A Viaduct too far

April 12, 2011

It was a forum on the viaduct removal on April 7th at SFU downtown. You will find on pricetag a list of links on it including one to the good report of the night by Stephen Rees. We gonna mostly refer to it to review some arguments mostly developped by Larry Beasley, but also Bing thom

The viaducts impede real estate development

Growth will have to be accommodated here to relieve pressure on Chinatown and the downtown eastside

there is several flaws with this argumentation; also used, as an answer to Ned Jacobs, to explain the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver:

  • Do you believe that Coal harbour and Yaletown development has relieved pressure on the westend?

But mostly, the argument rely on the theory of “ghost acreage”: that is, you are always looking for new land to accommodate your current need, because you claim you can’t do it within the given land you already have.

  • not only that is not sustainable in the long term, but the argument could be used as well to support the abolishment of urban containment boundary and obviously the ALR !

But really, do you believe that the viaducts impede real estate development?

Thought the viaducts create some undeniable constraints for developers, which could not like them too much- since it forces them to be a bit more creative than usual- it doesn’t prevent application like the one city for Vancouver has for 800 Griffiths Way

rendering of a development application for 800 Griffith Way. Not only the viaduct doesn't prevent development, but could allow Vancouverites to experiment different urban experience, pretty much like the dramatic arrival to Toronto thru the Gardiner expressway...as suggested by the right rendering,

the 800 Griffith way Application let suggest that the removal of viaducts could not help too much to increase the buildable area, since buildings need some access to light anyway.

Let’s replace them by a “world class” boulevard
…and have an international competition to do that….

Well, the first problem is that the removal of the viaducts transform our existing boulevards, Dunsmuir and more importantly the ceremonial Georgia street in cul de sac…

  • What is the deal with that?

That sound pretty much as robbing Peter to pay Paul

  • why we should believe we gonna have on false creek what we have failed to see materialized in other part of the city?
  • what Larry Beasley think of? Pacific boulevard in yaletown version 2.0 ?

The second problem is that, there is no lack of actual opportunities for brainstorming on “boulevard” experience toward the improvement of numerous toroughfare in town, among them, Broadway, Main, and certainly more importantly Hasting in dare needs of a treatment…

  • Why we don’t use them to showcase the field of possibilities?

The traffic issue

The modelling of traffic in case of the viaducts closure is not so encouraging…Panelists as well as some contributors from the audience have casted doubt on the traffic model…and eventually some wrong interpretation has been drawn from the Cheongyecheon freeway removal in that instance. To put some perspective on it, below a verbatim of what Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang had to say to the Translink Buzzer blog:

we had three tunnels linking the southern part of Seoul to downtown, and one was due to be shut down for some mending. Someone asked me to make a simulation to see what would happened, and I ran my model and saw some very strange things. Once we closed the tunnel, we saw some areas of the downtown traffic improved. And then construction started, and we found the simulation almost came true in reality. I saw that many links encourages more routes. Once we got rid of some roads, that might reduce people’s willingness to travel downtown by car. Cheonggyecheon stream came to the same result…[]…We came up with a very nice result that if it was demolished, traffic congestion would not be so severe

  • In Seoul, removing of the Cheonggycheon freeway has been made possible by positive outcome of traffic model, which has proved to be accurate enough.
  • In New York City, pedestrianization of Times square has been almost justified by positive outcome of traffic model, which has proved to be accurate enough.

If clearly, some lessons of the Cheonggycheon freeway removal are not well learnt in the region, there is apriori no reason to believe that traffic engineers in Vancouver; able to use the experience of the Olyimpic game, as well as the unexpected closure of Pattullo bridge are less equipped and competent than their colleagues from New York or Seoul. If the traffic model announces an unfortunate outcome consecutive to the closure of the viaducts in Vancouver:

  • Ditching the traffic model seems to be a pretty shallow answer

It is not much surprising in fact. As illustrated in my previous post , there is lot of unused road access capacity in Vancouver; hence there is apriori little reason to believe that the removal of the viaduct will translate in public transit shift if there is no change in the offer of it and much more to believe this traffic will be redirected on other boulevard like Hasting.

