March 26, 2016

Gastown Rehab: Try it Before We Dig it Up?

The Gastown area in downtown Vancouver – especially the 3 blocks of Water Street – will need major street rehabilitation soon. The City is not sure what they’ll find underneath the street so it could take a year or it could take longer. Gastown’s 150th Birthday is in 2017 so it’s too late to start now to be ready in time.
Nothing is confirmed yet. The vision I like the best would be to open Water Street to people, closing it to vehicles – except delivery vehicles at scheduled times. This would leave more room for café style areas, big gatherings around the Steam Clock, space for active transportation, and pop-up markets and festivals.
If that happens, part of the vision would be Cordova Street becoming a 2-way street that vehicles – including taxis, transit and tour buses – would move to. As it stands now, if you do drive west on Dundas then Powell Streets, by Carrall Street if you haven’t turned left (at the 5 corners), you find yourself on an unpleasant, slow drive through wandering tourists and zig zag bicyclists for the 3 blocks of Water Street. It’s clear most of the vehicle traffic is passing through, frustrated. Not stopping to buy anything.
What Would Janette Do? Janette Sadik-Khan says people find it hard to visualize things from boards and drawings. She says to try things to help people visualize and to see what works since the streets are already not perfect. What if before the street rehabilitation started, for late 2016 and 2017, we made Cordova a 2-way street and opened the 3 blocks of Water as a car-free space? Café tables & chairs with wine and pastries, programmed events including the 150th birthday celebrations, and no tour buses blowing dark exhaust in our faces…
Wouldn’t it be better to know what worked and what didn’t before we dig it up then rebuild it? It seems to me the consultation process after we’ve had a trial period would have more consensus about what was delightful and what wasn’t and be more valuable than varying speculations over unknown results. According to best practices in other cities, the businesses in Gastown would thrive from this. A 2-way street is better than a 1-way for business (Cordova) and no vehicles is even better (Water). If the City did intercept surveys before and after we’d have even more data.
What I know for sure is: it isn’t working well now for any mode. Making Cordova a 2-way street for 11 blocks (including re-signalling) and changing transit routes would probably take the most time. One possibility is to keep transit routes the same, allowing the #50 bus to be the only vehicle permitted on Water if necessary (besides delivery vehicles at low volume times of day) as Phase I.
The above photos are of Cardiff, Wales, UK. The middle photo with the tables and chairs could be a model for Gaoler’s Mews in Gastown.

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  1. What about the original civic plan for a westbound streetcar line on Water Street to the CPR Station, the return line on Cordova connecting to Science World, eventually with a connection to Stanley Park on the “preserved city right of way”? It would benefit citizens, Chinatown, Gastown and the tourists to connect to the major areas of interest in that area. It would avoid the issue of car traffic on Water and give it a European or even historical link to Vancouver’s transit past. There are nine million tourists alone at Granville Island who would benefit, much less Vancouver citizens, with a streetcar connection to Water Street from Granville Island. Portland, Seattle and many other North American cities can do streetcar lines, several with civic and private funding separate from federal or state funds. Why not us?
    Or does the city government only support bike lanes and subways?

  2. This is a great idea. Try it out and see. There is public appetite for some car-free spaces in town. Water St. is one of the existing places that seem to be a natural fit.

  3. This would be awesome; make it a European style pedestrianised zone with cafes and restaurants licensed to have big pistols out onto the street. The curbs should be eliminated. Delivery vehicles can be allowed in the am only and automated stanchions (that raise and lower at appropriate times out for emergency vehicles) can block the street the rest of the day. No bus, that would wreck the feel.

    1. I agree with that. If there is the chance of a motorized vehicle going through, esp a bus, people will stay away from what appears to be the road. If it’s a streetcar one can at least tell where the track is and isn’t. Ideally transit would be re-routed on Cordova as well. Moreover, this would save bus route #50 countless operating hours of delays from passing through the pedestrian zone.

      1. Absolutely, I think this is one of the reasons why Granville St never worked as a pedestrian street. And it prevents cafe tables and other accommodations being set up on the street.

