Daniel Tseghay and Sean Antrim: Vancouver viaducts and learning from history

This week, Vision Vancouver solidified its plans to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.


The party is claiming that the removal will correct a previous planning mistake and erase barriers between different parts of the city, creating space for park land and affordable housing. These are noble goals, and if they’re achieved, they could justify the proposal.

However, if the past gives us any insight, they are not the real reasons Vision wants to tear the viaducts down.

In October 2009, councillor Geoff Meggs made a telling admission. “No major development around or on the north False Creek lands can go ahead without confronting the viaducts,” he wrote, hinting at who Vision Vancouver is really working for.

A look around the site where the viaducts currently sit shows that the land is owned by two of Vancouver’s largest real-estate developers, Concord Pacific and Aquilini Development, both of whom donated heavily to Vision’s campaign in the last election.

Meggs went on to ask: “[I]s it time to replace them with something better?” The problem is that, considering the trend of massive tax breaks and the watering down of affordable housing definitions and requirements, it will only be better for real-estate developers and the future owners of the projects. Last year alone, Vision gave the Aquilinis a $35 million tax break on their property surrounding the Rogers Arena on the condition they create unaffordable market-rental units.

Though we agree that the viaducts should go down, we wonder what would be constructed in their place.

Vision has consistently put developer profits ahead of the interests of the people who need affordable housing, which makes their attempt to justify their plans by evoking the neighbourhood’s activist history questionable.

Decades ago, city planners worked to build a massive real-estate development, known then as Project 200, on top of what is now the Downtown Eastside. A freeway system, designed with the real-estate project in mind, would have paved over much of Chinatown. The Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants’ Association spearheaded a grassroots movement which stopped the “revitalization” project and the freeways, leaving the viaducts a mere vestige of a development cul-de-sac.

In 1972, Hogan’s Alley, then the city’s African-Canadian neighbourhood, was bulldozed to build the current overpass, but SPOTA and other groups managed to halt a massive highway system through the city and a dystopian real-estate development on top of the DTES.

Artist rendition of Project 200.
Via John Atkins

Now, Vision opportunistically co-opts this tradition of resistance to cover its current project with a social and activist veneer, claiming that it too wants to reconnect Strathcona to the rest of the city and therefore must tear down the viaducts. The mayor and majority of council are piggybacking on the grassroots movement of Strathcona residents who fought the construction of the viaducts and the demolition and displacement in Chinatown in the late 1960s. But really they’re using the same booster rhetoric of “revitalization” and “redevelopment” that the NPA used back in 1968 to justify Project 200.

The city staff report for the viaduct removal project argues that “[i]n every city’s evolution there are opportunities to correct a past planning wrong”. The entire Project 200 plan, with the freeway and expensive office towers branded as “revitalization”, would have displaced thousands of residents. Now the city is making the same mistake.

This isn’t the first time that Vision has marketed a corporate welfare project as progressive—indeed, that’s Vision’s bread and butter. Every single real-estate project Vision Vancouver has approved has been branded a progressive solution to a pressing problem, whether it’s artists fleeing the city, the crisis of housing affordability, climate change, or small-businesses shutting their doors. These projects end up far out of reach of most renters, especially those who are most marginalized.

After five years of Vision’s corporate welfare, the city is more unaffordable than ever, the police budget is the highest it has ever been, the cost of using transit is more expensive, and renovictions and displacement are rampant. Social housing at the Olympic Village; the project of ending homelessness; displacement in the Downtown Eastside: each time, Vision cast itself as an progressive party with social aims, yet accomplished more at the expense of their intended beneficiaries than on their behalf.

This past week, VANDU president Dave Hamm highlighted that the number of market housing units is quickly outpacing the construction of much needed social housing by a ratio of 24 units of market housing for each unit of social housing. According to the city’s own laws, the ratio is supposed to be a maximum of five to one.

In this light, Vision’s vaunted and valorized affordable housing tokenism won’t materialize. If they’ve chosen not to build affordable units under normal, and even favourable conditions, can we really expect a change when they have to pay the expected $135 million to clear the viaducts and subsequently create affordable housing? The city will likely pay for this by selling of its land around the site, meaning the construction of social housing is unlikely.

This helps the developers in two ways. Developers would rather not have social housing near their luxury condos and, by tearing down the viaducts, the city is making it possible to develop Concord and Aquilini’s land, dramatically increasing the land value. And for all this, the city won’t make the developers pay for anything—it's old school corporate welfare, in a nutshell.

