City Staff will present their final recommendations on the “Granville Bridge Connector and Drake Street Improvements” (click here for the 210-page report in PDF format including appendices) to Council on September 16, 2020 (click here for full agenda and how to write/speak to Council), seeking endorsement of long-term and interim Connector designs, and a starting budget of $13.5 million.
The top recommendation by staff is “THAT Council endorse the long-term design concepts for the Granville Bridge Connector and for Drake Street, as generally described in Appendix A and Appendix B, respectively, subject to funding availability and prioritization in future capital plans.” As far as the staff are concerned, this is a done deal. But wait!
With this CityHallWatch article we assert that Vancouver City Council and the public are not being faithfully and properly informed of the full implications of this staff report and staff recommendations, specifically those related to the Granville Bridge Connector and the proposed “West Side Plus” design.
The implications are huge. If Council endorses the staff recommendations, it will set off a chain of events with consequences few people, even our elected officials, would realize at the outset.
What is the “Granville Bridge Connector”? Though the term appears not to be actually defined explicitly in City documents, it is tangentially explained as “conceptual plans for an improved walking, rolling, and cycling path across Granville Bridge.”
The officially-stated goals to sell the project are things that many people will support: “support our climate emergency efforts,” “more trips via sustainable transportation,” “make walking, rolling, and cycling across the bridge accessible, safe, and comfortable for all ages and abilities,” and more (see full list at bottom).
However, this project is a major initiative with major implications, much bigger than stated, on civic finances, life and safety, traffic flow, livability, and the look and feel of a critical gateway to the downtown core. Media coverage has been limited. Anyone who did hear about and participate in the “Granville Connector” open houses and consultations may not have realized the whole story.
The initiative has been sold as a “Granville Bridge pedestrian and cycling pathway,” but there are significant other implications, including the sale of public lands. If so, this topic requires much more scrutiny. Previous cases on the have exposed that the City has sold public land to developers at far below its real value, cheating public coffers of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.
The report from Lon LaClaire, General Manager of Engineering Services, discusses the public engagement process, the demographics of the people who responded, the favoured project design and both the positive and negative feedback about elements of the design, a process that has cost taxpayers $2 million to date. The report is full of interesting information.
One of several problems is, conspicuously absent from the report is an in-depth analysis of how well the re-envisioned Bridge will actually function as a proper conveyance for foot, bicycle and vehicle traffic flows, and as a part of the City’s broader transportation networks. Below, we look at several issues and suggest that Council “receive” the report but not approve staff recommendations to go forward at this time.
A total of 3,000 people attended Connector workshops and there were 9,300 completed surveys, generally agreeing that the Bridge needs upgrades to make it more people-friendly, and providing support for improvements to walking, rolling, way-finding, (suicide) “means prevention,” traffic management, and the accessibility of the Bridge. But, with the City in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, should our municipal government be pursuing this project right now, while facing serious financial and social problems, and while taxes are projected to go up again this year? In the current context, this could be considered a “luxury” project.
Furthermore, there appear to be serious problems with the proposed “West Side Plus” design’s plans for undivided bike lanes, traffic bottlenecks, the removal of the southwest cloverleaf and whether or not the design does enough to manage traffic flow, speed and noise.
We would like to pose a question about the underlying drive to go ahead at this point in time: In the back rooms at City Hall:
Is the real motivation to get the Granville Connector project approved right now to free up of the southwest cloverleaf greenspace in order to sell off the publicly owned land to developers and have towers built there? That is one thing that many residents of the surrounding neighbourhoods oppose.
The Granville Connector study and topic did attract thousands of responses, but this was just a fraction of all the people who would be affected if the proposed changes come in. The staff proposed plan has implications for civic finances, trade-offs with other current priorities, life safety issues, livability and quality of life issues, and much more.
The ‘big picture’ of improving cycling and pedestrian access is, of course, laudable. The City has already spent large sums of money making improvements over the Burrard and Cambie Street Bridges. Should the Westside/Downtown continue to get the lion’s share of budget improvements to the detriment of other parts of the City? There’s also no guarantee that there would not be budget overruns on the proposed Connector plan.
One example of the lack of spending elsewhere is in East Vancouver, for example, with the Grandview Viaduct that connects East 1st Avenue at Clark to Terminal Avenue, over the railway tracks. Given the financial realities of 2020, what would give the City and taxpayers the best bang for the buck? Perhaps the City should be looking at all options rather than committing to a gold plated plan that will suck up huge parts of the budget on a single project and deny other improvements from being implemented elsewhere in Vancouver.
The report is long and technical, but let’s break down some of the key topics below.
