The City of Vancouver’s Viaducts Removal Initiative: Urban Planning or Political Campaign?

viaducts concord office

(This must-read piece is a special contribution by Adam Fitch, who asks 12 provocative questions about the Viaducts removal. It may contain some good points for consideration by the media, City officials, and speakers returning to address City Council on this crucial topic, at 4 pm on Tuesday, October 27, 2015 (click here for meeting docs/details). A Council decision is imminent.) (Updated, minor text edits, 10pm, Oct 26)

Viaducts removal rendering Concord Pacific reconnect comp 2014

Artist’s rendering from Concord Pacific’s “Re-Connect” design ideas competition submission

The City of Vancouver’s Viaducts Removal Initiative: Urban Planning or Political Campaign?

By Adam Fitch

Urban planning always has a political dimension. Professional planners are sometimes asked to undertake planning projects and programs to serve political agendas. Their analyses and recommendations may be massaged to influence the public and various stakeholders in certain ways, and to achieve specific outcomes.

When land use and transportation policy decisions are being considered by elected officials, citizens want to see reasoned analysis and a balanced presentation of information.

Unfortunately, what we see these days, more often than not, is a battle to win hearts and minds. No wonder people become cynical.

Since late 2008, when Vision Vancouver took control at Vancouver City Hall, the rise in political involvement in city business has been noticeable. Many citizens believe that the power of politics is growing in city decision-making. In addition, some observers suspect that political operatives have increased in number. Many comment on the level of polemical rhetoric in everyday Council business, voice concerns about a decrease in democracy and transparency, and the resulting decrease in trust in government.

More recently, the City of Vancouver’s new Director of Planning announced his early retirement – then gave a public talk citing extensive public criticism, distrust of city council’s agenda, as well as hypocrisy in the development industry and the professions.

Currently, the debate over the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts, and the associated redevelopment plan for northeast False Creek, can be seen as a study in the relationships between planning practice and political actions.

Since early 2009, when Vision Vancouver gained a majority on city council, Councillor Geoff Meggs has promoted the idea of removing the viaducts and reconfiguring the development plan for the northeast False Creek area. You could say that his pursuit of this objective is so determined that it is a political agenda. Many studies, consultations, meetings and debates have been conducted, and on Tuesday, October 27, Council is expected to make a decision whether to move forward with the project. Most commentators predict that a decision in favour of removing the viaducts will be approved.

I have read the technical studies, and the policy report and recommendations from staff to Council related to this initiative. I found the report to be comprehensive and professional, and I agree with the concept of removing the viaducts. The reports and other city materials provide persuasive arguments that the viaducts are a piece of infrastructure that has outlived its usefulness, and removing them will be good for the development of Vancouver.

However, the City has made a number of mis-steps in its approach to the initiative, in terms of transparency, honesty, timing and process, and these errors have hurt its credibility. Media reporting on the issue tends to focus on the controversial and questionable aspects of the plan, and thereby serve to magnify and exaggerate these concerns. Consequently, the public may be justified in developing a perception of political interference. Here are some examples:

Why is the city fixated on removing the viaducts now? It has been repeatedly reported that there is currently a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove the viaducts. Debate and study on this matter have been going on for over seven years. It has not been explained satisfactorily why now is the right time.

Why undertake such an expensive initiative to create land for affordable housing? It is stated that one of the benefits of the plan is that it will open up land for 5,000 affordable housing units. This is a very expensive way to create land for housing. The city, the provincial government and the federal government own hundreds of acres of vacant and underutilized land around Vancouver that could be developed for affordable housing. Where is the comprehensive plan for developing these lands, and how does this initiative fit into such plan?

Are the purported impacts on vehicle traffic capacity credible? The city materials state that there are currently 9 lanes of east-west capacity – 5 lanes on the 2 viaducts, and 2 each on Expo Boulevard and Pacific Boulevard. They state that this would be reduced to 6 lanes under the new plan. I do not believe that this is correct. There are 6 lanes on the 2 viaducts, if you count the bicycle lane that was formerly a vehicle lane, and there are 4 lanes each on Expo Boulevard and Pacific Boulevard, if you count the parking lanes. That means that travel capacity would be reduced from a total of 14 lanes to 6 lanes; and that the amount of parking would also be significantly reduced. I am not saying that that is the wrong ratio, but let’s be transparent about it.

