October 8, 2020

English Bay: Another Transformative Moment

This is a big deal:

Kevin Griffin at The Sun reports on the Parks Board approval of a $2.56 million contract to develop a master plan for the parks and streets from Stanley Park to Burrard Bridge for the next thirty years. Kenneth Chan at The Daily Hive describes the area and issues:

The design firms chosen are impressive: PFS Studio is of Vancouver – known for many years as Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg – partnered with Snøhetta, based in Oslo, well known for their architecture (like Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre).  But unlike that Danish starchitect Bjorke Ingels, they’re also known for a better integration of building with public space.

This promises the production of a masterplan of international caliber, which given the location and opportunity, is to be expected.  Indeed, the challenge (for the Park Board in particular) is to imagine a rethinking of this city/waterfront interface beyond its aesthetic and recreational opportunities for the neighbourhood.  This is city-building, writ big and historic.

It will also be the third major transformation for this stretch of English Bay – first the summer grounds of the coastal peoples; then, from the 1890s on, houses and apartments (left) all along the beachfront, cutting off everything except the sands of English Bay.  For over most of the 20th century, the City purchased and demolished these buildings, even the Crystal Pool, until the by the 1990s there was unbroken green, sand and active-transportation asphalt from Stanley Park to False Creek.

But it was all on the other side of Beach Avenue, a busy arterial that served as the bypass for traffic around the West End – the legacy of the original West End survey in the service of motordom.  For some this will be seen as unchangable.  As the reaction to the Park Board changes this summer on Park Drive revealed, even a modest reallocation of road space diminishing ‘easy’ access for vehicles and the parking to serve them is upsetting to those who associate motordom design with their needs, special and otherwise.

Some Park Board commissioners, indeed, can be expected to oppose any reduction of asphalt for vehicles, even as they oppose any additional pavement for active transportation.  (See, for examples, Kits and Jericho Parks.)  It will be tempting to see the masterplan as just an exercise in park design with four separately defined green spaces – unlike the Seawall and Seaside Greenway which work so well because they are part of a bigger active-transportation network.

It’s hardly necessary to emphasize the importance of this corridor for cycling in all its forms.  The Rapid Response to Covid by the City along Beach and Pacific settled immediately whether more space was needed for cycling and walking, and whether they should be separated.  Within weeks, the number of users and trips taken moved Beach into the category of northern European bikeways.  (By July, 12,700 trips in one day, comparable to, for instance, Utrecht bikeway counts.)

Here’s is how Small Places videographers Gould and Corey captured the changes:

It’s clear we shouldn’t and can’t go back to the way it was.  This is not just about parks and open space, or even seawalls and bikeways; this is another transformative phase for the English Bay urban edge.

PDS and Snohetta will need that mandate to do a proper job; they will have to think beyond the landscape.


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  1. Although the terms of reference do not include the West End street network (adjacent streets such as Pacific and Beach Avenues), they do include links to the adjacent residential areas. However, the West End Community Plan (2013) already includes better accommodation for pedestrians and cycling as an objective, and the City could take steps to do that at any time it wishes. Council of course has already made improvements as part of the City’s COVID-19 response and will be making decisions on more permanent changes in the next little while – independent of any output from the West End Park Plan (English Bay and Sunset Parks).

    1. I wonder how many people are going for a nice drive around Stanley Park today? I wonder how many people are parking in those vast swaths of pavement at Kits Beach or Jericho or Spanish Bank?

      Oh, well it’s only the next 6 months right?

      I ride every day as do a growing number of cyclists. The more safe places to ride, the more will ride. Rain gear is pretty cheap compared to owning a car. I’ve saved at least $130k. Feel Greeeaaat!

      1. Actually, I did enjoy brunch at the teahouse on Sunday. Despite the blustery weather there pedestrians out enjoying the seawall and a few motorists going to what busiensses were left standing. I only saw two cyclists.

        1. A few motorists and two cyclists. Sounds like the proportions were around normal. Both way down on a dark, rainy day.

    2. If you really wonder, the data is available on the city website. If you’re just being rhetorical out of ignorance, and think your smart-ass comment makes you look smart, you are mistaken.

  2. I wonder if the plan will include any structures?
    The report mentions washrooms, etc. (and by extension, likely integrated concession stands).

    I think an outdoor amphitheatre might be nice along Sunset Beach at the big grassy area where 4/20 has been held in recent years.

  3. Great article, except the last sentence that PDS (sic) and Snohetta “will have to think beyond the landscape”. It is surprising that you would make such a remark.
    PFS is renowned for its masterplanning, and every project they touch is context driven. They are certainly capable of managing the complexity of the site beyond “just landscape” as long as the City structures the project properly and facilitates the consulting team’s work.

    I’m excited to see what they come up with!

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