        1. This is why the definition of “Vancouverism” is wrong. It’s not a form of architecture, it’s when planners build Schrödinger’s infrastructure and a space is somehow meant to fulfill multiple contradictory functions at the same time, thus fulfilling neither.
          Cambie bridge: the path is a bidirectional sidewalk and bike lane mixed with a park space with benches. Sitting on the bench blocks half the path, giving inadequate clearance for cyclists and pedestrians to pass each other safely in one direction, never mind two.
          Granville street: the sidewalk is a forest of poles for parking spaces, the street is a bus expressway to keep cyclists out, while the awkward furniture doubles as homeless deterrent, ensuring nobody actually wants to sit there.
          Water street: the brick pavement and steam clock try to bring character, the incessant one-way traffic ensures nobody is ever at ease, while the parkade entrance ensures people will always want to drive there.
          Plaza of nations: the square is a parking lot, a bike expressway, a park and a night club spot, all colliding so badly they had to paint walking lanes right through the pedestrianized space. Also features the unique construction of a bike lane that is only half-separated, the worst of both worlds: constant confusion while doing nothing to reduce collisions.
          Olympic village station: the sidewalk is also a bus stop and a bike lane, ensuring constant congestion, while buses lack a pull-out, ensuring they bottleneck traffic.
          First beach concession: it’s a cactus club whose doorway exits onto a bike lane lined with benches, with a car valet pull out on the other side with nowhere to park the vehicles.
          Utterly amazing A+ screw ups.

        2. I think that the best option — not to mention the greenest — would be to remove the Water St parkade and redevelop the site. Parkades represent an extraordinarily low-value single land use. The parkade is joined to the Cordova St parkade overhead across the lane, and it stands to reason that Cordova could remain.
          As for redevelopment, this is a prime location that could garner top dollar for leases, or to offer deals to non-profits and social housing and such should the city develop the site. The existing parkade is not heritage rated and seismic upgrading of masonry construction is not an issue. Architecture that respects the Heritage A rating of the district is paramount. I would not want to see much additional density on this site, but perhaps two to four additional floors max could be allowed as long as they are generously set back above the average cornice line of the block.

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  4. This is an excellent idea and it should grow legs and run. There are already some events that close Water Street to traffic, like the jazz fest, and this would just be a continuation. Year round weather protection, expanded criteria for enlarged sidewalk cafes, performance stages, fire and emergency access and services etc. etc. could all be worked out. Best of all, closing a street to cars would be cheap because the serviced road allowance is already there and doesn’t require demolition. Repaving with cobbles and bricks would be a fairly minor line-item in the annual budget.
    The tram idea is tempting, but this one probably needs to be a solid commitment to pedestrianization above all. Besides, the tram would only be a block away on Cordova and would meet Water St at The Landing.
    If implemented, I predict Water St would become a much stronger focal point in downtown and the sense of historic preservation would be reinforced. There is a huge variety of activities that can occur on a closed street which are next to impossible when the majority of space is devoted to being a conduit for vehicles. But please, no “entertainment zone” venues!

  5. Yes, yes, and yes!
    Oh, and I eagerly await the archeological dig of Water Street! The bottle club will have a field day!
    What treasures will we find?!

    1. It should be pretty amazing. Not just the more recent European history but the First Nations one before then.
      Also, they should do something to recognize Joe Silvey who had a saloon there before Gassy Jack did.

  6. So where does the traffic on Powell / Cordova corridor go? Going from 2 one way streets to a single 4 lane with no turn bays and likely with off hour street parking represents a huge reduction in traffic capacity. As is, those streets work beautifully to Clark where the traffic dissipates a bit. The Dundas segment which shares the same right of way width can be a bit of a shit show.
    I’d imagine Hastings will end up more backed up, and that additional traffic will end up driving through Strathcona along Pender.
    Perhaps redirect most of the westbound traffic down Waterfront Rd?

    1. I wouldn’t think that a three-block closure of only two westbound lanes would present an insurmountable obstacle to the traffic engineers. Transportation planning guru Jeff Kenworthy lectures frequently on the phenomenon of ‘disappearing traffic’ when roads are closed.

