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Vehicles idle in traffic on West Broadway at Cambie Street, in Vancouver, on March 12, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

There is a short section on the western end of Broadway that feels like the high street of a pleasant village – trees, a stretch of small local shops with canopies, a few sidewalk tables, interesting paving blocks at the intersections and drivers who suddenly slow to a meander.

But the rest of one of Vancouver’s most important east-west arteries is simply ugly.

Large, characterless buildings. Some office towers and some big boxes. Six wide lanes of traffic. Minimal greenery. Double-sized diesel-spewing buses carting full loads of passengers from one end to the other, roaring along the curb lanes.

No wonder, says local public space expert Sandy James. The street was designed that way – as a car, bus and truck corridor, with some temporary parking for limited hours.

And it’s been kept that way for decades because the city and region needed to have that road space available in case it was decided that light rail might be put down the middle of the street, Ms. James said.

But the decision was made two years ago to build a SkyTrain extension along Broadway and to go underground, instead of a street-level light rail system. The preliminary work has now started. In late June, as part of that process, trolley buses were removed from the street and replaced with the diesel models, which don’t need to be attached to the overhead wires.

That activity has many optimistic locals hoping the long blocks of featureless Broadway, from Fraser Street in the east to Macdonald Street in the west, can be transformed into an urban-street swan in the future.

City engineers and planners were certainly talking about it, just before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily altered street life in every city.

“It’s definitely our goal that it will be a street that people will love,” said Lon LaClaire, the head of Vancouver’s engineering department. “Yes, Ugly Broadway becomes beautiful.” Even, he says, a Great Street – the term planners use for the movement to create streets that become people magnets.

Both Mr. LaClaire and the city’s manager of transportation planning, Dale Bracewell, are quick to talk about some startling ideas for Broadway.

Dedicated bus lanes: gone. No need for rapid-bus priority once the subway is there. “In the future scenario, all 99-B riders disappear,” says Mr. LaClaire.

A new design would also give Broadway, which has a lot of generic medical and office buildings, more character – different types of character in different parts of it.

New parking rules would allow cars, which can help form a protective barrier between traffic and a sidewalk, to stay longer. Ironically, in the meantime, there are plans to remove even more parking on the street in order to move buses faster, something that has local businesses alarmed.

There would be more trees, planters and wider sidewalks.

That widening is likely to get a big boost from the “living through the pandemic” dynamic — residents of many areas have complained about narrow sidewalks as they have tried to keep their distance from other walkers or lined up on the roadway for groceries, alcohol and drugstores.

Finally, the key and likely to be controversial element that inevitably arises from all those measures: less road space.

One of the characteristics that makes the small Kitsilano section of Broadway so attractive is the narrowing of the street in the neighbourhood. Broadway still has six lanes, but it is just 17 metres wide, whereas much of the rest of it is 23 metres wide.

Mr. Bracewell is enthusiastic about the idea of narrowing other segments, although he said in a Twitter message that it will take a conversation.

“Need lots of public engagement on values of reallocation of that space & need to respect its still part of the Major Road Network and a truck and local bus route,” he wrote.

The conversation was due to start in April. But there’s no sense yet when regular programming in city departments will resume.

When it does, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of reimagining Broadway are likely to be groups of small businesses on streets that cross Broadway where the subway is going: Main, Cambie and Granville.

Directors of the business associations in the area have already had some informal meetings with city planners, though not with the province, which is in charge of construction.

Their primary concern is that, whatever changes arrive, they make the neighbourhoods better and don’t tear the heart out of them in one way or another, the way the Canada Line of the SkyTrain system did along Cambie when it was built before the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“If our businesses around that area are surviving on pedestrian traffic and that goes underground, that changes everything,” said Rania Hatz, the director of the Cambie Village Business Association. There needs to be a plan for helping them survive the change.

Dumping a transit-station box with generic chain stores in it isn’t what they want either.

“There’s a Mount Pleasant look that you want to retain,” said Neil Wyles, from the business association representing that neighbourhood. “If it all ends up being glass and concrete and some unique businesses move away and don’t come back, that’s not what we want.”

He and his fellow business-association directors are hoping the whole exercise will mean their cross streets improve.

“The Broadway plan is going to have a really big impact on the viability of our neighbourhood,” says Ivy Haisell, who represents South Granville businesses. Changing Broadway, she said, will be the spur to create more of a village shopping street feel for Granville in the blocks near where it crosses.

That desire for less of a car thoroughfare, more of a street with wider sidewalks and a better atmosphere for the streets’ walkers, shoppers and restaurant patrons, is constant.

“We want something that’s more pedestrian-friendly, flowing easily into Broadway,” Ms. Hatz said.

If the city makes all these changes a reality, it could mean a big difference to those businesses. As Ms. James notes, all kinds of research demonstrates that shoppers hang around more in attractive areas.

In a study two years ago, London’s transit agency found there was an explosion in street use when sidewalks become attractive, instead of just narrow cowpaths alongside truck, bus and car traffic.

Retail vacancies went down by 17 per cent and time spent on commercial streets increased by 216 per cent, because people walked around, did more shopping, went to local cafés and just hung out on benches.

Broadway could be an ideal place to see a boom like that, says Ms. James, because it has no parks nearby.

If the street became a great place to hang out — with wide sidewalks, benches, trees, plants and café tables — it could be like a park that cuts through the city. Not a highway any more, as it is now.

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