Is Vancouver viaducts visioning handcuffed by views policy?

They are an unappealing piece of public infrastructure that provide a direct route into Vancouver's downtown core for tens of thousands of eastside commuters every week. Otherwise known as the Georgia Street Viaduct, it is almost certain the elevated roadways will be knocked down much sooner than their projected lifespan of forty-five years. That is, if Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs gets his way.

The latest campaign to remove the viaducts kicked off in late 2009. One year later it all became official when council approved the initial phase of a $700,000 study to determine what to do next with this vital commuter route, and the neighbourhood that surrounds it. Part of this process involved a design competition to see what kind of ideas could be generated from outside city hall. Urban design competitions can produce some interesting results, which is why Surrey had tried the idea earlier with TownShift.

City of Vancouver staff released a set of principles that was meant to help guide the groups and individuals preparing their submission to be judged by a independent jury. Those principles included several areas for consideration:

  • Place: Legible and Unique
  • Linkages: Movement and Mobility
  • Green Economy: Retain and Advance
  • Green Design: Innovate
  • Communities: Respect
  • Nature, Heritage and Culture: Restore and Integrate

What struck me as odd was the fact none of the guidelines mentioned the city's sacred "view corridors". If you're not familiar with Vancouver's official view corridors (most citizens know they exist but don't know where they actually are), the "view zones" are protected from certain kinds of development. City Caucus' Mike Klassen once wrote a fine post on this topic that you may want to read as background.

City officials did mention the view corridors in one section titled "Visualizing the Viaducts". They state:

Please note that the Jury will evaluate submissions in part based on their alignment with the following City policies and commitments:

View corridors. As a city rooted in its connection to its natural setting, Vancouver has been limiting heights in order to preserve key public views to the local mountains for over twenty years. The following map outlines the height limits that are possible on this land.

Even if council voted to rip the viaducts down immediately, a developer would be restricted to contructing new buildings no higher than 20 to 100 metres (roughly between five and thirty storeys) – with the latter height being the exception rather than the rule. When you compare that to what was constructed at the Citygate project to the east and the rest of North False Creek, it will definitely be unique in scope. It should be noted that some urban planners argue that you can get the same amount of density on that strip of land with squat buildings as you can with towers.

Now cast your eyes to the southeast side of False Creek. There you will find a number of shorter twelve and fourteen-storey buildings constructed as part of the Olympic Village development. Due to a variety of reasons (including the market as well as negative publicity generated by politics), a significant number of these housing unit remain unsold and have been taken off the market altogether (many are now being rented instead).

There are those that believe the lack of sales is directly attributed to the low-rise form of construction. As one developer told me last week, "Vancouver condo purchasers like height. They like living in the type of towers you can purchase in the downtown core. They're not into these types of low-rise buildings that make you feel like one person is stacked right next to each other."

If Vancouver council is sincere about embracing a new vision of what can be done with the viaducts land, they must be prepared to alter the view corridors as well. But somehow I doubt they're prepared to take on that political risk. It's also possible that all those unsold units Vancouver taxpayers own at the Olympic Village – whose future tenants stand to lose their view of the North Shore mountains – might be a significant barrier to any change in the view corridors.

Imagine if city planners suddenly announced as part of the visioning process that they would go to council and allow increased height on the viaducts land. That would mean condo purchasers at the Olympic Village would be at risk of losing part of their view of the North Shore mountains. I can only guess how that change might impact future sales.

What this all boils down to is the fact short buildings on the southeast side of False Creek could now limit building heights on the northeast side of the water too. Even the "people's choice" submission of Vancouver's Viaducts design competition "Re:Connect" chose a submission that conceivably would not be allowed under the view corridor guidelines.


I'd like to give a shout out to VancityBuzz contributor Spencer Toth who recently wrote an informative story on this topic. I believe he might the first person to publicly point out how the view corridors could impact the future development of the viaducts property. Toth writes:

With the rising need for more affordable housing, there is always the possibility of developing the area where the viaducts currently stand and committing a certain amount of it as social housing units. This would help further develop the Northeast False Creek neighbourhood, and produce much-needed residential and commercial space. One problem with development in this area is that the City has height limits in place to preserve view corridors for local mountains. With height limits of between 20 and 100 metres, there isn’t room for much more than low-rises. This is just one thing to consider when moving forward with the plan for the viaducts.

