Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vancouver to remove concrete 'scar'

Elevated freeways to nowhere seemed like a good idea 40 years ago when cars were king

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Georgia viaduct is one of two partly completed freeways slated for demolition in Vancouver.

WAYNE LEIDENFROST / PNG / MERLIN ARCHIVE Enlarge Image

Georgia viaduct is one of two partly completed freeways slated for demolition in Vancouver.

VANCOUVER -- They have been called the city's urban serpent, the great wall of China and the freeway from hell, but near the end of this decade, it looks like Vancouver's two, five-block-long hulking concrete viaducts will simply be toast.

Raised as high as 20 metres above the city's eastern skyline, the three-lane, one-way, twinned Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts that opened in 1971-72 have oppressively dominated the entrance to the historic Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods, cut them off from the rest of the downtown core and reduced the ability of local residents to access False Creek, a former industrial centre that is now a jewel in Vancouver's glittering crown.

The idea for the viaducts was born in the 1960s, which in North America was ground zero of the rapidly expanding automobile culture.

Seduced by all those shiny cars with massive fins and chrome grilles, town planners across the continent got on board quickly with ambitious additions to the road and highway systems.

In those innocent decades before climate change, what the car wanted, the car got.

Then a low-key provincial town in a hurry to grow up, Vancouver proved it was not immune to this expansionary fervour when it gave the green light to the two viaducts as the first phase of a plan to slam a freeway right through downtown, complete with cloverleafs. After all, being modern back then meant paying homage to concrete, asphalt, rebar and structural steel, even if it offended the neighbours.

But while embracing car culture, Vancouver's town planners hadn't got the memo about the other transformative change sweeping across the western world -- people power and cries of revolution were clashing angrily with the so-called uptight Establishment.

The city's own documents show fierce and sustained opposition to the freeway plan in the early 1970s resulted in the two viaducts being the only element of the proposal that was actually built, at a cost of $11.2 million.

Now, in a long-overdue and exceedingly welcome mea culpa for the ages, city council is almost certainly going to go ahead and tear the ugly monstrosities down, even if it costs Vancouver upwards of $132 million once all the ancillary fees, including changed traffic patterns, are factored in.

Today's town planners refer to the viaducts -- which are currently expected to need $35 million to $40 million in maintenance in the next 15 years -- as "an urban scar."

Last month, council voted unanimously to spend $2.4 million over the next two years studying what to replace the hideous structures with once they have met the wrecker's ball. Righting a wrong -- whether it involves ugly excesses in architecture, brutal social and transit planning and overriding common sense -- never seemed so cheap.

"In every city's evolution there are rare opportunities to take bold city-building steps to advance the city's goals and livability or correct a past planning wrong," noted a recent planning report presented to council. "The potential removal of the viaducts provides an opportunity for the City of Vancouver to do both."

Geoff Meggs, the city councillor most associated with the idea of removing the viaducts, used to be a resident of Strathcona in the 1980s and he quickly realized the concrete monsters were a disastrous urban blight that divided communities.

He said in an interview that removing the viaducts would allow for a larger and better park to be built, along with some affordable and subsidized homes and other desirable civic amenities. Vancouver itself owns two city blocks of land under the viaducts, he said, which could be sold for up to $110 million.

Demolishing the viaducts, he added, means the remaining private land will also be redeveloped and result in a vibrant small town replacing vast vacant lots, lonely parking spaces and burned-out cars. "It'll obviously improve the value of everything around it."

Meggs, who has been quoted as saying "city-building used to be ribbon-cutting, but now it is dynamiting," also noted that during the 2010 Winter Olympics, the viaducts were closed for security reasons and the downtown core still flourished.

Saying removing the viaducts also eliminates a physical and psychological barrier, the planning report added some cities have already undertaken similar bold initiatives to rewrite destructive planning history.

"Boston, at great expense, undertook the 'Big Dig' and eliminated their elevated waterfront freeway and connected their downtown to the waterfront; San Francisco tore down the elevated Embarcadero freeway and reconnected several San Francisco neighbourhoods," the report said, adding "other cities have failed in their attempts at a bold new vision, with Toronto trying for decades to consider the removal of the Gardiner Expressway."

According to the report, Vancouver's viaducts are not efficient in any event. Although designed to carry up to 1,800 cars per lane per hour, they carry only 750 vehicles per lane per hour -- and that's during the busiest commuting time.

It concluded that "the city building potential associated with the proposed removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts could result in a series of once-in-a-generation, city-transforming opportunities. This underutilized area of the city could be rethought to create a truly vibrant mixed-use waterfront precinct connected to surrounding communities."

For his part, Meggs predicts gonging the viaducts is a done deal, most likely by 2019.

"My view is the momentum has shifted to replacing the viaducts," he said. "People need to keep in mind that cities are ours to build or to rebuild."

That assertion, at a time when governments everywhere are paralyzed at the intersection of raising taxes and cutting services, is refreshing. That was then, this is now. Go for it!

 

Chris Rose is the Winnipeg Free Press West Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2013 A7

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