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Politics, not petition, will determine Robson Square's future

It's unlikely that the Vancouver Public Space Network has been inspired by the people who designed the question on the HST ballot, but you could be forgiven for suspecting as much.

The Public Space Network's online petition on the future of Robson Square has the same counterintuitive wording that left so many people thinking, "What did I just vote for?" as they sealed their HST envelopes.

I know – the HST question was designed by the chief electoral officer without any political interference.

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And yes, the Public Space Network has laid its cards on the table. It desperately wants to keep the 800 block of Robson Street car-free, as it has been for the better part of the past two years.

But you've got to applaud them for trying to appear objective.

The VPSN's Josh Paterson says the group is presenting two petitions on its website, one for and one against the closing "because we want to be really democratic about this."

Click on "Yes, I support the expansion of Robson Square" and you're directed to a nine-paragraph argument which proves beyond a doubt that Robson Square has become the centre of civic life since evil autos were sent packing just before the 2010 Winter Games.

Cars have in fact been replaced with buskers, community markets and other activities that have "enlivened the downtown core." It warns, "Sadly, much of this positive change is about to be lost."

It's the "No" option that bears a slight resemblance to the HST ballot. It reads, "No, I WANT vehicles back in the 800 block of Robson." (I mean YES, bring back the cars.)

Click on "No," and you're sent to a petition conspicuously devoid of the exclamation marks that punctuate the "yes" side, and which contains two tepid paragraphs that leave the reader feeling vaguely guilty. "We do not want Robson Square to be expanded for the purpose of creating a larger public square in downtown Vancouver."

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Objective or not, democratic or not, there's no doubt that right now, the closed-to-traffic Robson Square is pretty sweet. The undulating gold-carpeted "Picnurbia" installation is original, eye-catching, and well-used. The hawkers are hawking, the buskers are busking. For brief moments you can trick yourself into believing that you live in a much cooler city.

But the roadway is scheduled to reopen after Labour Day.

City council has been clear that the closing won't be extended. It says the road needs to be reopened because TransLink would like to get the Number 5 bus rolling on Robson Street again. The route is a direct connection between the West End and Skytrain and is well-used by the neighbourhood's many seniors.

Council says any move to re-examine the issue will be dealt with in the city's upcoming big-picture transportation plan.

Josh Paterson isn't fooling himself into thinking that is going to change. He knows that once the block is re-opened to traffic, the likelihood of it ever closing again is significantly diminished.

There are many practical reasons to reopen the route. Robson is, after all, a major downtown street, and transit and auto traffic have been working around the closing for nearly two years. There's also the fact that even with traffic flowing through the 800 block, the area was already a public gathering place; just look at the Art Gallery stairs on any sunny day and the number of people playing chess, performing, or gathering signatures on petitions. There's also the small fact that on the north side of the building, a public gathering place, a half-a-city-block expanse, has existed for years.

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Beyond all of the practical reasons, there is politics. Council's political-capital piggy bank has no more than a couple of lonely coins jingling around inside it right now. Over the past three years, it's all been spent on the bike lanes on Hornby and Dunsmuir streets, the Burrard Bridge bike lanes and higher rates for parking meters. Throw in a few Car Free Days and councillor Geoff Meggs's obsession with blowing up the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts and you have what Toronto Mayor Rob Ford might call "a war on the car."

As sympathetic as council may be to the "Yes" side, as much as it may fit in with their vision of transforming Vancouver into a pedestrian and bicycle-centred urban utopia, they will have little choice but to keep the street open to traffic.

Counting signatures on a petition is one thing. Counting votes in the ballot box is entirely another.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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