City staff seek $13.5 million for an interim Connector design, but the total, long-term design costs are projected to be $64 million. The report advises that funding will come mostly from Development Cost Levies (DCLs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), but the City has seen these revenues shrink due to development incentive policies such as MIRHPP, and the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Cloverleaf Removal & Shortcutting:
Traffic shortcutting is a growing issue across the City, including in the neighbourhoods on the south side of the Bridge (image on right). The West Side Plus design includes the removal of the southwest cloverleaf, but the report doesn’t provide any solution to prevent the 2,000 vehicle/day cloverleaf traffic from shortcutting through surrounding neighbourhoods. The optimal solution could be to preserve the current cloverleaf and properly direct Bridge traffic to it. But the report’s design proposes to direct these 2,000 vehicles and bus traffic along a newly created 5th Avenue route. It seems unlikely that most of these vehicles would queue-up behind slow turning trolleys and buses to turn on to the new 5th Avenue, only to be routed to Fir and through Burrard Slopes. This new corner would be slow and clumsy, and traffic would naturally seek the path of least resistance, using alternate paths through the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Currently, southbound traffic on south side of the Bridge slows when buses approach the existing bus route – the proposed change would only make it worse. Compounding these problems are the likelihood that the new 5th Avenue turn forces vehicular, bus, foot and other traffic to compete at one intersection. Staff argue that the cloverleaf must be removed because it competes with the planned, southbound foot and bicycle traffic, however, there are other points of competition on the Bridge where controlled intersections are planned…so this excuse does not hold water. Moreover, they seem remarkably confident that the busy, new corner of 5th & Granville (image below) would not, contrary to logic, present congestion issues.
For the residents of South Granville, Fairview and Burrard Slopes, shortcutting traffic is a familiar and frustrating problem. The volume, speed and recklessness of this traffic is inappropriate for neighbourhoods of this density and it’s completely unnecessary. This current shortcutting traffic is due, in large part, to poor traffic routing on the Bridge, a lack of proper traffic controls in the neighbourhoods that have been developed on formerly industrial land around the Bridge, and the increased use of Google Maps for navigation. Residents have communicated these concerns to Staff who have been receptive to the implementation of traffic controls (i.e. right-in/right-outs, speed tables, street closures, etc.) in South Granville, Fairview and Burrard Slopes to slow and restrict shortcutting, however, the report makes little mention of these existing traffic issues, the exacerbating impact that the Connector would have, and fails to provide specific measures to address them.
Cloverleaf Park Uncertainty:
A consistent theme which emerged throughout the Connector engagement was staff’s conspicuous dedication to removing the southwest cloverleaf, which the West Side Plus design does. Staff have been ambiguous about plans for the land, saying only that it will be handled by the Broadway Plan. At one of the last Connector workshops, the public learned that the park located within the cloverleaf on the southwest side of the Granville Bridge (photo on right) might not remain a park in the future, a fact that only emerged after an attendee asked the question. Attendees were surprised by this news and quite unhappy that this fact was not forthrightly shared earlier in the planning process.
The existing land is not a part of Granville Loop Park (located on the east side of the Bridge), nor is it managed by the Parks Board. This land is a part of City’s Property Endowment Fund and, given the City’s stated goal is to raise revenue from its lands, and its development plans for the north-side cloverleaves, the public is rightly concerned that the City will try to sell this land for development, instead of keeping it as the park and avian rest spot that it is today, for this park-deficient neighbourhood. This concern is supported by the language used in the Connector Report (image on left).
Undivided Bike Lanes:
Unlike the Burrard Street Bridge model, the Connector bike lanes would be undivided and head on (image on right). This would create a significant danger when cyclists pass each other or overtake one another, especially on the south-side of the bridge, with its long, downward slope where, as we’ve seen on the Burrard Bridge, cyclists would accumulate significant speed. Staff acknowledge the concern, but state that there isn’t sufficient room in this design to properly divide the rolling traffic, and have simply said that they will “figure something out”. Moreover, the northbound bicycle traffic would be faced with southbound vehicle traffic and, while that bike/vehicle traffic would be divided, it would be inherently distracting and dangerous given the speed of traffic on the Bridge.
Granville St. Traffic Bottlenecks:
Southbound Granville Street traffic would be required to merge into one lane near the Fir Street off-ramp, before expanding to two lanes again closer to 5th Avenue (image on right). A stated 58% of all southbound traffic leaves the Bridge via Granville Street – the largest component of southbound traffic – and it would be bottlenecked to one lane on a portion of the Bridge. Staff state that the “outside consultant’s” analysis indicated that this wouldn’t create traffic congestion, and that the trolley lines would be moved so that buses wouldn’t have to slow down, but the plan seems ill-conceived.
