Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How does a city remember?

My first time at Honest Ed’s, I got lost. I had just moved to Toronto and walked down the street to check out the monstrous, garish store on the corner near my new apartment. It beckoned me at night with its flashing circus lights and stupid joke signs. How does a place like this even exist? I walked through housewares and continued up and down stairs, only starting to panic when it seemed as though I was going in circles. Hadn’t I seen that display of Lady’s Fashion Leggings before?

But it may be Honest Ed’s turn to be lost—at least, its physical presence now that owner David Mirvish has announced he has sold the property to Westbank, a Vancouver-based developer (which, interestingly, is responsible for the redevelopment of another iconic department store, Woodward's, in Vancouver). 

I’ve learned in my three and a half years in Toronto that if you mention Honest Ed’s you should be prepared for a story. Whether it’s someone’s first encounter with the store, the way their mother used to eat fries and gravy in the basement, or how they furnished their new apartment with its cheap products, every Torontonian seems to have a little nook carved out in their brain filled with hand-painted signs, light bulbs and weird Elvis busts.

But in the face of inevitable urban change, how does the city itself remember?

Is it enough to preserve the iconic sign? Does it need to be the whole sign or just a bit of it? Any preservation of a part of the former store or sign would certainly only serve a metaphorical purpose, an evocation of the something larger that was once there. A fragment like that may simply collapse under its own weight.

Should we just march blindly forward with a clean slate and post a bronze plaque out front with a few words like some sort of gravestone? How do you fashion something to hold all those memories in place and do you even need to?

No doubt all these and more will be discussed, debated, shouted and written about to death over the next few years. For some, preserving just a part of the whole is worse than doing nothing, while others may hold on to whatever fragment they can get with dear life. There are people who scrapbook and there are people who don’t.

What I do know is that when I walk by the corner 30 years from now, dodging the hover cars and walking my genetically-modified meowl, I will be able to point to whatever building lies on the corner and say that’s where I got lost by the Lady’s Fashion Leggings.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

St. George gets its bike lanes back

The construction on St. George Street over the pass few months means that cyclists have missed out on their bike lanes, but I walked by today and the road is not only freshly paved, but freshly painted with some nice new glistening bike lanes to ride in. Since the roads in Toronto can get so crummy (I'm lookin' at you Sherbourne) it's nice to have some smooth surfaces to sail across.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Why Vancouver's viaducts cannot be the High Line

Though City staff are set to release their report this summer, all signs are pointing to the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts getting the old heave-ho. Anyone paying a smidgen of attention to the talk at city hall, and specifically Cllr Geoff Meggs who has taken the viaducts on for awhile, would know that the preferred option is to see the viaducts removed in favour of more parkland, room for development, and a generally better stitched together neighbourhood. While careful traffic impact studies need to be done before the viaducts can be removed, car traffic into downtown has been decreasing steadily in the past decade and will probably continue to do so. The viaducts right now only handle a fraction of the car traffic they were originally designed to handle.

A design competition a few months ago sparked interest in alternative plans for the area and the viaducts themselves, and, given the success of New York's High Line park (which, unless you have been living under a rock, you'll know is an elevated rail trestle converted into an uber-design linear park), it's no surprise that some people are pushing for Vancouver to copy New York and turn the viaducts into something similar.

This is a bad idea.

While cities should look to other cities for design and planning ideas that they can incorporate, we've seen time and time again that many ideas--be they a pedestrian street or a casino or a Ferris wheel--are context specific and not necessarily transferable. You can't just take the idea for the High Line, transplant it onto Vancouver's viaducts and get the same result. It's tempting to think this way, but dangerous and costly.

