Now that I am paying more attention to civic issues in Vancouver, it’s easy to get caught up in producing an endless barrage of criticism, given the reliably disappointing set of policies and processes coming out of our hip, shiny attractive city council.
One such policy I could spend today’s column railing against is the plan to demolish the Georgia Viaduct overpass system and replace it with – you guessed it, more condos with the usual mix of designer clothing stores, Donnelly Group pubs, Starbucks coffee shops, marble-countered ice cream parlours, yoga studios and noodle houses along the ground floor. Now, far be it from me to say something bad about a new noodle house but surely, we can’t really be thinking that what Vancouver needs is more of the identical, sanitized landscape we see radiating out from the Olympic Village.
Often the case for such a move is founded on spurious environmental arguments. “Eco-density,” now rivals “clean coal,” when it comes to greenwashing bullshit terminology, or more politely, the BC dialect of Newspeak. Demolishing perfectly good infrastructure and laying down a bunch more asphalt and fill is not an ecological pursuit, nor is building a bunch more condos with a bunch more underground parking and filling them with a bunch more people. This kind of thing doesn’t save the Lower Mainland from suburban sprawl because the people buying family-friendly townhomes in Langley are not considering sea view micro-condos on False Creek or vice versa.
Nevertheless, anyone wandering through Andy Livingston Park and environs can see that Vancouver is not making the best use it can of the space around our viaducts and Skytrain guideway. So here is where I get positive.
For some reason or other I kept getting stuck in Chicago this year and while I was there, I spent a good amount of time wandering around its downtown, which contains twenty elevated streets, like North Michigan Avenue. North Michigan is the land of blue chip stores, head offices and ultra-pricey hotels, or at least that’s what is on the top layer. But underneath it is a whole separate street grid with lower-rent, more interesting establishments, establishments that help to keep downtown vibrant because their rents and taxes are lower thanks to being, literally, in the shadow of North Michigan. Because that’s one thing an overpass or viaduct can do in the centre of a city; it can create a rent shadow, an island of affordable rents in the middle of downtown.
For a more local example, you can look at New Westminster’s Front Street, at least for now. Like Vancouver, New West is proposing a bunch of eco-density in place of its Front Street overpass, a real tragedy. Low rent commercial space near a downtown commercial hub is hard to create and can give rise to beautiful things. When I used to walk along Front in the 90s, it had a wonderful mix of vacant storefronts and businesses that had no business existing in a modern capitalist economy, storefront churches, galleries of unpopular and peculiar art and protracted yard sales dressed up as antique shops.
Greater Vancouver’s downtowns are rapidly losing commercial space where interesting things can happen. Musical venues and gallery spaces for artists who are not already established, experimental businesses, the very things that we supposedly love our cities for are being hunted to extinction by municipal governments who have lost sight of what actual makes for creative, vibrant urban space. And it is very rare, once the forces of gentrification begin marching, to turn that around.
But that is precisely the opportunity we have with the Georgia Viaduct. The city has the opportunity to build unconventional commercial and industrial space under the viaducts, all by ourselves, and rent it out to businesses that otherwise wouldn’t be anywhere near our downtown. This is something our government can do, all by itself.
Granville Island remains a testament to what a government can do to create good places. We didn’t contract Granville Island out to developers; instead, the government managed public land with a goal of creating something more interesting than a profit-driven private developer could, mixing industrial, artisanal and commercial space.
Imagine if, instead of knocking down our viaducts, we built under them, creating short-lease gallery space for shows and installations, light industrial artisanal and craft cooperatives, non-profit office space and other projects approved by a citizen board with a mandate to keep our downtown weird and interesting.
City councilors like Geoff Meggs have done us a favour by starting a substantive debate about our viaducts and overpasses. And they are quite right that this space is not delivering for Vancouverites. But the solution is not to destroy that space; it is to act with creativity and frugality to make it into something worthwhile.