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