Things can turn out differently if we again look to the past for insight. The movement was the start of a long struggle to include the community in the planning process in Vancouver, and to stop displacement, especially in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside. It culminated in the construction of huge public housing projects in southwest False Creek and Champlain Heights, a model that we should still be following today.

This is the real lesson for Vision, a party which is at a “turning point”. They can continue to pay lip service to a tradition which, in its opposition to Project 200, would today oppose the selling off of public land to private developers—or they can commit to extensive construction of public housing and sincerely embody the progressive ideals they've so far only echoed opportunistically.

Comments (18) Add New Comment
A Smith
Why aren't affordable housing units mandatory to be included into every developers project at ratio's that are fair to the size of each project? All income levels should be able to live together in the same buildings. We don't need special buildings for low income that only compounds the problems of the marginalized as it is no different than segregation and we know what that does for people. There should be some sort of enforcement that all new buildings cater to all family sizes and income levels. Not just these luxury 1 & 2 bedroom units that we already have an abundance of.
Rating: +35
jhane ball
Thanks Sean and Daniel for hitting the nail squarely on the head as far as Vision's much vaunted double speak is concerned. Smoke and mirrors is Vision's modus operandi. Now the big question is how many of the electorate care enough to mobilize for change, or is everyone too busy basking in the Greenest City glow!!
Rating: +38
Vision has no vision except $$$$$. Of course, tearing down the viaducts only makes sense to build more condos. The Aquilini's want to build on top of Rick Hansen plaza, destroying a monument to one of Vancouver's true heros. Vision just uses buzzwords like "parkland" and "affordable housing", to make your eyes glaze over while stealing you blind. Save the viaducts - say NO to the Aquilini's.
Rating: +14
The folks who live near the Viaducts no more own the roadway than the people who live near Point Grey - Cornwall.

I live near West 41st and Arbutus and I do not own or controll these 2 roads.

Vancouver has changed in the last 40 years and there is a critical need for efficient roadways into and out of downtown.

About 90,000 people live downtown and another 190,000 commute to downtown every day. Closing Point Grey/Cornwall and tearing down the Viaducts will cause huge traffic problems, add about an hour to everyone daily commute and cause more auto pollution.

If your response is more rapid transit, then expand the Sky Train Stations and expand the Bus service FIRST!!!

This is a total scam with developers hiding in the wings to make Mega Millions.

By the way, when I looked at a model with the Viaducts gone, so was the Skytrain Bridge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Rating: +18
There is no shortage of land in Vancouver for Social Housing - ECCEPT?????

Prime Minister Steven Harper gave the West 29 Ave social housing Complex - 4 square blocks - to Gordon Campbell instead of City of Vancouver. sold to a private Corporation.

Prime Minister Harper just sold the downtown Canada Post Headquarters Building to developers - no details released. Approx 4 city Square Blocks

Mayor Moonbeam just gave One City Block - $200 Million dollars worth for a POTENTIAL ART GALLERY that is years off - Maybe - Possibly - Yah got $250,000,000 for and Art gallery - Call Bob Rennie and friends.

Social Housing is not a priority for any level of Government!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Rating: +16

I love this statement. Clearly everyone should be equalized to the lowest common denominator.

Rating: -24
The City planners and their Vision bosses are conveniently mis-characterizing the reason the viaducts were built in the first place. The land beneath was railyard, and the previous wooden Georgia Viaduct was rickety and at the end of its life. New viaducts were built to cross over the railyards since surface roads couldn't be built through an active railyard. The notion of connecting freeways through
Strathcona and along the waterfront below Project 200 were related initiatives that were wisely dropped, but the viaducts were built above grade purely because of the railyards below. Now, with the railyards gone, the need for grade-separated access to downtown is pretty much eliminated.
As a nearby neighbour I have no axe to grind with the viaducts remaining or being removed, but I suspect the urban form and livability will be better if they are removed. And if developers are speculating on land deals, on land where there is likely expensive remediation required due to former industrial uses, well that's how development happens. No great conspiracy. My guess is the cost of remediation makes the land almost worthless... i.e. it will cost as much to remediate for residential use as it will be worth.
Rating: -5
Corporate welfare is right. What land are the going to sell anyway? Taking down the road and building a new road under in its place, when there is already a road under it, isn't going to create much, if any, new land.
Rating: +4
I haven't been in Vancouver for that many years, but as I see it some sort of compromise is in order. I don't really like the greed of developers (and their bad architecture) and I don't really like homeless people peeing on public property (what I saw the other day).

