May 13, 2014

Frank Ducote asks the Question of the Day

Asks Frank:

Nine storeys on a 25-foot lot. But why oh why doesn’t the City of Vancouver require undergrounding of utilities?

China 2


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  1. Putting power lines, electrical transformers, power poles, and associated equipment underground, out of sight.

  2. Some years ago when there was an international disaster preparedness conference here, many attendees were shocked to still see such power equipment on (flammable) poles in our downtown alleys. In case of, say, a seismic event, sparks from fallen or damaged power lines and gas equipment can cause greater damage than the initial event itself. The 1906 SF earthquake and subsequent fire being a case in point.

    BTW, the photo is in the 200 block of E. Georgia in Chinatown. I find the narrow, tall building quite attractive, hence the photo.

  3. I asked local residents about the power lines when I first moved to Vancouver. I don’t think anyone actually had an answer. A common guess was because in an earthquake the underground utilities could get damaged or become difficult to access.

  4. I always thought it was the trees and just the fact that we never got around to it. My aunt lives in suburban Toronto and the utilities were buried sometime in the early 80’s and she said that it made a tremendous improvement to the look of the place. She was appalled when she heard that buried utilities were rare in Vancouver. But her subdivision had no alleys and very small street trees. In most areas of Vancouver, you just don’t notice the power lines because there are in the alleys and there are enough trees to mask them. Downtown is an area that you do notice the lines just because there aren’t as many trees and there are more of them.

    But the high voltage lines are better candidates for burial. They are eyesores and use a lot of land. It used to be that the only insulation effective for high voltages was liquid insulation, so the electric cable had to be wrapped in paper impregnated with liquid insulation with the whole thing in a pipe to keep the liquid in and under pressure. But now there are plastic insulators (XLPE) that can do this without the need for pressurized pipes. Needless to say the XLPE cables are cheaper than the old system. The burial of high voltage lines would free up space for development and the creation of better linear parks. Surrey in particular would benefit from this.

  5. I don’t understand, is the city supposed to underground the entire lane because of one development? Or I am assuming you are referring to just the section in front of the building? Which would not be practical. Frank please explain. thanks

  6. Undergrounding as a condition of development, one new project at a time. Not all that unusual. Other municipalities in the region and elsewhere do it, at least in denser centres.

    1. OK, but is it for the whole lane or just their section? By the way I am not arguing here I support the idea.

  7. Is it strange that I find the look of the power lines downtown to be almost beautiful? They bring up a sense of nostalgia when I see them, as something that, in my travels at least, is still fairly unique to Vancouver. It creates a sense of place.

    As much as I can’t argue with the logic of undergrounding utilities, it just breaks my heart a little.

  8. Ron – a comprehensive undergrounding approach is possible, initiated by the city itself at taxpayers expense. This may be underway for all I know. Another way is at the developer’s expense at the project scale. If I lived in the building in the photo I’d probably like not having that structure and power lines inches from my window.

    BTW, at the rate Chinatown and Vancouver in general are redeveloping, the project by project approach would likely get down faster than an overall approach!

    Tessa – the movie industry loves them too. That’s why an alley or two will retain the kind of wooden structures seen in the photo. Your nostalgia fix will thus be protected, as long as the movie industry is happy.

  9. BC Hydro does not bury lines for free; the City does not pay this cost, and developers will not pay past the property line. Maybe the building facade was designed to be visually complimentary with the power poles and lines since they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon anyway.

  10. It can happen in a new neighbourhood like the Olympic Village where BC Hydro installed new underground lines. Why pay for this in established neighbourhoods when it means demolishing infrastructure that has been bought and paid for simply to beautify the view for a few.

  11. You continue to miss two major points, JO. Why, I dont know. First, there is potential danger in these overhead utilities, as I noted earlier. I leave aestheric judgments to individuals. Second, project by project removal or undergrounding is quite normal elsewhere at the developer’s cost and for many reasons, both aesthetic and utilitarian.

  12. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, go to Lopez Island in Washington. When I went and entered the small town something felt strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Finally I noticed a transformer on the ground and realized there were no power poles anywhere–the entire town had undergrounded the utility lines. I don’t know when, or how much that cost, but man it makes a big difference. We’re so used to the visual pollution of power poles and overhead wires everywhere–when you take them away it’s quite a positive difference.

  13. Frank,
    You switched the subject to earthquake hazard. Circuit breakers are designed to manage this risk. You are proposing a colossal waste of serviceable infrastructure. The UN is pleading with you to stop generating GHG’s. You need to connect the dots between urban design bias and environmental impacts. Cost is not the issue, waste is the issue. In this case the architect has done a good job of contextual fit.

  14. Frank, undergrounding of utilities is substantially more expensive than not undergrounding them. Who is going to pay the bill for this luxury?