Mayor Gregor Robertson says Canadian Pacific Rail is trying to set a price for its unused 11-kilometre Arbutus rail corridor that is based on "speculative" land values.
And while he would not provide details about the negotiations between the city and CP over the land, he did confirm that $20-million is "closer to the range of value" that any property owner could expect for that strip, which is zoned as a transportation corridor.
The Arbutus corridor flared into a public controversy in April, when CP started notifying residents along the track that it would be bringing the line – unused since 2001 – back to operational condition.
The city wants to buy the land and keep it as a green space.
Sources say that CP is asking for $100-million, while Vancouver is offering $20-million.
CP's price matches the price it got per kilometre for a section of rail line from the city in 1996. Vancouver's $20-million is closer, on a per-kilometre basis, to the $5-million Richmond paid CP in 2010 for a three-kilometre section of its decommissioned line.
Mr. Robertson said the city is offering an amount of money based the land not being developed, whereas CP is using a value that appears to be related to the price for residential land near the rail line.
"It's up to CP if they want to make a deal," he said.
In the meantime, feelings and public debate about the future of the rail corridor are running high.
It has been used as a running, walking and cycling corridor at the south end. At the north end, residents who have created lush gardens, beekeeping operations, and public spaces along it for more than 20 years have been told by CP to remove their belongings by Thursday.
A 3,500-name petition supporting the gardens was submitted to City Hall on the weekend, and hundreds more names have been gathered since.
"My heart is breaking now," said Maureen Ryan, the co-ordinator for the Cypress Community Garden. "The strip is a very important asset. We have taken what was a toxic area and made it biodiverse. We've done a very good job of taking care of CPR's tracks and the public loves it."
On the other hand, other residents have asked why the city should spend tax dollars to preserve a public greenway and community-gardening space on the already park-rich west side.
(That's been coupled with a concern about Mr. Robertson's other recent initiative – to buy or lease Granville Island. Mr. Robertson says the city never contemplated paying market value for the island, only transferring it for a nominal sum, like a dollar. Anything else would trigger First Nations land-claims negotiations.)
The city and CP have been fighting over rail corridors for almost two decades. CP sold a chunk of a line at the entrance to Granville Island in 1995 to Starbucks, cutting off the connection between the Arbutus line and the track that ran east to Main Street. The city then paid $9-million in 1996 for a 1.5-kilometre section between Granville Island and Science World that was later used for a streetcar during the 2010 Olympics. That price, extended to the 11-kilometre Arbutus corridor and in today's dollars, works out to about $93-million – close to the $100-million CP wants.
In 1999, CP started talking about ending train runs along the Arbutus line, which served the Molson brewery on Burrard, and developing the land. City planners rezoned it as a transportation corridor. Mr. Robertson said the plan still is to have light rail at some point.
CP fought that to the Supreme Court of Canada and lost in 2006. In the meantime, residents near the Kitsilano part of the line who had started gardens when trains were still running, expanded them in the 2000s.
Everything was quiet until residents started getting notices in April to remove anything encroaching on the line. In recent weeks, CP has sent maps to residents and placed stakes to show where the boundary lines are.
CP spokesman Ed Greenberg said the company is not planning to destroy gardens as of Aug. 1.
"We will not be doing an immediate dismantling of the gardens," he said.