Are the purported impacts on vehicle traffic performance credible? The reports and city materials claim that traffic travelling west into downtown or east out of downtown will only experience a one to three minute increase in travel time. This is hard to believe. Each viaduct is 1.3 kilometers long and has a design speed of at least 80 kilometers per hour, with no stop controls from end to end. The proposed replacement roads would have five intervening signalized intersections, and probably have a design speed of 60 kilometers per hour or less. Considering the large reductions in traffic capacity, the reductions in design speed and the increases in stop controls and adjacent development, it is hard to believe that the impacts traffic performance would be so small.

Has the city been honest in its assessment of seismic hazard? The city emphasizes that the viaducts are vulnerable to severe damage in the event of a moderate earthquake. In between last year and this year, the city’s estimates went from a magnitude in the low millions of dollars for maintenance and repair, to an estimate of $50 to $65 million for seismic upgrading. How did this happen? Were these eventualities not known before? How does this compare to similar concerns for the three False Creek bridges? Or the Skytrain guideway?

How does the demolition of the viaducts fit into the Greenest City plan? I believe that one of the tenets of sustainable planning is Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. How does the disposal of thousands of tonnes of concrete and asphalt, and its replacement with thousands of tonnes of new asphalt and concrete, fit with that?

Do the numbers for parkland area add up? The City’s materials emphasize how the plan would increase the size of the proposed Creekside Park extension from 9 acres to 13.88 acres. Included in the increase is land where Carrall Street would be closed; land under the Skytrain guideway; new facilities that would be created by building new structures into False Creek; and facilities (a remnant of the Dunsmuir Viaduct) that would be largely a transportation route. However, lands in Andy Livingstone Park that would be diverted from their present park use, to replace Carrall Street’s pedestrian and cycling functions, have not been excluded. The new structures that are proposed in False Creek could be built under the current development plan, and in fact are shown in the current plan, so it is questionable whether they should be counted as additional park area. In addition, such structures would reduce the water area of False Creek. Lands that are primarily used for transportation should not be counted as parkland. I find all of these numerical discrepancies concerning.

Why is the City putting out presentation materials before Council receives its staff report? Weeks before the staff report was presented to Council on October 6, the city made available various presentation materials – powerpoint presentations, brochures, as well as participating in public salons at Simon Fraser University. In addition, Vision Vancouver conducted a “workshop” of its own, one week before the Council meeting. These efforts resulted in largely positive reports and commentaries appearing in the Courier (October 1), Vancouver Sun (October 2 and three on October 6), the Province (October 6), the Globe and Mail (October 6), and the Georgia Straight (October 7). One exception was a longer piece in the Sun by Jeff Lee on July 25, which raised a few concerns. Is it fair that one party, or one faction on Council, is using significant city resources to influence the public perception through the media, even before Council has received its report?

Why is the City placing paid advertorial materials in the press? On October 8, the city placed a paid advertorial in the online magazine Vancity Buzz, containing a small heading “sponsored content”. This action garnered significant criticism. Comments have included the lack of transparency, the financial considerations, the effort to manipulate the press, and perceived political motivations. I commend Kenneth Chan, the editor of Vancity Buzz, for publishing a wide-ranging opinion piece on October 15, examining the viaducts issue. The editorial which Kenneth wrote raised numerous important critiques.

Where did the current viaducts removal / northeast False Creek development plan come from? In 2011, the City of Vancouver sponsored an open design ideas competition called Re-Connect. When the competition entries were published, I was surprised to see one submission that was far beyond most of the others in terms of professionalism. This design was created by a group of well-regarded professionals from a multitude of disciplines. I suspect that the group was associated with Concord Pacific Developments. It was not surprising that their proposal swept the competition prizes. Some months later, the City published its revised plan for the northeast False Creek area, and that plan was very much like the plan that won the competition. I question the way all of this played out, and suspect that it was an orchestrated effort.

Where did the streetcar lines go? For many years, the conceptual development plans for the northeast False Creek area have included proposed streetcar lines, which would form essential parts of the downtown streetcar network that was proposed and planned by the administration prior to 2008. These lines have mysteriously disappeared from the most recent conceptual development plans. I have written elsewhere about the connection between the Vision Vancouver party, the Broadway Subway plan, and their opposition to the (NPA’s) streetcar plan.

