More Like This...

Recent Posts

Archives

Part 2: Why should we remove the viaducts?

Apr 22, 2011

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture

In my last post I addressed some of the common objections to the proposal of removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and mentioned some examples of similar initiatives. In this post I’d like to discuss some of the urban design benefits that could result.

Strathcona

Traffic on the viaducts has been steadily declining over the past 15 years. Studies show that most of the traffic accessing the downtown core via the viaducts originates in East Vancouver. In other words, this route is not part of the larger freeway/commuter network.


The viaducts during morning rush hour (8:10am Tuesday)

So if there’s really not that much traffic on Prior Street, why do the residents of Strathcona care about making it into a local street? In this case it’s a matter of quality over quantity. Prior Street may not boast the traffic volume of freeway, but the traffic certainly has the quality of major artery. The viaducts were constructed as part of a never-finished freeway network, but Prior Street was essentially designed as a neighbourhood street. There are no shoulders, large street trees, and minimal front yards. The character of this street is that of a residential collector. Functionally, Prior Street is a very uncomfortable hybrid, wherein a street that is designed to be residential gets used as freeway.


Prior Street at Jackson

Despite the 50km/h speed limit drivers often use freeway speeds. They run the red lights all the time because, in the freeway mind set, they simply don’t see them. In the two years that I’ve lived in the neighbourhood I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve jumped out the way of someone tearing through a red light, or witnessed a cyclist getting hit while crossing at a green light. The road is divisive, not because of the amount of traffic, but because it acts like a freeway.


Looking North across the viaducts towards Hogan’s Alley

Chinatown

Even if only 20% of the viaducts were removed, it would open up the parcel of land south of Hogan’s Alley for redevelopment. The parcel is currently bisected by the viaducts. The remnants of land are nominally park space, but they feel more like left over land – empty and slightly dangerous. The block, which has seen a tremendous resurgence in the last few years, is bordered on three sides by residences. If the viaducts did not exist, no one in their right mind would think it was a good idea to put a piece of freeway infrastructure right in the middle of a low-scale residential neighbourhood.


Houses along Gore Street next to the Viaducts

Removing the portion east of Main Street would make a dramatic improvement in to the area in terms of safety, walkability and the aesthetics of the neighbourhood. It would also reconnect Chinatown to the newer residential developments to the south, to the Skytrain station, the seawall, and to Thornton Park, which holds the summer Farmer’s Market.


Looking west towards Main Street: the viaducts divide the neighbourhood north-south

North East False Creek

One look at the aerial image of North East False Creek reveals how much of an impact the viaducts have on development potential of the area. In the Terms of Reference for the city’s High Level Review of the area, one of the priorities is creating a “normalized” street network which is either at grade or has useful transitions to grade. Studying the potential to remove the viaducts is one of the tasks for the review. Creating a strong and flexible street grid and animating it through good urban design are crucial to the liveability of the neighbourhood. For a neighbourhood so close to the downtown core there’s simply no excuse not to design a strong pedestrian realm and make walkability a priority. The viaducts disrupt this potential pedestrian realm by eliminating the potential for frequent north-south connections, casting shadows, and creating dark “underneath” areas. Transitioning between an elevated and at-grade road network is always going to be problematic, as evidenced by the fact that pacific boulevard basically duplicates the viaducts route. The elevated roads create problems architecturally as well as in terms of urban design. There are privacy and noise issues created by having a freeway buzz past a second or third storey that are difficult, if not impossible to resolve.

The original Georgia viaduct was built between 1913 and 1915 to cross over what were then CPR rail yards. The current viaducts were built in 1972 to replace the existing structure which had long since become unsound. They were built as part of an ambitious plan to build a freeway system through downtown Vancouver that would have included a tunnel beneath Burrard inlet known as the “Third Crossing.” The plan was eventually scrapped due to overwhelming opposition from Vancouver residents, especially those in Strathcona and Chinatown where mass demolition was slated to make way for the proposed freeway. However, before the city allowed the public consultation to occur, a large swath of Hogan’s Alley, then a predominantly African neighbourhood was bulldozed and the current viaducts were built.

The viaducts are Vancouver’s most glaring anachronism; leftover remnants of an age when freeway expansion meant progress and economic growth. However, in hindsight, most people would agree that the best planning decision that Vancouver ever made was to stop the freeway through downtown. As we proceed with planning decisions regarding the fate of the viaducts, we should learn from our past successes.