While I'm keeping an open mind about taking down the viaducts, I also worry this council is moving ahead without being prepared to entertain the idea of changing or removing the relevant view corridors. If they want to pour any more tax dollars into this pet project, they should ask the public if they're open to the idea of limiting views. If not, the last remaining piece of undeveloped waterfront property in downtown Vancouver won't have any tall buildings. To me that seems like not only a lost opportunity, but a recipe for making any future development less economically viable (take a stroll in the Olympic Village if you don't believe me).

Have we "handcuffed" this property in a way that limits its true potential as a new dynamic neighbourhood? I'm interested in the views of our readers on this subject. 

– post by Daniel

Parking spots and other Canadian "human rights"
21st Century learning meets 20th Century struggle

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  • Dave Holden

    They will eventually sell out of the Olympic Village properties. Shortly after, the viaducts will come down so that our developer overlords can build more. Restrictions will be lifted, and the developers and marketers will get what they want. It only takes 2 cheques (one to each party) to guarantee that they stay in true control of the city.

  • Steven Forth

    Great post Daniel. Though not directly relevant I want to share these photos by Joel Sternfeld of the High Line in NYC before it was redeveloped.

  • Thought of The Morning

    “I can not save all of you, but I could always try. One “loose green screw” at a time. I’ll do my very best!”


    I knew about this so called “initiative” in New York. Sorry, but it only shows how out of touch with reality some people really are. Or, are they?

    Was this another one of Bloomberg’s “green initiatives” LOL? Am I missing something here?
    Is there a contest on who’s the next green guru in terms of lunatic city administration? Ay Caramba! There is… and it’s not a contest, it’s a chase all right.
    A viaduct/ a bridge/ a lane-way… they are fulfilling a purpose, which is the safe, fast, economical transport of goods and people to and fro. This structures need to be maintained, but in this case the end justifies the means.

    From the taxpayers point of view, greening a viaduct is stupid on so many levels…

    Not only that it gives the neighborhood that precious, sought after, “condemn property” look, but it’s simply a safe heaven for yet another tax evasion scheme, favoring developers and property owners, similar to the one going on right now… in Vancouver (community gardens on top of former gas stations LOL anyone?); on the other hand, of course, they could always become a location magnet for filming crews, trying to cash in on sequels to “I Am Legend”…

    … am I right? Or am I right? Or, am I right? Right, right…

    Well, it figures…
    Considering Vision & Robertson’s performance in office for the past three years and counting, 🙁 … we are heading in that direction!

    Robert Neville was right:
    “We’re seeing mutations… Typical Human Behavior is now entirely absent!”

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

    • Glissy, since you started it, here’s my answer to your dystopian world where only one human survives.

      I live on the internet and Chuck Heston is busy.

      • Hey Mike, I am here to cater for all tastes.
        Tell you what, saw it with my own eyes, today, cross my heart… a group of naked bikers (identified only by the "I Voted For Gregor" Buttons… hanging) stopped on the apex of Dunsmuir viaduct, and started to spread wheat seeds from their backpacks, all over, across the lanes. 
        With the amount of rain we get, and with the massive number of cracks in the roadway, thanks to our stellar city administration, I think they figured that they could systematically cover the pavement just in time for their traditional run on April the 20th aka Vision's Joint Day.
        Tomorrow, I'm sending a family of crows, that haven't been  fed since January, to have a feast on those wheat seeds.
        I hope the traffic to be light.
        In all fairness, we don't have to spend any money in order to green the viaducts, if…, we could just leave them to fall apart, they couldn't look worse than New York's High Line anyway! Mother Nature at its best.
        And it would be $ Free!
        So? 🙂

