In July, when the City of Vancouver unveiled plans to take down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and transform the area into more green space and housing, opinions were equally divided. After all, the viaducts are the remnants of a freeway project that met strong public opposition and protests in the '60s. The project was subsequently abandoned, leaving the city with an elevated road that carries half the traffic it was designed for, into an area only a few blocks away from the downtown core.
Recently I went to a meeting where council representatives presented the proposal which includes an increase in parks and open space in the area, new opportunities for development for housing, and traffic improvement plans to cope with diverted vehicles.
When completed, the project will free up entire blocks of centrally located land, and facilitate water front access for historic neighbourhoods currently divided by the viaducts. The City of Vancouver has sought public opinion and conducted surveys on this bold plan that is arguably a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape the city into the future.
It is hard not to compare similar plans in Sydney, Australia where I lived for 15 years before moving here. The two cities are very similar in many ways: both cities are blessed with a beautiful harbour with many waterways; both cities have a vibrant downtown with historic neighbourhoods that define the city and its lifestyle.
Runners in the Sydney Marathon snake through Circular Quay past the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in Sydney, Australia Sept. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)
There were similar calls in Sydney to take down the Cahill Expressway, an eyesore that sits directly above Circular Quay just a block away from the Opera House, after the city's Harbour Tunnel was completed. Most traffic now uses the tunnel and has effectively made the Cahill Expressway an alternative scenic route for tourists.
The area south of the Vancouver viaducts and the False Creek precinct remind me of Darling Harbour in Sydney which has become a thriving business and commercial area with lots of open spaces, walking paths, restaurants and bars for city workers to hang out after a long day at the office.
I also remember how Surry Hills, an inner city suburb in Sydney, was reborn when a tunnel was built under the city after it won the bid to host the Olympic Games. Surry Hills is walking distance to Chinatown and downtown Sydney. What used to be a traffic-laden, exhaust-filled neighbourhood is now a highly desirable address with tree-lined streets and a bicycle lane.
I can't stop thinking about the proposed demolition of the viaducts. Is the plan bold enough and does the plan really maximize the potential for the valuable blocks of land, the communities in the area, or even the economy of the Lower Mainland?
"What if the city gets serious and builds a tunnel under False Creek that joins Terminal Avenue at the other end?"(City of Vancouver)
Instead of diverting traffic to an upgraded Pacific Boulevard, what if the city really gets serious and builds a tunnel that takes traffic under False Creek and joins Terminal Avenue at the other end? Wouldn't that benefit commuters and the communities along Prior St by providing an alternative route to the city from Highway 1? Wouldn't that also eliminate the need to build the Malkin Connector?
Instead of more housing development, what if those blocks of land freed up by the demolition of the viaducts are transformed into a business/commercial/entertainment district that will create more permanent jobs ongoing?
Admittedly, building a tunnel will be more costly than upgrading Pacific Boulevard to take on more traffic but the benefits are also much greater. It will be the freeway connection to the city that city planners envisioned in the '60s.
Plan is "arguably a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape the city into the future."(City of Vancouver)
I often think about the Sydney Harbour Bridge when I cross the Lions Gate Bridge. Both were built in the '30s and despite strong skepticism, Sydney built a bridge with eight lanes of motorway and two lanes of rail tracks which was considered extravagant in those days. The bridge was also The Iron Lung that kept many employed during the Great Depression.
Governments these days are more cautious about spending big on infrastructure projects. Major projects like the construction of the Canada Line would probably not be implemented if the city hadn't hosted the Winter Olympics. I now call Vancouver home and I hope we don't need to wait for the next Olympic Games to see bold new projects being undertaken.
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