Posted by: VPSN | April 9, 2011

Vancouver & the Viaducts: Local experts weigh the costs and benefits of tearing down the Georgia and Dunsmiur Viaducts

Photo: Maurice Li

On Thursday April 7th, the SFU City Program hosted: Peter Judd, General Manager of Engineering Services – Vancouver; Dave Turner, Halcrow Engineering and author of the City of Vancouver, Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts Study, Transportation Impact; Bernie Magnan, Chief Economist/Assistant Managing Director – Vancouver Board of Trade and author of the Metro Vancouver Resident Transportation Survey; architect Bing Thom; and Vancouver’s former Co-Director of Planning, Larry Beasley at Harbour Centre.   Their task?  To address the question of just what to do with the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts. The future of the Viaducts has become an increasingly hot topic amongst Vancouver’s Urbanists, politicians and citizens in the past few years, especially with the advent of several high profile examples where elevated expressways have been demolished (Seoul, South Korea) or re-purposed (New York).

Before introducing the evening’s panelists Gordon Price, Director of SFU’s City Program asked the bloggers in the audience to make themselves known.  These included Paul Hillsdon (who has written an excellent entry about the viaducts), Price himself, Blah City, voony and Michael Geller (Addendum: we forgot to include Stephen Rees in the initial round up. Sorry Stephen!)  An important theme of the evening was creating opportunities for citizen engagement in the planning process, especially by harassing new technologies.

Among the highlights of Judd, Turner and Magnan’s presentations were:

  • A description of three options that were explored in the Halcrow study:  20%, 50%, and 100% removal of the viaducts, and the related transportation impacts (Turner)
  • By closing the viaducts during the Olympics the city learned something about the “adaptability and resilience” of the citizens (Judd).
  • During the Olympics 43% of Vancouverites changed transportation modes (away from automobile) and only 15% reverted after the event (Magnan).
  • The audience was reassured that spare capacity on the existing road network and on transit would save us from impending viaduct-removal-annihilation.

When he finally took the stage Larry Beasley laid out his two recommendations to Vancouver City Council.  First, make a bold decision right away to remove the viaducts and second, that the city implement an urban design competition, inviting submissions from around the world, so that we might create a true vision for the future of the city.  He believes that this will include an expanded downtown core that grows beyond Chinatown, Gastown, and the Downtown Eastside into the False Creek Flats area, eventually all the way to Clark Drive.  Beasley then invoked a Ray Spaxman adage, “let’s not make a city by accident, let’s make one by design”.

During his presentation Bing Thom challenged academics at UBC – “the brain centre of the city” to become more involved in the real urban issues that the city is facing.  He also called on local designers and practitioners to take a more active role, emphasizing the duty of professionals to speak up on critical civic matters.

When the floor was opened for questions the issue of citizen engagement was primary.  In particular, Ned Jacobs, son of the late Jane Jacobs suggested that a (new) community be created in the place of the Viaducts called Hogan’s Alley, the very community that was destroyed when the road was first erected.

The evening met the host’s (SFU City Program’s) objective of helping to form opinions about the viaducts, with the popular consensus of all those involved in the forum being that the Viaducts should come down.  But, the scope grew to be much broader than just about decommissioning an infrastructure facility that has reached the end of its “acceptable life” (if not its design life).

A more holistic re-envisioning of the boundaries and character of downtown seems necessary, underscored by the need to engage the local citizenry about what should be the desired ends, and then to lean on the technocrats to help decipher what means are available to achieve those goals.

A couple of key outstanding questions need to be answered:

  • How much faith can we put in the tools of the trade?  We must recognize that models are imperfect and are heavily dependent on their underlying assumptions.
  • Do we rely on “experts” instead?  It was mentioned that the brilliant minds of the day were also the ones who advocated and built the viaducts in the first place.
  • What of the public process which relies on volunteer efforts to hold parties accountable, and avoid the inevitability of some projects?  Certainly there are more efficient ways to protest than to occupy Council chambers for weeks on end.

Although the removal of the viaducts will have impacts felt across the city, their possible decommissioning holds great potential for Northeast False Creek and the neighbourhoods to the north.  The viaducts today currently cut off Gastown, the Downtown Eastside, and Chinatown from the False Creek waterfront.  As much of a psychological barrier as they are a physical one, their dark, cold underbellies create an uninviting environment that discourages residents and visitors in the area from exploring what may lie on ‘the other side.’   While today the waterfront property consists primarily of parking lots and Concord’s showroom, the land along the creek from Cambie Bridge to Science World will soon be developed into homes for thousands.  In addition, plans include a new civic plaza, a completed seawall, waterfront restaurants and cafes, new marinas, and also a greatly expanded Creekside Park.

The removal of the viaducts would create a tremendous new opportunity for re-imagining the use of the space they occupy, and for a much-improved public realm for the whole area.  Instead of barren concrete pillars and roaring traffic above, the space could be used for new homes or job space for area residents, expanded greenspace and recreational activities, and new public plazas and gathering spaces.  Stitching the future new neighbourhood along the water’s edge with the already-established ones to the north, this space could become the lively, welcoming high-quality public realm link needed to re-connect the eastside residents with the waterfront – a space for everyone to enjoy.

The Vancouver Public Space Network will continue to be broadly engaged in advocating for quality urban design of any newly created public spaces as a result of viaduct demolition, and encourages you to join the visioning process for what could be.  The options for what to do with the viaducts are only limited by the scope of our own ideas.  Let the imagining begin.

Post by: Canisius Chan, Scott Erdman, and JT


  1. From the VPSN Facebook:

    “The costs can’t outweigh the benefits of rebuilding a new Hogan’s Alley!” – JM

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