The current seismic and structural upgrades had, for most of last fall and winter, required southbound Granville Street traffic to merge into one lane (the inside lane), near the Fir Street off-ramp, creating frequent, lengthy delays. This clearly demonstrated that southbound Granville Street traffic requires at least two lanes over the entirety of the Bridge. Moreover, some are concerned about the impact on emergency traffic when congestion occurs at this bottleneck, especially with the increased emergency traffic to Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) that is expected when St. Paul’s Hospital closes. The design includes a similar bottleneck on the north side of the bridge that would affect the 40% of the northbound traffic (image on left) that heads downtown via Granville Street.
Traffic Speed & Noise:
Initially, one of the intended benefits of the Connector was to reduce traffic speed and noise on the Bridge, making it safer and more pleasant for pedestrian and rolling traffic. The West Side Plus design reduces the number of traffic lanes and narrows these lanes over the span, which will help. However, while these are known methods for reducing speed and noise, they are by no means exhaustive, and would not be very effective at slowing the traffic over the long, uninterrupted span, which will continue to have three lanes in both directions.
This is a life and death topic. Since 2010 the City has eliminated two lanes on the Burrard Street Bridge and one lane on the Cambie Street Bridge. Does City Council know what further plans staff in store for the Cambie Bridge? The public does not. The staff report indicates that Police and Fire were consulted. But the report provides no information about comments received from them. Nor do we know what Police and Fire departments have said or would say regarding the staff’s proposed Connector plan in the event of a major emergency necessitating rapid access and egress from the downtown core. A single lane onto Granville Street at both ends of the bridge could be hugely problematic. Delays on Seymour are already a reality due to changes on that side.
What about the big picture of transportation planning?
With the Broadway and City Plans unfolding, we should be asking how the Connector project integrates with these “big picture” plans. So far, Staff’s answers have been vague and evasive. The irony is that, while the Connector design has largely been developed in isolation, it has leaned heavily on the Broadway Plan for some of its more complex and contentious issues, raising serious questions about the consequences of the Connector’s proposed changes to broader traffic management, neighbourhood safety, and the “bigger picture” Broadway and City Plans.
At a minimum, the issues defined above warrant further investigation.
For all of the above reasons, Council’s best decision at this point could be simply to “receive” the report, raise some key questions and directions, and then refer it back to Staff.
No matter how pretty the Bridge is when the work is finished, it still needs to be highly functional, and, based on some of concerns raised, many people will be dubious about the current proposal.
LINKS and RESOURCES
City of Vancouver website, dedicated page on Granville Bridge Connector
Excerpts: We’re developing conceptual plans for an improved walking, rolling, and cycling path across Granville Bridge. Originally designed for high-volume freeways that were never built, Granville Bridge presents significant accessibility and safety challenges for today’s urban context. The Granville Bridge Connector would address a major gap in the city’s active transportation network and serve some of the densest parts of the city. There is also potential for features such as art, lighting, seating, and lookout stations to create a special place and enjoyable experience for people of all ages and abilities. The project is key to accommodating the growing number of people living, working, and playing in the city and region, and helping us meet our Climate Emergency Response targets…
Revised project goals
Based on feedback from phase 1, we refined the goals to:
- Support our climate emergency efforts by enabling more trips via sustainable transportation
- Make walking, rolling, and cycling across the bridge accessible, safe, and comfortable for all ages and abilities
- Provide direct and intuitive walking, rolling, and cycling connections to key destinations and the sustainable transportation network
- Create a special place that provides an enjoyable experience for all
- Enable reliable transit and continued access for emergency vehicles
- Accommodate motor vehicles, considering the bridge’s role in the regional transportation network
- Integrate means prevention to deter self-harm
- Incorporate environmental features, including provisions for rainwater management and wildlife habitat
- Design for the future, considering compatibility with related projects and flexibility to adapt as the city grows
- Provide value for money and maximize coordination opportunities
[CityHallWatch note: People reading this would not even get a whiff of the possible sell-off of public lands to private developers, and multiple towers of up to 50 storeys being constructed at the gateway to the bridge. Those implications are buried deep inside staff reports.]
Previous CityHallWatch coverage:
Granville Bridge Connector staff report expected to go to Council in September (posted 13-Aug-13, 2020)
Are Burrard Bridge fenced views coming to the Granville Bridge soon? (posted 29-Jun-2020)
Granville Bridge pedestrian and cycling pathway final proposed design chosen (RENDERINGS)
Kenneth Chan, Daily Hive, 20-Jan-2020
More to be added.