In fact, Paul Hillsdon, who claims to have originated viaduct removal idea in a January 23rd, 2009 blog entitled, “Mr. Robertson, Tear Down the Georgia St. Viaducts”, proposed an “agenda of progress” that involved “tearing down the viaducts and utilizing the sale of these city blocks to fund the Downtown Streetcar project…” as well as “affordable” housing.

Interestingly, in 2013 Mr. Hillsdon, another transit advocate named Nathan Pachal touted their Leap Ahead Plan”, advocating a long list of transit expansion projects (dropping the Vancouver Downtown Streetcars but advocating Skytrain to UBC) – all to be achieved with a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax increase. This essentially became the Mayors Council Transit and Transportation plan in late 2014.

How do the Viaducts removal plan and the proposed new northeast False Creek development plan relate to Vision’s development agenda? This is the most complicated question in this entire discussion, and cannot be done justice in this space. However, I will leave readers with a number of thoughts, which are based to some extent on numerous comments that I have read recently. The entire fiscal framework underpinning the viaducts removal plan is based on the creation of increased development lands, and increased value to existing lands, and the capture of a portion of that value to fund the viaducts removal and the parkland and road network construction.

Vision Vancouver rode to power in 2008 on a wave of voter anger over the Olympic Village financing scandal. Vision made their upset over the financing deal, and their non-involvement in it, even though they made up a large minority on Council, a major part of their election campaign. It is understandable that, after the election, they did not want anything to do with City partnerships with developers. However, in a robust development economy like Vancouver’s, the lure and spectre of development partnerships will not go away. It is no wonder that concerns over connections between developers and the Vision Vancouver party, both financial and otherwise, are continually raised.

All through the recent transit funding referendum, Mayor Gregor Robertson stated that “there was no Plan B”; if Metro Vancouver voters did not approve the tax and spend plan, there would be no transit improvement. A week after the “congestion improvement tax” referendum was defeated, Robertson cryptically told an Urban Development Institute gathering that there might be a Plan B. It was never revealed what this funding plan could be, but many surmise that it involves increased development entitlements in return for private funding of rapid transit. In other words, value capture.

Since then, all has been quiet. Was Robertson testing the waters, and did he perhaps find the public reaction a bit too chilly? And is the northeast False Creek development plan a precursor to the Broadway Subway plan – Part 2?

Adam Fitch is a land use planner who lives in Kamloops, BC. The above article is with contributions from WM Gibbens.


How to get your messages to City Council in writing or in person:


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Previous piece by Mr. Fitch:

Opinion: TransLink on the wrong track with Broadway subway
(CityHallWatch, 5-May-2015)


Recent CityHallWatch coverage on the Viaducts removal:

Viaducts – A look back at other options. (Where did they go?)
(CityHallWatch, 21-Oct-2015)

Viaducts removal decision at City Council this week. “Many questions need answers”: Residents’ Association (CityHallWatch, 18-Oct-2015)

Viaducts removal plan goes to Council Oct 20 (Tues), speakers to be heard Oct 21 (Wed) (CityHallWatch)

Viaducts and views (CityHallWatch, 06-Jun-2013)

Views and the Viaducts. Could a wall of towers block off views to the North Shore? (CityHallWatch, 23-Aug-2015)

One thought on “The City of Vancouver’s Viaducts Removal Initiative: Urban Planning or Political Campaign?

  1. These are some excellent questions. I don’t expect to see most of them answered without legal action, a public inquiry, or some such thing. (Let’s just hope city staff aren’t deleting their emails).
    The only one that might be readily answerable is the RELATIVE seismic risk with respect to the other city bridges. That’s a good one.
    The event not mentioned is the earlier presentation to the Strathcona Residents’ Association. What happened there was an integration of viaducts removal with the Port’s plans, which may include the eventual closure of Prior Street altogether to car traffic, for rail continuity.
    I agree with a comment you made in an associated post, namely that by the time we realize what is really going on, it will be too late. These will be the good old days in comparison.
    I for one am going to miss those viaducts. A few speed control initiatives on Prior/Venables, and there would be nothing at all wrong with the status quo. The question I’d like to add to the above is, why isn’t that speed control being done? Is it to someone’s advantage to have Strathcona residents so fed up that they’re willing to give their blessing to viaduct removal?

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