The final design for the North Plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery will be shown at an Open House on Thursday, November 26, 2015. The event will be held from 5pm to 8pm at 800 Robson Street (UBC downtown, lower level entrance beside skating rink). The City will also allow public comments to be made in a written form by December 3, 2015.
How does this design compare with other squares around the world? We’ve included a slideshow of a number of well-known squares and outdoor spaces above. Does the North Plaza design (Robson Plaza) have the elements to make it a great square? Or will it be a relatively ordinary public open space? Can we do better?
The plaza design drawings are posted on the City’s development services webpage and further details are available on the Robson Plaza consultation page. The new design would preserve very little of the existing plaza. Prior to the 2010 Olympics, the plaza did have an significant areas of grass before the introduction of the mulch covering, so it is worth considering that the space was never rehabilitated. A fairer starting point for a comparison of the current design is to look at the condition of the plaza in 2008.
The big changes in the new plaza design are obvious. There’s the complete removal of the fountain, and of any water element. Almost all of the existing trees would be cut down; the plan calls for the removal of large, healthy mature cedars. Virtually none of the existing elements of the square would be kept. An expanded bus shelter is introduced as a pavilion feature near Howe and West Georgia. This has been labelled as a possible “future food/beverage stand”, hence a portion of the planned bus shelter could be privatized in the future. There’s also a curious series of bollards that go through the eastern part side of the plaza that may create a safety hazard for large crowds (there are more elegant ways to prevent trucks from driving into the middle of the square).
The designers certainly don’t like plant materials. Almost the entire square is paved surface. The planting list of trees and ground cover is non-native (only the dogwood is close, but it’s a hybrid). The Red Maples, Flowering Plums and Star Magnolias in the landscape plan would be still small when planted, given the scale of the square. The removal of healthy, mature cedars from the existing plaza is not respecting the context of the Pacific Northwest landscape or the history of the plaza. The emphasis in the new plaza is on hard surfaces. Is it too bland?
Another factor to look at is the ability of the North Plaza to accommodate large crowds and events. There are many climate marches, 4/20 events, social justice rallies in the City and the Art Gallery has become a key location for accommodating these events. Small details like trash receptacles and recycling bins are important. Is there a clear hierarchy of spaces to allow for demonstrations to take place in different parts of the plaza (given the crowd size)? Is there ample power, water and other utilities available for festivals and events? Will the possibility of having a public washroom be realized? Is the lighting sufficient? Is there a better way to integrate the Art Gallery with the square?
The south side of the Art Gallery is also undergoing a design change. A new, glass-clad entrance with to UBC is being proposed to provide a new opportunity to reach 800 Robson from street level. This location, UBC downtown, is also the venue for the Open House.
A number of drawings of the proposed square are on the City’s website. We’ve reproduced a few of the images below for reference:
Notice that only the ends of the planters provide a surface for seating. Widen the edges and seating is available all around the planters! The pink chairs in the renderings (above and below) can be removed at any time.
The trunks of the planted trees would be smaller and be a maximum of 10-12cm in diameter. The above rendering shows an ideal condition in the future (assuming all trees survived and grew; the branching structure is atypical for Red Maples).
The design would remove the two large evergreens from the square, as well as trees on the Hornby Street side: