Death of Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts could revitalize Strathcona

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      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.




      Nov 19, 2009 at 8:56am

      I have to say that Bing Thom's remarks about making downtown more affordable are hard to accept. No one in civic politics wants to do anything that would lower the market price of housing, because to do so would reduce the non-taxable capital gains their voters have in their principal residence.

      Anyone can understand the wish of people to turn their local street into a greenway, rather than an arterial. Because their is no highway or freeway connecting downtown with the Trans-Canada, traffic uses city streets, principally 12th-Grandview Hwy and East 1st. Venables is likely carrying traffic generally going little further than Commercial Drive, though some might be turning south at Clark to reach 1st or 12th.

      If the viaducts are removed, what becomes of Georgia Street and Dunsmuir, assuming they don't simply dead end at Beatty? There's going to be surface streets integrated into Pacific Boulevard, and then connecting to Main, East 1st, etc. There will still be some kind of overhead structure to access the condo towers overtop the downtown Costco, so these surface streets won't necessarily be sunny stretches of boulevard.

      What is the cost of the Malkin connector, and why hasn't it been built. After all, there's a lot of stimulus money on offer right now.
      Rod Smelser

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      Greg Klein

      Nov 19, 2009 at 2:28pm

      I’ve walked by that building lots of times without realizing it was Vie’s Chicken and Steak House. The place would be a Vancouver legend even without the Hendrix connection.

      I’m not sure Hogan’s Alley was primarily black, although I understand there was a concentration of black residents and some night spots around there.

      Interesting website here:

      Some of the Hastings and Main hotels, like the Patricia and Regent, figure prominently in Vancouver’s musical history. The neighbourhood was Jelly Roll Morton’s base between 1919 and 1921, according to Mark Miller’s book Such Melodious Racket.


      Nov 20, 2009 at 11:54am

      I had a second thought about this. Could this all be a shrewd bargaining chip on Vancouver City's part to pressure the provincial government to pay a large share of the cost of the Malkin connector? IOWs, if you don't pay for that project, we will tear down the viaducts?
      Rod Smelser

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      John Allison

      Nov 23, 2009 at 1:43pm

      I've been reading so many places that the owner claims Vie's Chicken and Steakhouse was in the little red building on Union Street. In fact according to artist Keith McKellar, Vie's was a two story 1920's house that stood next door and was demolished in the late 70's. Check the chapter on Vie's in McKellar's great book Neon Eulogy!

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      Greg Klein

      Nov 26, 2009 at 9:03pm

      James Johnstone, an authority on the history of East End buildings, also places Vie’s at 209 Union. He mentions it a few times in an interesting interview here:

      209 must have been right next door to 207. 209 is a small parking lot now. Maybe 207 was a storage room and they let Hendrix practise there.

      But the actual restaurant hosted lots of famous musicians, as well as Vancouver night people.

      Thanks John, for passing on the word about Keith McKellar’s Neon Eulogy. It looks like a great book, judging by this passage I found online:

      “Vie’s serves just chicken...and steaks and fries and salad and biscuits, and that’s it. Except for those wonderful peas and mushrooms, and all that home-style garlic that keeps everyone coming back. Sirloins and T-bones, pay $2.85 to $3.25. Mushrooms 30 cents and onions 29 cents extra. It is a long-time bring-your-own bottle (Vie’s provides the corkscrew) house, opening at six in the evening -- closing at four in the morning.
      A late-at-night haven with one intimate main room, a little adjoining overflow room and the warm nocturnal floss of the neon sign, casting technicolor on the newly-arriving patrons. Inside, the walls are painted bright yellow and blue, the ceiling a deep red. A painting of the Alaska Highway on the wall and a jukebox in the corner. Altogether just nine odd-size tables with foldaway chairs. In the kitchen, all that sizzle and crackle takes place in a big, black fry pan on a big, old, black oil-stove that heats the whole house.
      A word-of-mouth raving midst visiting performers, artists and stars. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Count Basie and many other nightcats enjoy this Vancouver archive original. A jockey and racetrack people’s favourite.
      A late-night cabbie’s dream come true.”

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      Nov 27, 2009 at 9:52am

      Check James Johnstone's blog for the documented history of the hendrix shrine building.

      As for getting rid of the viaducts, I'm all for the idea, but would like to see a more thought out plan. A new strip of condo towers would be a step sideways, not forwards, IMO. I'd much rather see something like New York's re-purposed High Line:

      And if all those cars simply get diverted to Hastings, Strathcona property owners get a hike in property values and a lovely Greenway, while Hastings residents and pedestrians just get more cars to run them over.


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      Hanna Mitchell

      Jun 22, 2012 at 7:38am

      Revitalize Strathcona??? Are you kidding, you've been able to buy million dollar homes there for about 10 years now, and you can get expensive cheese and coffee, isn't that Vancouver's version of revitalize? Let's talk about what we really mean, which is revitalize Hastings Street from Main to Campbell.

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      Taxpayers R Us

      Jun 24, 2012 at 1:32pm

      The only thing Visionless Vancouver wants to "revitalize" is their real-estate developers' wet dreams of limitless profits.

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      Kelly C

      Jul 6, 2012 at 7:29pm

      I must use my car for work to Pt Moody; Coquitlam and New Westminster. I provide outreach services in these areas and have lived in Vancouver downtown 17 years. Like many in the west end, this is my community. I use Venables Ave and 1st Ave every single working day to head to either Coquitlam/New West and Venables/Clark ave/Hastings street to get to Port Moody. I live on Davie near Cardero. There is plenty of traffic coming down Davie compared to 5 years ago-all night long. Perhaps we should have a greenway here? Traffic, especially trucks, coming off the Bridge and heading down Davie to First Ave, Granville Hwys 1 and 99.

      The traffic routes are terrible , and getting worse every day as they are. There should be NO re-development of the existing routes in and out of the city- unless it improves traffic flow as unpopular to multi-million property owners buying in the Strathcona/Prior Street areas. (Ironic) Even with improved commuter options, driving and drivers will continue to increase by sheer population growth. Up to a million more people to settle in the lower mainland over the next 20 years-Please no more "gratuitous greenway areas to please the real estate sectors. To sell to foreign investors at tax payers expenses .No more bike lanes etc. We have done enough to such a small downtown core area with very little HWY infrastructure anywhere in the city to accomodate traffic. If ever there was an emergency- "The Big One" ie earth quake, fire, serious power outage, satellites went down, etc, we could be in serious trouble. We are setting ourselves up for true disaster by having so many people living in a cramped urban area with islands, bridges every few blocks, and few arteries in and out of the city. This city is a living vital city not just a green respite for the rich, the developer, the tourist, the transient politician, and the foreign investor.