In addition, when you consider that the redirection of traffic to hasting and Pender will impede the effectiveness of the transit on those avenues, there is even less reason to switch to transit

  • Couldn’t be a better option to reduce traffic on, eventually by integrating a tram on it, rather than fueling more traffic on it
  • Couldn’t be a better option to beautify Hasting? Does the removal of the viaducts will not compromise it?

Hasting street badly needs an urban renewal treatment. Should it be a motor vehicle thoroughfare, or designed toward softer transportation mode: does the removal of the viaducts will allow the later choice? credit photo left CBC

The viaducts cut off Gastown, the DTES, and Chinatown from the False Creek waterfront.

  • If so what about the Skytrain one?

The problem with this argumentation is that those communities have never been connected to False creek. Georgia viaduct has existed-albeit, under a different form- since 1915, and was rather connecting communities anyway cut off water by rail yard…and before by marshes. We can certainly argue otherwise

  • why the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct and not the Skytrain one?
  • Removing the viaduct will severe potential connection from strathcona and Mount Pleasant to “upper” downtown (Georgia and Robson area)

We are not in the case of a viaduct cutting off a community of its “raison d’etre” or roots like often seen, as in the case of the Cheonggyecheon freeway in Seoul, or in least extend in Seattle with the Alaskan way or former Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco…We don’t have a double stacked freeway to deal with too!

… but really, does there is no way to accommodate connection of neighborood with the waterfront?

the celebrated 'promenade des anglais' in Nice, pronged by the quai des Etats Unis, is separated of the historic city by a double 'wall' of now decommissioned elevated promenade. This 'cut-off' doesn't prevent Nice to be a 'world class' beach resort renamed for its waterfront promenade. Indeed that has allowed the historic neighborrod to preserve and develop its distinct identity. credit photo left wikipedia, right (1)

The Hogan Alley memories

The construction of the viaducts, or rather the overpass on Main street has induced the destruction of the Hogan alley, and this fact has been brought back apropos by noone else than Ned Jacobs himself, whose has suggested an Hogan Alley Planing Initiative (HAPI). We understand it could be strongly community driven with great emphasis on affordable housing. Hard to disagree with that! That said, the reading of some other blogs invite me to remind some context here:

Thought that the urban legend could let the general public believe that the viaducts has bleed a whole neighborhood, Hogan alley was in fact referring to a block delimited by Union and Prior, Gore and Main… the only block destroyed.

Hogan Alley is in fact the alley in the middle of the block delimited by Prior, Union, Gore and Main. credit Photo, City of Vancouver

  • It is hard to fathom why the current community would like lost its now green space to revive some vision based on an idealized past and distorted view of the history of the neighborhood

The locus of this community was the Fountain Chapel church which was founded by Nora Hendrix, whose happen to be the grand ma of famous guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The church still stand there. Ironically, at the time to write this post, the church is on the market, asking price is $1.450 millions , but no worry…the lot is zoned RT-3, that you can convert it in luxury lofts with soaring ceiling.

The last remnant, and may be most significant one pertinent to the Hogan alley community, is on the 'chopping block' who cares?. credit photo wikipedia

  • People are all up in arm on the supposed scare of the viaduct on Hogan alley…but the last and may be most significant remnant of a disappeared community is on the chopping block and no-one cares?

In Conclusion

As I have already expressed on the Gordon Price’s blog, in the evening, I have heard ‘removal’ of structure and other ‘negative’ words …but what positive outcome?

  • what we, as people can gain from the removal of the viaducts?

I didn’t heard a single argument justifying the removal of the viaducts since all the goals advanced can be accomodated with the viaducts. In fact the viaduct removal option seems driven only by an ideological “war on car”, justified by argument not able to hold much water. That is a problem and a question need to be answered

  • what you can’t achieve with the viaducts in place?

As long as you don’t answer in a compelling manner to this question, the removal of the viaduct will be seen as a direct and gratuitous attack to the ‘motordom’ with great chance to be lost, with as unfortunate consequence the probably stalling of more reasonable efforts at curbing the occupation of public space by the automobiles.

