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How Vancouver’s viaduct plan will get ‘heart of the future city’ pumping

Traffic including a cyclist head into downtown along the Dunsmuir Street Viaduct adjacent to the Georgia Street Viaduct in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Removing Vancouver's two downtown viaducts is not a minor traffic-management problem.

It's about transforming the centre of the city, say Vancouver's planners and councillors as the city heads into a final consultation about the vestigial remnants of what was supposed to be a grand freeway.

"This is one of those big, city-shaping developments that comes along only every two or three decades," said Vancouver's transportation engineer, Jerry Dobrovolny.

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City Councillor Geoff Meggs, the champion of the idea since 2009, sees it in similar grand terms: "This is the heart of the future city. And we saw this was the last chance to make a change before the entire city was built in around the viaducts."

The new concept that city staff have devised introduces a grand boulevard to the northeast False Creek area which combines the two existing lower roads there. That, Mr. Dobrovolny says, will easily handle most of the traffic that the two highway-like sets of roads in the area – the viaducts and the boulevards – split now.

The plan sees a new Georgia Street – one of Vancouver's main ceremonial streets that currently dribbles off onto the viaduct – brought down to the waterfront to intersect with the new Pacific Boulevard.

It straightens out Carrall Street, giving a sense of more direct connection between Chinatown and the water, creates a series of park "rooms" in the now liberated open space around the boulevards and allows the city to develop two blocks of housing around Main Street. That will bring back housing that used to be part of Chinatown and was demolished when the viaducts were built in the 1960s.

That demolition – and more planned – sparked an uprising among Chinatown residents against the highway plan in the 1960s. They ultimately succeeded in blocking the freeway through East Vancouver into and through downtown, an event that is part of Vancouver lore.

But taking down the viaducts – bridges to 40,000 commuters travelling from the eastern part of the region every day – has had to be about more than just emotion and nostalgia, Mr. Meggs says. A plan had to prove there would be no negative traffic impacts.

"This proposal to have a new road there triggered a change [in public perception]," he said. "People weren't worried any more that this was a children's crusade to green the city."

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Last fall, city engineers had estimated that the viaducts could be removed in 15-20 years without producing adverse traffic congestion, as transit improved. But the new plan, sparked by the winning entry from former city planner Larry Beasley and city councillor Jim Green in the city's ideas competition, means the viaducts can likely come down much sooner, although no one is committing to a date.

Mr. Dobrovolny said another key factor that makes the viaduct-removal plan doable now is that there are only four landowners in the area and those owners – the province with its BC Place land, Aquilini, Concord and the Plaza of Nations owner – are all willing to give up some of their land for the new road in exchange for other pieces elsewhere.

"All the planets are in alignment. That's rare," he said.

Although public opposition to the latest plan has been muted, it hasn't disappeared entirely.

Former City of Vancouver planner Frank Ducote, who lives in the area, says the city would need to ensure the road changes are well in place before the viaducts come down, to make sure the area doesn't just get flooded with commuter traffic the way it was during the Olympics when the viaducts were closed.

And Charles Gauthier, director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, says his members still have questions about the details of the plan – which haven't all been explained yet – and the impacts.

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"I'm intrigued by the plan but I've still got some nagging concerns," he said.

Public open houses are happening this week, with the final two sessions being held Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning.

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