    • Richard Unger

      Dear Glissando and Mike,
      … my two favorite writers, playing, he, he…
      I try to stay away from those vidaucts as much as I can. Walking and/ or driving. I know that they are usefull. That's all I have to say. Don't know enough about "greening" in order to make an educated comment. But I don't see the sense in it all. Nobody wants to go back in time.
      I did not watch the "I am legend" movie but I was probably your age, or a bit younger when I saw The Omega Man. They don't make movies like that these days, on location I mean, all is done on computer. And Charles, hey, he was a damn good actor!
      I really liked this quote from the movie:
      Robert Neville was right:
      “We’re seeing mutations… Typical Human Behavior is now entirely absent!”
      Glissando again caught the City Hall's pulse, or lack of it!
      Good day, Gents.
      Dr Richard Unger MD (Ret)

    • Steven Forth

      Yup, you seem to be missing the whole point. Try walking along the High Line, it is a great experience. Easy to be cynical. Everyone I know who has walked along this park has enjoyed it. I have heard it has had a good impact on business in the area too, drawing in a lot more foot traffic.

    • West End Gal

      Hey Gliss,
      that was super! All these greening initatives are simply a way to hide the  garbage under the rug.
      Great line btw:“I can not save all of you, but I could always try. One “loose green screw” at a time. I’ll do my very best!”

    • Andrew Browne

      Re: High Line
      Sorry to disappoint, Glissy, but no green transportation conspiracy with the High Line. It had been sitting there disused from 1980 onward.
      Re: NEFC
      As for the viaducts we need to actually stop talking about the viaducts and instead focus on taking a full inventory of the area and its conditions. Because it's not really about the viaducts, it's about how you elevate traffic and transportation 2-3 storeys to get up on top of the escarpment.
      To my mind if you remove the viaducts you'd end up with an at-grade ramp of almost the same length, except it would be an even bigger barrier at surface than the viaducts are now. Unless the City is contemplating ending Georgia and Dunsmuir at the escarpment, which would be… bizarre and disastrous, to say the least.

  • Brent Toderian

    Hi Daniel: A few comments to share.

    First, successful planning is often about avoiding false choices, and un-necessary politicization. To wit:

    “If Vancouver council is sincere about embracing a new vision of what can be done with the viaducts land, they must be prepared to alter the view corridors as well. But somehow I doubt they’re prepared to take on that political risk.”

    This is a false choice. We can do something compelling and powerful with the Viaducts, without making it a very unpopular and wrong choice to harm the view corridors. I know you dont support the corridors, and i know you like height. But the truth is we can achieve many things with a good plan. Tall buildings where they work (and you neglected to mention that MOST of the taller buildings in the designs are outside of view corridors… only some come in. There will be plenty of tall buildings in the area); mid-rise buildings where they work with heritage scale AND the view corridors and other values; lots of density, value generation and opportunities for big civic moves of city-building where the viaducts currently are; and a game-changer in terms of our mode shift toward transit, walking and biking for a more sustainable, healthy, resilient city. All possible, IN CONCERT with the successful view corridor policy.

    I support well designed tall buildings in the right place for the right reasons, but not everything is about tall buildings. Midrise, high density has many advantages relative to affordability, sustainability/energy consumption, and contextual design/place-making. “Density done well”, is not about one-size fits all or false choices.

    Secondly, the view corridors, in my opinion, are not an issue of political bravery. They are a strategic, successful and world-renowned example of advanced city-building connected to values. Decades ago we were referred to as a “setting in search of a city”. Our view corridors have helped us build a remarkable city, strategically connected to our setting, which is connected to our values as people. We are frequently connected to nature as we move around the city, to our setting, in these views. Not every view can and should be protected, and indeed most aren’t, but the ones we’ve created, and the new ones i was proud to recommend adding in our recent review, are powerful, successful and highly valued (as we found out when we listened to Vancouverites). Often people dont even know they are there as a deliberate policy, but when its pointed out that they are deliberate, they rave about the value of that and how it makes their lives better. A dense city, a beautiful city, a city with its “sense-of-place” preserved, a values-based city, and a successful city. No false choices.

