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Vancouver’s Block 51 pedestrian-only no longer

At issue has been the impact on bus service, which upset elderly residents trying to get to the West End.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver city council remains committed to engineering the kind of central gathering spaces common to most cities, but it is backing off a high-profile bid to do so along a block of Robson Street on the south end of the art gallery.

Councillor Andrea Reimer, chair of transportation, planning and environment, said on Sunday the Vision-dominated council will this week approve a staff report that calls for the return of traffic to the area on Dec. 1. At issue has been the open public space's impact on bus service, which upset elderly residents of the city trying to get to the West End.

Andrew Pillar, spokesman for the Vancouver Public Space Network, which advocates for such gathering places in the city, said his organization is concerned that shifting back and forth from a traffic to traffic-free area would create an inconsistency that is no better for transit concerns. "We would prefer to see the current closure maintained while these issues are resolved," he said. "This is an important public space in the centre of the city."

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Ms. Reimer said she is supportive of the idea of opening and closing the street, subject to public-square programming.

Transportation 2040, the city's recently approved master plan on transportation for the next 28 years, underlines the needs for public spaces, focusing on the block at the south end of the Vancouver Art Gallery, known as Block 51.

But it also refers to portions of Robson and Granville Streets, Hamilton and Mainland Streets between Nelson and Davie, and "other locations as identified through future planning processes."

"Public plazas and gathering spaces play a vital role in public life," says one passage in the report.

Ms. Reimer says there are various issues in play, including the prospect of a new art gallery elsewhere in the city core. "There will be a clearer answer when some of those sites are more nailed down, but for now, all things being equal the (Robson Street block) really is it."

She added the way ahead is to work with the community as opposed to a "build it and they will come approach.

"In a land-constrained city, every block is going to have issues, so it's figuring out those issues for most of the users and allowing others to use it as public space."

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While closing Block 51 to traffic has been popular this summer, it's been a challenge to maintain through the fall when there has been no programming in the area.

"Over time, we could build a square that would be well used in the winter but we don't have the financial capacity to do that right now," said Ms. Reimer, a long-time supporter of public spaces for the city. "We can't keep that square animated."

During the summer, the pedestrian-only street was dotted with art installations, including giant pillows made of former sail fabric from Canada Place. However, the ambience has been more sparse through the fall when staff did the consultation that led to the report recommending reinstating traffic.

News of the decision was disappointing to some. "It's become a dynamic space," said Paul Fenton, operator of the Feastro taco truck, parked on Howe Street, metres from one end of Block 51. "It's been great. There's a new vibe on the street."

Mr. Fenton said he would remain in his spot, selling tacos, sandwiches and fish and chips.

Around the corner, Aroka Kushner said she will stick with her stand, where she sells scarfs, jewellery, hats and other fashion. The summer-time ambience worked, she said, but there are issues around security and beautifying the space that need to be worked out.

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"It's an oasis in the middle of the city," she added.

George Affleck of the minority Non-Partisan Association party, said Vision could have done more consultation before closing the street. But he agreed with the idea of opening and closing it, noting he has seen the process work in travels to such cities as Copenhagen, Stockholm and London.

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