January 21, 2021

Waterfront Station: A Cautionary Tale – Part 2

Yesterday, Michael Alexander told the story of New York City’s fabulous (and fabulously expensive) new Moynihan Train Hall, and the less happy history of Penn Station, which it serves. Today: what are their lessons for Vancouver? And what are Vancouver’s public transit opportunities (and the region’s) for the coming decades? 

Like the glorious original Beaux-Arts Penn Station, historic Waterfront Station is privately owned by a large developer. And as in New York, that private developer wants to maximize its profits. In New York, the result was to bury most of Penn Station in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Here, developer Cadillac Fairview plans a private, ultramodern 26-storey office tower on a wedge of parking lot next to the station. It was quickly nicknamed The Ice Pick.

Nearly 13 million riders pass through Waterfront Station each year, about five million more than users of the next busiest Translink station. As the pandemic wanes, ridership will increase. The historic 1914 building is protected by heritage regulations, and serves as a stunning public entry and meeting hall.

The actual transit facilities are underground, or in a shabby shed attached to the building’s north side, a construction mirroring the tawdry underground Penn Station that New Yorkers and visitors have suffered since 1968.

Connections are so poorly designed that to transfer between Skytrain lines, you go up two flights, through fare gates, down two flights, and through another set of fare gates.

Translink rents this space and office space in the upper floors from the developer, Cadillac Fairview.

That’s not the way it has to be, or the way the city has said it wants it. Since 2009, the city has had preliminary plans which include a great, glassy public hall, a transit and visitor entry to Vancouver, with views of water and mountains, transportation and history, urban commerce and pleasurable public space. Something like this:

Where that preliminary design imagined a small building on the parking lot, our group* boldly foresees a vibrant public square:

That’s part of the Central Waterfront Hub Framework approved by Council in 2009. Staff began a review, but unfortunately, progress has been … slow. In the meantime, Cadillac Fairview has begun the permit process for its office tower twice, and has had city advisory panels recommend against it each time.

Should the Ice Pick be built, making Waterfront Station the fully functioning centre of Metro Vancouver’s public transit system for the 21st century would likely be severely compromised.

But there’s a new opportunity, involving all three levels of government. Last month, to help the country’s economic recovery once the pandemic is contained, Ottawa’s federal fiscal update promised to spend “up to $100-billion” on “smart investments that have value now, and well into the future.” The Globe and Mail quickly recommended “some big investments in public transit.”

Here’s one: the federal government joins with the province to buy Waterfront Station, insuring the opportunities for transit and public improvements. All other Metro transit stations are publicly owned.

Waterfront Station’s 2020 assessed value is only $68 million, down ten percent from last year. Ottawa could provide the cash, or join with the province and city to trade for another downtown development site. We’ve identified two: a 1960s city-owned parkade in a great location, and an underused federal property. Surely, there are others.

Public ownership has many benefits: Translink could improve transit connections for commuters, airport travellers and tourists on the adjacent cruise ships. For visitors, Waterfront Station becomes the welcoming entry to historic Gastown. The parking lot becomes a public plaza with spectacular water and mountain views that define Vancouver. Future station planning and operations become much easier and less expensive.

Here’s a recent Canadian example. Toronto’s Union Station is owned by the city. Eighty percent of its upgrade funding came from provincial and federal governments. Public space was enhanced, and its heritage value was preserved.

It’s no crime for a private company to maximize its property values. But losing the opportunity to maximize public transit benefits for future generations— that would be a crime.


*The Downtown Waterfront Working Group, a voluntary non- partisan group of mostly retired  planners, architects, and urbanists has been working hard to put plans before projects and help create a spectacular waterfront. 

You can find us at Downtown Waterfront Working Group (vancouverwaterfront.org) and Downtown Waterfront Working Group | Facebook

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  1. I think we might be on to something and to a bold idea that might replace the questionable shadow boxing between the City of Vancouver and the current owner of the Waterfront Station complex whom as we know will always be seeking ways to increase its bottom line, often it seems at the expense of civic virtue.

  2. Actually, the Vancouver Heritage Commission supported the earlier more intrusive version of the Waterfront Tower at their December 2014 meeting (with two commissioners opposed).

    The assessed value of the site doesn’t necessarily reflect its market value. In this case $68 million would be the value of the existing heritage building, with its various office, transit and retail tenants. The new tower would add 403,000 square feet of additional space. As a comparison, Bosa’s Waterfront at 320 Granville, under construction across the street, is a bit smaller at 376,000 square feet, and that site is already valued at $138 million. A more realistic valuation on the entire station site with a new tower built to zoning seems likely to be north of $200 million.

  3. “Should the Ice Pick be built, making Waterfront Station the fully functioning centre of Metro Vancouver’s public transit system for the 21st century would likely be severely compromised.”

    How so?

  4. The Up and down configuration between the Canada Line platform and the SkyTrain plafrm at Waterfront is caused by:
    1) a massive concrte retaining wall originally meant to hold back the waters of Burrrad Inlet; and
    2) the fact that the SkyTrain platform is a centre platform, so you need to either come up from below or descend from above. The Canada Line platform is at similar elevation (not deep below as some may think), so an up and down would be required wherever the passages meander. If either the SkyTrain platform or the Canada Line platform were deeper (both built at their present elevations due to cost, no doubt), a more direct connection would have been possible.

    The present configuration spills passengers into the Great Hall of the station – which provide a simple central focus for wayfinding if headed to SkyTrain, Seabus or regular bus. A direct connection platform to platform could be confusing for those headed to Seabus or to the bus on the street and would needlessly funnel passengers across a crowded platform.