COPE seems to have a position that says that if only we build more affordable housing all our problems in Vancouver will disappear. They seem like a one issue party and I'm concerned that their position will only entrench the drug addled public pissers of the DTES.

I strongly support the gentrification of Gastown because it may compel us to find ways to deal with the homeless problem instead of feeding it, as COPE seems to want to do. I oppose COPE they are simply pro DTES.

I don't like Vision's developer giveaways either. I believe in a limited capitalism. Gentrification done right creates a beautiful city. And beauty is good for everyone.
Rating: +5
Alan Layton
I'm glad to finally see an article fully opposed to the development of that area - even if I disagree with their premise that the viaducts must come down. I don't see them blocking neighbourhoods at all. I live close to that area and bike, walk and ride around there all of the time. All traffic flows under the viaducts and it would be much worse if that viaduct traffic was at street level. I know the 'visionaries' think that by taking down the viaducts that everyone is going to hop on a bike, but that's not going to happen, so better to have that traffic separated from the neighbourhoods below.

The entire project is to build more condos and the original plan showed a great deal of green space and many water features and a lake. That's never going to happen. There may be a concrete fountain or two (as in Yaletown) but the only green will be some of the usual low-maintenance shrubs that you see everywhere. Most of the space will be condo towers, and few will be affordable.
Rating: +1
Wow... reactionaries are the same whether on the left or the right.
Rating: -15
Glad to see peekay remembers as I do that there was always a Georgia Viaduct. The current ones were only margianally associated with the old freeway plan. They were built because the old Viaduct was falling down. If you don't want traffic in Strathcona simply close them off at Main St and re-route all that traffic to the 1st Ave "Freeway" or the 12th Ave "Freeway".
Rating: +9
Sometimes I've just gotta facepalm when I read this kind of stuff.
Positive changes are always accompanied by a healthy dose of self interest. When pot activists forced governments to allow medical marijuana was it due to a altruistic concern for cancer patients, or because they knew it was a stepping stone on the road to legalization? They know what's good for their cause.

Something can be both profitable AND good for society. Yes, developers will benefit by development of the area. So will the people who get to live in the developments. So will the environment because those people will walk, bike, and take transit. So will the city with property tax revenue. So will the poor with more social housing (rather than just concrete; any amount is better than nothing). So will I, a renter elsewhere in the city, as increased supply of housing decreases the cost of housing.

You seem to think that when a parking lot is transformed into market housing, it takes away housing from the poor. It doesn't. It helps them by increasing supply of housing and so decreasing cost of housing. Even if the housing is marketed to richer people than them, it relieves the pressure for richer people to move into poorer neighborhoods. Remember kids - price is the intersection of supply and demand. The only real way to make housing affordable in a free market is to either decrease demand, or increase supply. Developers will PAY US to increase supply. We should let them.
Rating: -3
Alan Layton
Frank - I don't agree with your premise that increased housing WILL lower the cost of housing. So far it doesn't seem to have done that despite massive increase in condos over the last 20 years. Sorry but your utopian free market vision is just that - a utopian vision. It doesn't exist in reality.
Rating: +11
Stupitity at its finest
We should have a proper highway system to and from the dowm town, we need to finish building it not tear down want is a poor example of starting to build the highway system needed to service the downtown of a modern city. but Vancouver is not a modern city at all, infact its a small town surrounded by other small towns and untill we decide we want a City I suggest we are wasting our time and money!
Rating: +5
Arm Chair
With the increasing inconvenience of commuting by car, I've written off patronizing Downtown Vancouver for shopping and entertainment purposes. Severing another major artery into that district won't help several businesses either.

While Surrey gradually transforms into our new financial district, Downtown Vancouver will be left with very wealthy residents riding bicycles...thanks to the Master Plan of Vision, Concord and Acquilini.
Rating: -9
Alan Layton
Arm Chair - Don't forget that all of those masses of financial workers will want to spend their money on entertainment, culture and good food, as well enjoying the beauty of the ocean and mountains. So they'll be packing the Skytrain to come to Vancouver in the evenings and on the weekends.
Rating: -10
To commute or not to commute, that is the question. 40,000 vehicles using the viaduct (designed for 80,000) will have to go somewhere. Density in downtown is constantly increasing and so is the traffic. Hello, Does anybody have a plan?
Or do we have to breathe the extra fumes these cars will create in stop and go traffic for another 50 years?
Do not we learn anything from the history of this uncompleted project?
Rating: +9
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