest bidder. 

The future of the viaducts land, St. Paul’s Hospital, and the Flats, together with development in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, are putting extraordinary pressure on housing. We need to advocate at all three levels of government to ensure that we are protecting residents from displacement and be much more proactive in the building of affordable and social housing. 

The city knows they cannot build this housing alone, and the staff report details the negotiations that must happen with senior governments. However, the City must ensure that their plan includes real and achievable targets in writing, along with a meaningful commitment to delivering affordable housing, lest we end up with more Olympic Village-style broken promises. 

If we do it right: with comprehensive traffic management for the East End and a commitment to social and affordable housing; honouring the displacement of the black community at Hogan’s Alley and the diversity and struggle of the area’s low income community; and delivering existing residents their overdue and long-promised Creekside Park; viaducts removal could be a great opportunity for our City. 

If we do it right.

Originally published in the Georgia Straight

Photo by Stephen Hui