They're expensive

The viaducts are expensive to maintain. Meggs estimates that the City will need to spend around $10 million over the next 15 years just to maintain the structures. I'm sure that price would be much higher if we were to load them full of dirt and plants and trees. At Toronto's annual Park Summit a few weekends ago, I heard Richard Hammond, one of the co-founders of the High Line, speak about how the High Line is an incredibly expensive park to maintain because of its high usage, but also because of the nature of its design. No doubt a park on the viaducts would be extremely expensive to maintain, more so than a traditional park, not only because of the aging infrastructure, but the landscape of the park as well.

photo by jmv from Flickr (cc)

They're ugly

The viaducts are hideous pieces of urban infrastructure. Originally supposed to be the on ramps to an urban highway that never materialized, they were never meant to be anything but utilitarian. From underneath they're about as inviting as an underground parking garage in a horror film. The High Line, while still a large and intimidating piece of infrastructure with its iron beams, doesn't have the same look as a concrete highway. Plus, its historic background as the route for goods being shipped into that part of the city gives it a kind of romantic tinge as a piece of New York history. Arguably, the viaducts are also a piece of Vancouver's history, but one that represents a short-lived moment and, ultimately, a mistake.

Additionally, the sheer bulk of the viaducts acts as much more of a neighbourhood killer than the High Line. The picture below typifies what the High Line looks like from the side. The infrastructure itself is less imposing and more elegant. It's also lower to the ground, and is already surrounded by significant development abutting it in many places.

photo by erikorama from Flickr (cc)

They're too short 

The High Line winds its way through a pretty long stretch of Manhattan, passing by many interesting areas of the city. The viaducts are simply too short to really offer what the High Line does--namely, a strollable stretch of carefully designed landscape. Park of the magic of walking the High Line is not only taking in how the design changes from block to block to block, but about how the city around it changes. The High Line offers an always evolving landscape and accompanying cityscape, something the viaducts do not. While the viaducts would offer a beautiful view of False Creek and probably some mountain views, this is not really something too hard to come by in Vancouver already. The city has more beautiful vistas than some countries.

So, what then?

The plan put forward by Dialog/Beasley/PWL/Green, which is featured in the City's slideshow about the viaducts and was one of the winners of its re:Connect contest, is an intelligent, beautiful, and, most of all, Vancouver-specific, solution to the problem of the viaducts. It would combine Pacific and Expo into one road, increase parkland in the area, introduce a winding stream leading out of False Creek into the urban fabric, and, most importantly, work to knit together Strathcona, Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, to a waterfront they have been disconnected from for years.

The plan put forward by Dialog/Beasley/PWL/Green

This plan represents far more parkland than could be obtained from greening the tops of the viaducts, and, while the plan is not without its own expenses, would likely represent less of a maintenance burden on the city. No doubt a new urban stream, a new urban beach, and significant amounts of parkland would spur interest from developers--all this and without unsightly water-stained concrete slabs nearby.

While the High Line is a great park for New York and works wonderfully there, let's not kid ourselves into thinking that our viaducts represent the same opportunity. What we do have though, is an opportunity to create a new amazing part of Vancouver's waterfront and connect the rest of the city to it. Yes, I think Vancouver should be bold and creative, but being bold and creative shouldn't mean copy-pasting something from New York just because it worked there.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Event: Populating the New Transit Corridors

photo by sillygwailo from Flickr (cc)
A potentially interesting free event up at York University on February 22 from 5:30 - 7:30pm that looks at the planning of transit corridors in the future, with a focus on Vancouver's experience with the relatively new Canada Line and the Cambie corridor along which it runs. This is even more relevant to Toronto considering yesterday's decisive council decision to redeploy a network of light rails a la Transit City.

From the event info page:

For the Toronto metropolitan region, Metrolinx’s Big Move is an historically ambitious program for the investment of tens of billions of dollars in new transit over the next 25 years. Development along the transit corridors is expected to shape the future of our region, yet public discussion to date has focused almost entirely on transit line locations, technologies and costs. We should not be beguiled by the notion that development will automatically locate to the corridors.
It’s time to steer the discussion towards how future development will be deliberately induced to locate around the new transit corridors. Neglecting to do so is to invite the necessity of enormous long-term subsidies for building, maintaining, and operating new transit lines whose ridership is too low to cover the costs. For a region aspiring to be globally competitive, the stakes are high.
Metrolinx has taken initiatives in land use and design, in particular with its Mobility Hub Guidelines. A public discussion on systematic approaches to populating all of the transit corridors is required to avoid mistakes of the past.
As a living example of big picture planning along transit corridors, Vancouver’s Cambie Corridor Plan has timely relevance. Bailey and Kellett have collaborated on innovative processes and methods of integrating transportation, land use, and energy efficiencies. They will speak to plan outcomes to date, engagement processes, research methods, and diverse types of visualization.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Instagram and the City

