City of Vancouver considers removing downtown viaducts, increasing park space
When local development consultant Michael Geller went to South Korea for Expo 2012, Vancouver’s viaducts were among the things on his mind. That’s why one of his first stops was a place called Cheonggyecheon.
Cheonggyecheon is a renowned promenade that’s been hailed as a model of urban renewal. It’s actually an ancient stream that runs through the heart of the capital city of Seoul. But until 2005, the waterway was paved over. An elevated highway ran above it.
The stream was restored with the removal of the 5.8-kilometre freeway. Cheonggyecheon now attracts local and international visitors for strolls on its banks. Geller was pleased with what he saw.
“It has really become quite a beautiful walkway through the city,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview on May 29, a day after he returned from South Korea.
May 29 was also the day when Vancouver city staff released online a concept of what it may look like if the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts are torn down.
The slide presentation talks about the potential of 25.25 acres of park space once the viaducts are gone. It also proposes merging Pacific and Expo boulevards north of the SkyTrain guideway, with a connection to Georgia Street. Carrall Street will run straight to False Creek, connecting people to the water.
Watch the presentation from the City of Vancouver.
It’s not just going to be about park space. The demolition of the viaducts will also create new communities. The presentation cites a development potential of approximately 850,000 square feet. It notes that the move will also provide affordable housing opportunities.
According to Geller, the city-owned lands below and at the eastern end of the viaducts may be a desirable location for a mix of market and nonmarket housing.
“To create affordable housing, the land does not have any real value,” Geller said. “If you want to create affordable housing, the land would have to be free. For the market housing in this location, however, once the sites are serviced, I think it’s not unreasonable to guess that the land has a value of about $150 per square foot.”
City councillor Geoff Meggs initiated council’s review of the future of the viaducts in 2009.
According to the first-term councillor, the two city-owned blocks on either side of Main Street between Union and Prior streets are considered by many as “logical for development”.
“Those two blocks have room for affordable housing or any number of things,” Meggs told the Straight in a phone interview on May 30. “Their development could facilitate a whole set of objectives.”
These include making Chinatown whole again. The original Georgia Viaduct was completed in 1915. It was replaced by the current twin viaducts during the 1960s. According to Meggs, this cut off the two blocks bounded by Union and Prior streets from the historic community.
“My discussions with Chinatown business interests and community leaders have gone well,” Meggs said. “They hope that would reconnect them back down Main Street.”
Meggs has previously credited architect and urban designer Bing Thom for taking an initial look at the feasibility of removing the viaducts.
In an interview in November 2009, Thom noted that this action would release at least 100,000 square feet of city land. “If you took four or five city blocks, and if you have the density of let’s say seven, which is what’s in the downtown, and say, ‘Okay, it’s $50 a square foot,’ or whatever, you probably get a few hundred million dollars of real estate,” the architect told the Straight in a phone interview at that time. “That’s just sitting there as a potential, which we could put to better use and create more housing and make things more affordable for working people.”
It’s still early days. For one thing, according to Meggs, council has to make a final decision about the fate of the viaducts. And as for Geller, he’s interested in costs.
The city is hosting three open houses about the viaducts from June 5 to 9. Details are available at vancouver.ca/.