When is a public walkway private property?
In Vancouver, there is one glaring example, according to one of the city’s former directors of planning, Brent Toderian.
That’s the well-used Keefer Steps, a pedestrian connection between Dunsmuir Street and Chinatown beside SkyTrain’s Stadium-Chinatown Station.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Toderian said the developer of International Village built this walkway as a condition for being allowed to construct buildings in the area, including condo towers with such names as Firenze and Espana.
“Under normal circumstances, the Keefer Steps would be dedicated to the city as part of the development,” Toderian said. “They would be given to the city as public land.”
However, because the steps were built over an underground parking lot, the lands needed to be kept in the hands of the developer, with a public agreement over them to ensure unfettered public access.
Instead of the city taking responsibility for its maintenance though, as a result of a city-imposed condition, condo residents, including Toderian, are required to cover the costs of maintenance of the Keefer Steps as part of their strata fees.
“Of course, most people would never know nor care that they’re technically privately owned because of the parking underneath,” he said. “They walk and talk and quack—as I like to say—like a public space.”
Toderian maintained that he’s not personally concerned about the extra fees that he’s paying to his strata corporation because he knew about this requirement when he bought his condo.
However, he said that other homeowners in International Village are unhappy that they’re required to cover the costs of maintaining what is, in effect, a public pedestrian thoroughfare.
Moreover, Toderian said, there’s a widely accepted philosophy in planning that if a space is universally beneficial rather than benefiting a select few, it’s either designated as a public space or maintained by the public purse.
“Over a little bit of time, the city got greedy,” the former planning director alleged. “The city started to move the line on that philosophy of what is a private benefit versus public benefit. The epitome of that are the Keefer Steps.”
Toderian revealed that before he became the planning director in 2006, the city deliberately avoided taking responsibility for some quasipublic spaces during the development process to avoid paying maintenance costs.
He added that he stopped this practice of forcing maintenance costs for space that’s essentially public onto a few adjacent residential buildings. He couldn't say if the city resumed doing this after he went into private practice in 2012.
Regardless, Toderian said he expects that the status of the Keefer Steps will remain problematic for the city.
“The challenge, when it comes, won’t be a legal challenge,” he predicted. “It will be a fairness challenge. It will be a political challenge. It will be ordinary people going to council and saying, ‘Explain to me why this makes sense.’ ”
In 2009, then–city councillor Geoff Meggs wrote a blog post noting that the Keefer Steps aren’t the only mostly public space that is in private hands.
He also cited a public walkway through the Shangri-La hotel property, the Dunsmuir entrance to Granville Station, and the elevator between Costco and Rogers Arena that takes people from Expo Boulevard to the Georgia Viaduct.
Because these sites are privately held, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply at these locations.