Vancouver: Robson Square 
Vancouver: Sea Wall

Vancouver: Sea wall

Vancouver: Rezoning application near GM Place

Vancouver: Olympic Village

Toronto: Pink arrow 

Toronto: View from the 13th floor of Robarts Library
Vancouver: Vancouver Public Library 
Vancouver: North False Creek sea wall

Toronto: or, Oronto!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Video: Mapping Toronto's Streetcars

Check out this amazing video of Toronto's streetcars moving around the city in all its cosmic awesomeness.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Vancouver's Cathedral Square


Cathedral Square in the eastern portion of Vancouver's downtown, right at the edge of Gastown, is one of those spaces that I've walked by a dozen times but never stopped to go inside and explore. Mostly it was because, despite the dramatic design of this public space, there was never any real draw to check it out. The square usually draws a cursory glance as people walk by to other things. It exists as one of those public spaces that were designed with the best intention, and then left to rot, untended.

Cathedral Square consists of a grassy expanse dotted by wooden benches on concrete platforms and a zig-zagged pathway. In the centre is a pool, the colour of the which makes it look less like a reflecting pond than your neighbours over-chlorinated and neglected backyard swimming pool, leafy detritus and cigarette butts magnified from their sunken spot at the bottom. This blue is "complemented" by Expo 86-style steel girders that make an open-air cage propped up on thick, concrete turrets. There is even a 'pier' should someone want to sit out and suntan. 

This cage sits atop a stepped plaza of sorts that is littered with trash, and mostly hidden from the street beside it. The site's architecture is imposing and unfriendly and almost prison-like in the huge concrete barriers and metal cage. Some of the benches are even missing, so all that remains is the concrete block on which they are supposed to sit.

Part of the reason for the site's lack of people, no doubt, is that the space is located in a inconvenient spot. As time passes in Vancouver the city's 'centre' has moved ever westward, from the pioneer days when the hot spot was what is now called the Downtown Eastside to contemporary times where most people are found along the commercialized spine of Robson Street in the West End.

However, it's undeniable that the design of this square is not a welcoming one. I found some pictures from the Vancouver Archives of what the square looked like when it first opened in 1986 to find out if it was as unwelcoming looking back then as it is now. 

Vancouver Archives, CVA 7840-098

In these photos the concrete pillars are fresh and have not yet succumbed to the rusty discolourations from years of rain, and there are flowers and small trees. 

Vancouver Archives, CVA 784-099
The cage overhead is revealed to have once been the frame for a covering that shielded the space from rain, but they obviously found it too difficult to maintain so removed it. You can also see in the below picture how the southern edge of the square is cut off from the adjacent street due to a change in grade, making this part of the space feel closed off and private.

Vancouver Archives, CVA 784-101
It's unfortunate that this space gets so little play. Vancouver's downtown peninsula has a real dearth of public squares and plazas larger than those occupying a ceded corner of real estate on a busy downtown block (the small plaza at the corner of Georgia and Granville outside of the Sears building was such a corner until the city built an oversized entrance to the Vancouver City Centre Canada Line station there). For now Cathedral Square remains mostly discarded.

As it stands, however, Cathedral Square does seem to serve a function of providing shelter and privacy to those who may be living on the street. I came across two people sleeping in separate sections of the plaza behind the giant concrete pillars. So a "rediscovering" of this space by the City would likely result in inequities in terms of who is able to use this space and for what.