  5. I don’t see how building on the eastern parking lot precludes public ownership of the station site, skytrain connection improvements, or eventual decking of the tracks. Is it just the financial leverage?

  6. A no brainer. Crowding the neoclassical station and killing the possibility of an open plaza , or even a tiered plaza,rather than the ice pick on the forehead of an already semi- lobotomized city would just be, well , ugly. I’ve just been in London and there are lots of examples of developer- driven transit hubs that just don’t work well there to serve the user Public.. Developers owning public infrastructure space should be collaborated with, not fought with by the city planning types. Otherwise it’s stalemate after stalemate and nothing happens.

    1. Except it isn’t an ice pick in the forehead, nor does it kill the possibility of an open plaza. Neither does it interfere with the flow nor access to the station.

      Let’s be clear here. Some people are upset with the aesthetic and the juxtaposition of a very modern glass tower alongside an important historical building which is, sort of, contiguous with our fairly intact historical centre. A valid concern worthy of discussion. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the functionality of what could and should be an important transit hub.

      In my opinion that atrocious curving thing going up directly across the street is more detrimental to the historic character of the area than the Ice Pick. It is an affront to both The Station and Sinclair Centre.

      But maybe that’s just me.

      1. The recaldding of the base of 333 Seymour is actually worse that the new curvey structure at 320 Granville. They’ve enclosed the previously open stepped space under the tower with a flat curtain wall of bland coloured glass and may do the same with the tower above.

        1. They will do the same with the tower above – at least that is the latest that I’ve seen of their plans. That’s an improvement in my opinion. I find it ironic that as they modernize that tacky, overly silvery, 80s building others are forging ahead with a brand new building that is as bad as its neighbour ever was right next door.

  7. Once again consulting professionals defy reality and propose massive carbon emissions schemes of the vanity sort following the fifth year in a row of record breaking global temperatures. Shame on all of you for failing to keep the rest of us safe.

      1. Positioning any perspective that doesn’t suit your narrative as retrograde or ‘going backwards’ isn’t really that strong a position. It invites other to simply dismiss your position out of hand as well.

        Improving processes that are questionable at best when looked at in a broader context isn’t ‘progress’

        Better transit for people who could be working from home with a zero emissions commute is a great example.

        This is why many people are just opting out of the charade surrounding collective action on climate change. It isn’t happening. It isn’t going to happen. There is no other conclusion to reach if you put aside the perfectly valid hopes and dreams we have (or had) and look at the reality of the situation. What comes next remains to be seen, but it’s unlikely to be pleasant.

        Realists get no love. So it goes. Nobody loves us, we don’t care — to quote Millwall fans.

        1. First of all, I was quite willing to not reply to Jolson until he decided it was appropriate to blame “all of you” as if he is not also complicit. Both new office buildings and high tech communication gadgets fall in the same part of the spectrum with regard to our individual and collective footprint.

          I agree that collective action is not working as I hoped it would. I had hoped people would care enough about their kids and grand kids to actually change their behaviour collectively but we have seen scant little of that. Says a lot about today’s society. So given that collective action appears to be a dead end – at least until such time as changing behaviour becomes easier than not doing so, what do you propose?

          While I used to be adamant that technology would not get us out of this mess, since it is what got us into it, I have changed my tune. It seems to me that it is the only thing that can get us out of it.

          1. Well I don’t really propose anything, having decided to heed the advice of more than one wise mind, namely that the world’s biggest ills are usually the result of a do-gooder with the courage of their convictions. Every despot comes from a place of deep belief in their approach and solution and it’s overall benefit to humankind.

            I tend to my own life, try to simplify, and adopt habits that will keep me away from a high GHG end-of -life scenario. I’d love for more people to adopt this approach, but I am not going to do more than demonstrate by example.

            I would say your first instincts regarding technology were sound. Nothing demonstrates the wisdom of simplicity quite like a bicycle. IMO, It is time rethink entirely our relationship with machines and their utility. That’s why I like humans driving my boats :-).

          2. I have not wavered in my lifestyle choices of living as light as possible on this planet. I own no car, ride my bike, live local, limit travel, consume little, plant trees and help with local organizations that enhance nature in our region. I encourage others to do the same.

            And yet… I see only the most microscopic examples of others doing the same. It will not work on time – even if my instincts are sound.

            But in just the most recent years I’ve seen massive progress in technology that is delivering solutions to reduce waste, overconsumption and GHGs. Far far more than my humble contributions. Should I stick to my instincts that are doing next to nothing or help support those things that have the potential to make a huge difference?

            I also see a huge change in public awareness and an acceptance that we need to change course. Hopefully some of that will manifest itself in a simpler, lighter approach to life. But it is naive to think society will upend its comfortable trajectory in time to make a difference. There are technologies that can play a bigger role in the solutions we need right now.

  8. I don’t see how Penn Station in NYC is a cautionary tale for Vancouver aside from don’t demolish one of your best buildings and replace it with crap. No one is proposing to demolish Waterfront Station. And no one is proposing to diminish its importance as a transit station. This isn’t my preferred location for a tall building in this area, I would put it to the north, but the Ice Pick is not another Madison Square Gardens.

    One of the few transit improvements included in the Waterfront Framework was a more direct connection between the Expo and Canada lines, but such a connection would still require escalators, plus a more cramped hall, more new Penn Station than old.

    Public ownership of the station is fine, but not as a replacement for a real plan for the area.

  9. Not sure I agree with your choice of London Liverpool Street station as an example of best practice, given it is now cramped (and will be even more cramped when crossrail opens). Also it has piecemeal change, not always holistic or sympathetic.

    Depending on size, I would have shown Waterloo, Kings Cross, St. Pancras, or maybe Marylebone.

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