      1. Water street wasn’t what bugged me, since it doesn’t actually have much capacity any ways. What I found objectionable was changing Cordova and Powell to single direction streets for another 8 blocks, or out to the Cordova Diversion.
        As is, they’re fastest and most reliable way into an out of downtown and to Main St. regardless of Water St. operating. The city just spend $100M upgrading Cordova to grade separate the rail crossing. Waterfront Rd. is currently the best way in and out of downtown.

  7. There are narrow one-way lanes north of Water St all three blocks, not enough for extended commercial rear off-leading except behind The Landing, but they should suffice for quick and small-ish deliveries and Fire Dept access / egress. There are also full-sized lanes (also known as Trounce Alley) servicing the rear of businesses on the south side of Water St two blocks west of Carrall, and a half-lane servicing. This is to say that commercial loading could be worked out largely off Water St. in the lanes and cross streets. I wouldn’t have any problem eliminating car parking in the half-block on every cross street as long as commercial loading and enforced drop off zones can be enhanced.
    The bus tour companies may object to the road closure. That may be one of the sacrifices.

  8. While in Vancouver people like to explain that bus are “wrecking” public spaces, I notice that elsewhere, and more noticeabily in one of the rare successful pedestrian Mall of North America, people could have a different opinion:
    That is 16th street in Denver, and a bus routinely pass thru there (that assumes the “friction” previously mentioned by Scot B works,…it is!). People there could even consider it necessary to the success of their Mall: it brings shoppers and allows them not to worry about what to do with those bags and those exhausted kids after a long shopping day, …or not to worry to carry an umbrella – also, it is even possible they consider that their Mall should be inclusive and so accessible to people with mobility challenge (something the recent Compass card controversy could have shown, could be of lesser concern in Vancouver).

    On the topic, I think that Janette Sadik-Khan could have considered this as a pedestrian street “closed” to traffic (for the record, the closure of Time square didn’t impeded buses which are still servicing it…as well as a subway station…).

    On a another note, one has to remember that a successful Transit network relies on inescapable geometric principles as coined by Jarret Walker (but already stated by the local Transit planners in 1975, as shown here.
    In the Vancouver city transit network, many routes are already respecting these geometry principles (and it is no accident that those routes are also the most productive one). Under those non negotiable principles those routes should not be detracted but comforted in their geometry (the simple fact to entertain disucssions suggesting that a bus route can meander at will to allow some city hall pet project should be a deep matter of concern for any advocate of better transit).
    Among those routes are the bus 5 and 20 -.
    Most route using Granville street too (here an additional twist: $4 billions in rail network asset assume Granville as the main Transit spin corridor):
    In the Denver example, you will notice high quality and consistent pavement material and curbless feature (allowing pedestrian to spill on the busway, and more generaly a design allowing a flexibkle use of the space), all sort of thing missing on Granville…
    However, while the Denver example could apply to Robson street (on all its length!) it is true that the level of bus traffic on Granville makes it a less good candidate as a succesful pedestrianized space…but the solution is not to push the buses somewhere else… Not all street needs to be fully pedestrianized and in any case bus user should have direct access to those: between “agressive pedestrianization”, and a car oriented street, there is a full gamut to play with (something eventually Wellington learnt)
    Some bus route are not structuring, the route 50 is one of them, and so it is reasonnable to see its routing questioned (and in fact I have already suggested a route avoidng Water street)…the Hasting bus corridor could need some review too (that includes Powell/Cordova which can see much more bused than necessary)
    but again one has to understand that not all buses route are made equal and that a sucessful -and ambitious- pedestrianization scheme can only be achieved if it works in concert with a legible and efficient Transit network (a funtain of pedestrian), and not designed against.

  9. I’m all in favour of more pedestrian space in the city – the 800 block of Robson being a great example – but I question whether Water Street would be successful as pedestrian-only.
    My sense of Water is that is cool-to-cold and very shaded for the great majority of the year – that’s just a function of street orientation and width, building heights, and our climate. If people aren’t attracted to sitting outside for basic comfort reasons (there are limited opportunities during the year along Water to sit in the sun) they will tend to go elsewhere. Street design would be unlikely to convince them otherwise.
    By all means experiment, but caution makes sense.

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