    I called our review of the view corridors and resulting strategy a “have your cake and eat it too” plan, because good planning achieves many things. And by the way, we identified 6 new much taller buildings that will change and redefine the skyline, including the new Bjarke Ingels design site and the burrard toyota site, to do new taller towers with exceptional architecture and uber-green skyscraper design (as per the new design expectations we wrote), IN BETWEEN the view corridors. Your cake, and eating it too.

    Thirdly, I dont agree at all with the form of Olympic Village affecting the sales. The challenges there had nothing at all to do with the planning and design choices, in my opinion. Most of those who have said differently to me, are those who tend to support tall buildings in all cases. Again, a false choice: “Tall buildings or market failure”.

    Lastly, a small note – Surrey’s Townshift was a great competition and I congratulate them highly, but it was actually inspired by ours, “FormShift” a year or two before, where we got designs for buildings that would get us closer to realizing the EcoDensity Charter. My blog post here discusses competitions, and Formshift.

    I’ve been working hard for years to bring the competition tool back to Vancouver, and i hope we see many more competitions like Surrey’s and ours.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share these thoughts.


    • Andrew Browne

      I'm waiting for midrise to deliver the promise of reduced glazing and more actual wall area (think brick, a material which is context appropriate to midrise). So far it's -almost- business as usual with respect to window systems and spandrels on new midrise buildings and therefore same old energy waste (except for slight benefit of less building perimeter per unit of floor area when comparing mid- to high-rise).

    • Andrew Browne

      Also: Thanks for weighing in!

  • Brent Toderian

    Sorry Daniel, two last thoughts.
    The first to "publically point out" that the view corridors might affect the viaducts, were city staff – early, and frequently. Check the view corridors review report, and note it being brought up and discussed many times in the public and council discussions. It was well discussed as an issue/implication. To say in your post that it was "odd" not to consider it in the principles, and then actually quote it as a key consideration in our competition perameters, seems odd to me.
    Second, the reference to the Dialog/Green/Beasley submission as the peoples choice, and in fact all of the voting, has to be taken with somewhat of a "grain of salt", as I noted in my blog post here.
    Its interesting to note that the prime reason why it didnt win the judges award (it was one of several honourable mentions) was because of the built form, which caused the judges great concerns (also as explained in the post). Its also interesting to note that of course Larry Beasley is a very strong supporter of the view corridor policies, and Norm Hotson of Dialog was one of our consultants in the review of the view corridors, always emphasizing their value and importance to the city.
    Again, thanks for raising this discussion, and I hope these comments help.
    Regards, Brent

  • Richard Unger

    Dear Mr. Toderian,
    I really enjoyed your comments. Very well documented and balanced.  Interestingly enough, it took an ill-departing move from the City Hall in order for you Sir to open up. I am looking forward to many future dialogues.
    Dr. Richard Unger MD (Ret)

  • I  disagree with tthe connection done between the viewcone policy and the viaducts land:
    The viewcone policy should trump others, otherwise why we have this viewcone policy?…And the viaducts land make no exception.
    I also disagree with the connection done between viewcone policy and affordability. there is lot of space in Vancouver where you can develop free of viewcone constraint,…
    Notice that Paris, another expensive city-has also a viewcone policy: may you image Paris starting to build building on the field in front of the Eiffel tower  (Champs de Mars)? 
    That said, as mentioned above, it is clear that the competition jury, by choosing a wall of concrete dividing False Creek, and privatizing the seawall has demonstrated that it didn't pay a dime to the competition principles, and obviously couldn't have care less of the view cone policy.
    Whatever was removing the viaduct to please the Geoff megg agenda was only what they were looking for…urbanism  being the least of their  concern.
    Since you ask, my views are here:


  • Max

    I don't know if anyone can speak to this, but a friend of mine, a paramedic, very recently told me that the viaducts are part of the 'get out of town fast' plan should there be an earthquake or tsunami. 
    What happens to the traffic pattern – the daily commuters, if they are removed?  Where will the traffic be re-routed to?
    Their removal effects more than just Vancouverites.  I know years back when I was working downtown and traveling in from Maple Ridge, they were my daily route.  For many, they still are.