Eric Doherty was spot-on when noticing that while we are devising on the fate of a rather inoffensive viaducts, the whole region is besieged by road builders. Energy could be more usefully used at preventing damage than to focus on the destruction of an iconic structure

That said, Peter Judd like Larry Beasley and other panel members are right: we need a vision for the future of the viaducts land…But we need the vision first, be this vision integrate the viaducts or removing them partially or totally…

if so, it will be then time to discuss of the viaducts fate…that is the right order of the thing, not the other way around as like currently engaged

To show an example, and to capitalize on Bing Thom exhortation to citizen to get involved, here after is my modest vision

A Vision: The Skywalk over the marshes
…and among the pile dwellings

In 1898, most of the False creek flat was still inter tidal water, especially at the actual location of the viaducts. It was still a False creek spur going under Georgia viaduct until 1964, illustrated by the left picture taken circa 1939 (Collection of the city of Vancouver)

Like the Cheonggye stream was there at the origin of Seoul, the viaducts land was originally an inter tidal marsh which was still partially existing at the time of the construction first Georgia viaduct. and here are some assessment:

  • inter tidal marshes are key ecological systems, and disappearing very fast, we need to do something to counter this trend
  • The sea wall offers a very nice promenade, but it is a “wall” between water and land, preventing inter tidal life where it has naturally existed

Great extend of false creek was inter tidal marshes, and it is time to lead by example, this by restoring those keys ecological system, and the viaducts land provides the opportunity to do it.

The viaducts, part of the Vancouver history since 1915 get a renewed “raison d’etre” in addition to address the escarpment at Beatty street.

Like noted by Jan Gehl [3], human eyes vision is more developed downward than upward, and it can be a reason why people like to gain elevation to appreciate vista. The viaducts provide it and multiply vantage point on False creek.

  • beautify them and increase pedestrian space on it (remove one lane of traffic on Georgia)
  • add some mezzanines, for benches; why not some restaurant with patio accessible from the viaduct providing great view on the creek
  • Play on the vertical space by adding some connection with the ground appropriate to the human scale

The vision justified by the original landscape, combine a pedestrian friendly viaduct offering a promenade providing elevated vantage point on False Creek. The viaducts are themselves built over a restored inter tidal marsh. credit photo (2)

The marshes should be accessible to people by a system of trail bike path one of them running under the viaduct for those days we wish to be protected from weather element.

Access to Downtown thru a bridge or viaduct is part fo the vision, since it allows to reinforce the peninsula nature of Down Town. For sure it prevent the sprawling of it, but it is eventually the very reason we have an attractive and dense down town, and are able to develop secondary neighborood like Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona with their own identity worth to be preserved by keeping or restoring natural barriers.

The vision doesn’t prevent development, but capitalize on the “root” of the area, the existing structure, to provide a different experience to Vancouver while still true to what should be the very nature of Vancouver which is to live in symbiosis and respect of its surrounding environment.

building anchored on pilotis soar above the marshes...and the viaducts too. legend photo left (4), right (5)

The picture could not be complete without the restoration of the canal to Chinatown, ideally up to keefer street, providing a link from this community to the Waterfront, inviting to calm and relaxation.


[2] Arlene Gee

[3] Cities for People, Jan Gehl, 2010

[4] Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design, Will Alsop Architect

[5] Roland castro rendering. From Vivre le Fleuve, Atelier Castro Denissof Casi / Nexity, Dec 2010, Paris


3 Responses to “A Viaduct too far”

  1. Rico Says:

    Another great post, glad to see you expanded on your previous post to create this one as I was a little dissappointed yesterday. I think the key is vision, until there is an agreed vision for replacing the viaducts they should remain roughly as is. I do like your concept of an intertidal marsh, but suspect it would be difficult to successfully reintroduce.

  2. Voony Says:

    yes agree. intertidal marsh involve some challenge, but I think it is worth to explore this route.

  3. […] the real physical barrier being obviously the Skytrain guideway-reflects my previously stated position on the viaducts. a bird view of the site as proposed by entry […]

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