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Momentum builds for removal of Vancouver viaducts

A cyclist passes vehicles driving along the Dunsmuir Street Viaduct adjacent to the Georgia Street Viaduct in Vancouver, June 25, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The bold proposal to tear down Vancouver's twin viaducts, which have carried traffic to and from the downtown for more than 40 years, is gaining significant steam.

Council is expected to vote Wednesday to give city planners a green light to proceed with serious studies and public consultation for the project, with once-loud opposition increasingly muted as the idea takes hold.

"This is a turning point, not just a small step," said senior planner Brian Jackson, as he discussed details of a comprehensive staff report outlining the many benefits of demolishing the busy, elevated structures.

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The decision would free up five city blocks for renewal, providing space for increased parkland and as many as 1,000 new housing units, including 300-400 subsidized apartments. It would also re-connect neighbourhoods to False Creek and revitalize a section of Main Street lost when the viaducts went up.

Traffic that currently uses the viaducts would be rerouted to a new road network, featuring a re-aligned Pacific Boulevard that would then funnel vehicles onto an extended Georgia Street. The report concludes there will be no negative impact on adjacent communities or the movement of goods and services.

According to the report, traffic along well-travelled Prior Street, which currently connects to the viaducts, would decrease by 10 per cent. Area residents have long called for traffic-calming measures for the street, which is bordered by houses on both sides.

The report asks council for $2.4-million to enable two years of land negotiations, extensive public consultation and further scrutiny of the implications of the viaduct removals, particularly on traffic flow.

"We're really committed to do this, and therefore, it is important to put our money where our mouth is," Mr. Jackson told councillors. "It is essential for us to realize this opportunity and rethink the future without viaducts."

During council discussion of the viaduct proposal on Tuesday, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the land involved represents "the last, large, under-utilized area close to the city's core" in Vancouver. "There's nothing else that compares. …

"This gives us the chance to take a dead zone and transform it into a volume of life and economic opportunity."

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The current Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts were erected in 1972 as the first phase of a planned freeway into the city's core that would have cut through historic Chinatown, Strathcona and Gastown.

Fierce public opposition from residents and community activists stopped the ambitious transportation plan, but not before the viaducts caused long-standing neighbourhoods to be divided and the destruction of Hogan's Alley, the city's predominantly-black settlement, where Jimi Hendrix often visited his grandmother, Nora Hendrix.

"In every city's evolution there are opportunities to correct a past planning wrong," Mr. Jackson said in reference to the viaducts.

He noted that Vancouver is proceeding with plans to knock down its freeway vestiges, while Toronto continues its decades-long debate about the fate of the Gardiner Expressway on that city's lakefront.

Local community groups have cautiously endorsed the viaducts' demolition, although not without concern over precisely how traffic would be re-routed and its potential impact on several community gardens in the area.

"We know the consultation has to be extensive, and we have to provide clear explanations of the pros and cons of the various alternatives," Mr. Jackson said, explaining that this is one of the reasons staff wants two years to complete a working plan.

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"People want time to understand the proposal, and time to be part of the process."

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