This is a version of a presentation that planner, urban designer and writer Lance Berelowitz made during SFU’s Lunch ‘n Learn online public event on Vancouver’s Downtown Waterfront held on 29 April, 2021.
What do we mean when we refer to Vancouver’s Downtown Waterfront or Central Waterfront? It’s worth reminding ourselves of the significant geographic extent of the site that we’re discussing.
As you can see on this aerial photo, Vancouver’s Downtown Waterfront extends all the way from Burrard Street and Canada Place in the west to Portside Park and Main Street in the east, and from Cordova and Water Streets in the south out into Burrard Inlet in the north.
There is also a significant grade difference of at least 30 feet from Cordova Street down to the Burrard Inlet shoreline.
Multiple uses occupy the area, including Canada Place and the cruise ship terminal, the SeaBus ferry terminal, the Heliport, a multi-modal public transit hub that includes SkyTrain, Canada Line and WestCoast Express stations as well as buses, the railway companies, the Port, a community park, the fishing industry, a coach parking lot, and several private properties. To the immediate south is Gastown, our city’s historic founding place and now a federally designated heritage district. Further east is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
This is a large, complex site – to say the least – with several public and private land owners. There are multiple key stakeholders and user groups, including the Vancouver Port Authority, TransLink, PAVCO, the railroad companies, the federal, provincial and local governments, the Heliport operators, coach companies, private land owners and, of course, the citizens of Vancouver.
You’ll note that in the middle of the area lies the existing rail yard just north of historic Gastown. This rail yard currently serves Port operations, which is a critical piece of national infrastructure. But it also effectively separates the Downtown/Gastown urban fabric from the waterfront, and constrains redevelopment of the area.
Which brings me to my second image, and my first key point – what if the rail yard could be relocated?
This image is from some work I did with my colleague Jennifer Marshal around 15 years ago. Back then, we wondered if there were alternative locations for this rail yard, and we – rather provocatively – identified a theoretical alternative location for the tracks beside the Centerm container terminal to the east.
Of course this image was not meant to be taken 100% literally; rather it was intended to help us visualize the possibilities. This particular proposition would need to be subjected to a thorough technical analysis and impact assessment. But it raises an intriguing question: Is this potentially viable, as part of the Port Authority’s current Centerm expansion?
Here’s my first key point: Assuming the Port Authority has determined that this rail yard is still needed for port operations into the foreseeable future (and we have not yet heard publicly from the Port Authority whether this is indeed the case), are there other potential sites anywhere else within the Port lands (such as what this proposal illustrates) or along the existing railway corridor to the east where this rail yard could be relocated/consolidated, and still serve its needed purpose?
If so, this brings me to my second key point:
If the rail yard was relocated, the unlocked potential and resulting lift in land value of the Central Waterfront lands would be huge. Enough perhaps to pay for the rail yard relocation and/or consolidation, as well as some of the other big infrastructure costs that would come with redevelopment of the Central Waterfront Port Lands. The potential gains for the city, all key stakeholders and land owners (including the Port Authority, by the way), and the wider surrounding community, are significant.
Which brings me to my third image:
If the rail yard was relocated, what might redevelopment of the Central Waterfront lands look like? Who might benefit, and who might not?
There have been many studies of the Central Waterfront Port Lands done over the years, commissioned by different stakeholders.
This plan, which my firm did some 15 years ago for the Gastown Business Improvement Society, is just one of these. I’m showing it not to suggest a preferred solution, but rather simply to illustrate some of the possibilities. There are other options just as good or even better out there, no doubt. Again, there are many aspects of this vision that would need further study. But it is one vision at least and helps us imagine how it may be possible to create an inspiring, accessible, inclusive urban Waterfront Gateway to Vancouver and indeed to Canada.
