Last summer, the Strathcona Residents Association endorsed the idea of transforming Prior Street and Venables Street, all the way to Commercial Drive, into a neighbourhood greenway.
A concept that has been evolving for years out of the Grandview-Woodland Area Council, the initiative seeks to turn the busy East Vancouver thoroughfare into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard of gardens and bike paths, with only local vehicular traffic permitted.
However, according to Strathcona resident Rick Archambault, one major piece of the puzzle is missing. Another road must be designated to bear downtown-bound cars being fed onto the Dunsmuir Viaduct, as well as the outbound traffic coming off the Georgia Viaduct.
For years, Archambault recalled in a phone interview, residents heard city engineers talk about a “Malkin connector”. The concept involves building a link over the railroad tracks from Clark Drive and East 1st Avenue to Malkin Avenue south of Prior Street, which would carry the traffic going downtown. But there has been little progress regarding this scheme.
Meanwhile, Strathcona residents have to put up with the enormous amount of traffic generated by the viaducts, and the risks associated with it. For one, Archambault related that a friend of a friend was hit by a car a few months ago and sustained major brain injuries.
The Prior-Venables greenway initiative has remained largely on paper in the face of the concrete reality posed by the viaducts. But with city hall moving to study the feasibility of tearing down the twin overpasses, it may come to life after all.
“It would make sense that the viaduct is at least going to be rerouted in order to turn Prior from a through street into a neighbourhood street,” Archambault told the Georgia Straight.
The midsection of the eastern ramps of the viaducts is across from a shack at 207 Union Street, a property that Vincent Fodera bought in 2001. Two years later, the Italian émigré discovered that the place was once Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, and that a young musician who eventually became rock legend Jimi Hendrix practised after hours there.
This led Fodera not only to convert the property into a Hendrix “shrine”, which he opened last summer, but also to dig deeper into the history of the area. He has since learned that Vie’s was considered part of Hogan’s Alley, an entertainment lane that ran between Prior and Union streets. It was also a predominantly black district.
Hogan’s Alley ceased to exist when the viaducts opened in 1972. The city purchased the properties there, and in their place are the eastern ramps, according to Fodera.
On a recent Sunday, as Fodera prepared the Union Street property for an evening event marking the birth of Hendrix on November 27, 1942, he imagined that Hogan’s Alley could have a rebirth of sorts if the viaducts eventually come down.
“History keeps repeating all the time in different forms,” Fodera told the Straight. “Vancouver is very musically oriented, and there’s tons of musicians here. Hogan’s Alley was the place where a lot of music was played.”
He acknowledged, though, that condos would likely rise out of what was once Hogan’s Alley. But with a revitalized district, Fodera has visions of his Hendrix place becoming a tourist attraction, especially among Americans. “They will come and say, ”˜Hey, Jimi Hendrix belongs to Vancouver too. Let’s see his shrine.’ ”
Long before Coun. Geoff Meggs advanced the notion of getting rid of the viaducts, renowned architect and urban designer Bing Thom had started thinking about their place in a global city like Vancouver.
“Undoubtedly, in my mind, Vancouver is going to grow because we are on the Pacific edge, and things are happening in Asia,” Thom told the Straight by phone. He explained that the continued economic expansion in China and India will produce a huge boom in Vancouver as well, and that will require a more efficient use of land.
Doing away with the viaducts will release at least 100,000 square feet of city land, according to Thom. “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,” he said. “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.”
In a phone interview, Meggs gives credit to Thom for taking an initial look at whether the city should retain the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
“It seems likely that you could find transportation solutions,” Meggs told the Straight. “That would free up a lot of valuable land, which can partly pay for the demolition and make the whole area a more open and sustained development.”
The Vision Vancouver councillor and his family are former residents of Strathcona. “Part of Strathcona remains cut off from the rest of the neighbourhood by the four lanes of traffic coming from Venables,” Meggs said. “That’s a continuing problem.”
On Thursday (November 19), Vancouver city council will vote on a motion by Meggs for staff to study the feasibility of tearing down the viaducts.