Some key moves illustrated in this particular plan included:
- lowering the WestCoast Express tracks below grade and creating a new Greenway route along the north side of the buildings fronting Water Street, connecting ‘Station Square’ and Main Street
- extending the downtown and Gastown street grid northwards to the waterfront, including Granville, Cambie, Abbott and Carroll Streets; and extending Canada Place Way eastwards while maintaining the existing lower level Waterfront Road
- creating a large, multi-modal Transit Hub and grand passenger concourse behind the Station building (an idea which prefigures the City’s 2009 Central Waterfront Hub Framework)
- reshaping and sculpting the Burrad Inlet shoreline to include public access along its entire length, connecting Portside Park to Downtown and beyond, and including new water basins that extend back towards Water Street and remind us that all this land was once under water
- an expanded water-based transportation terminal that could include expanded SeaBus service, other local and regional ferries, and water taxis (think Sydney’s Circular Quay)
- several public plazas such as ‘Station Square’ between The Station and The Landing on Cordova Street, ‘Granville Quay’, and ‘Cambie Landing’, all taking full advantage of the panoramic views across Burrard Inlet
- new development including commercial uses, tourist-related uses, and housing, and also perhaps a new Maritime Museum on the waterfront and a new Community Centre facing Portside Park
- new, direct, at-grade pedestrian connections between the Downtown Eastside and Portside Park at Carrall, Columbia and Main streets (the Main Street overpass could be removed once the tracks are relocated), with a public pier and possible fish market at the foot of Main Street
Which brings me to my third and last key point:
For any of these things to happen, there needs to be a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative planning process that involves all stakeholders in developing a win-win-win plan. Everyone needs to see their legitimate interests protected and get something of value, while also giving something for the greater public good.
How to do this?
It will take political leadership and vision. In my view, the City of Vancouver is the public agency that is best placed to convene a round table and invite all stakeholders, including senior levels of government and private land-owners, to the conversation. There is a useful precedent for this approach: The City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (which as a federal Crown corporation is not legally bound by City land use policies and zoning bylaws) both agreed to work together on the 1994 Central Waterfront Port Lands Policy Statement, a process that produced a mutually acceptable, successful plan that is still relevant.
The time is now. The stakes – and the potential gains for us all – are simply too large to let this opportunity slip us by. I hope we seize the chance.
Very cool idea.
It would also faciitate a tunnel portal for a Hastings SkyTrain extension (potentially to the North Shore)
I think uses should focus on commercial office space rather than residential uses (ie not a Coal Harbour II). Commercial landlords probably have greater resources ($$$) to deal with maintenance and upkeep in that part of town.
PS – here are plans to move the Maritime Museum at a site at the Westin Bayshore Hotel.
I like the idea, but what’s the big advantage over building over the tracks like Project 200 initially aimed to do? The lack of a higher grade to clear the tracks?
Taking the WCE below grade would be a pretty huge endeavor it it’s own right.
There are several significant advantages to relocating the tracks and lowering the WCE, compared to building over them on a raised podium. These include (but are not limited to):
• this would permit all the existing north-south streets to extend (some as pedestrian/bike routes perhaps) from Gastown northwards at grade, thus hugely improving public access and connections between Water Street and Burrard Inlet;
• significant construction cost savings versus building on an elevated podium;
• avoids having to work around/between the existing railway tracks for foundations, site services, etc.
• eliminates the major issue of hazardous goods on trains in an enclosed space underneath buildings
• significantly helps address the grade change challenge, to get grades down to the waterfront
• enhances and extends views northward
• helps knit Portside Park back into the adjacent urban fabric rather than it being isolated by the tracks
• allows for a new public greenway along the north side of buildings fronting Water Street
I particularly enjoyed looking at this plan. Some of it is similar to my plan, part of which Gordon put up on this site. But the concept of moving the railyards was not something I considered. I just thought it would be too expensive and complicated. My plan was prefaced on decking over the railyards and extending the land quite a bit to pay for it all. But that left the complicated connection between Gastown and the new development which was the weakest part of my plan. But I see now that moving the yards actually seems possible and might make rail operations more efficient.
I also initially thought that lowering the WCE would be too complicated, but it might also be doable. To lower it 7m, 6m for train clearance and 1m for the roof structure, at 1.5% grade (on the steepish side but the trains aren’t heavy) would require 467m. About the distance from Jackson Avenue to Main Street, which would mean that the Main Street Overpass could be removed as well. A big improvement to have all those connections at grade.
And it is vital that there is an actual urban design planning process that saves this area from the blandocracy.
My thoughts for this area are here: samdegroot.ca/2021/01/06/vancouver-central-waterfront-redevelopment/
Sam, thank you for contributing to the discussion. All grist for the mill. And yes, lowering railway tracks to accommodate other land uses overhead is certainly doable, and has been done in other cities. It just costs a lot of money, but it could be paid for, at least in part, by the resulting significant lift in the value of these waterfront lands once the adjacent railway yard is relocated and development is thus made more feasible.