Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 9th, 2009

From the rubble, will a Great Street emerge?

with 11 comments

Mark Hume’s column in the Globe raises a question but fails to answer it. Instead he gives a some stilted view of the history – and present state of the street. I would comment on the Globe’s web page as I do not have much to say – but need to correct him – but there is a glitch that will not let me log in there.

He wrote

In 1974, the city blocked off traffic to a six-block section, creating a pedestrian and transit mall. The idea was to recreate the walking streets so popular in Europe, but instead it gradually bled the life out of the area.

I disagree. What ” gradually bled the life out of the” street was the opening of the Pacific Centre Mall and the creation of a new covered pedestrian route that parallels the street. Indeed he even notes that “the pavement ends abruptly at a fence with a sign directing pedestrians to detour through Pacific Centre Mall.” There is only so much that can be spent in retail premises in  any given area at any given time. Retailers who open large new stores have to attract trade either from a wider area or from their adjacent competitors. At one time, I worked on retail impact assessments as part of an attempt to prop up a more comprehensive town centres policy in London. One of Mrs Thatcher’s remarkable achievements was to deprive the small retailers (the very class she came from) of the data that was needed to defend them. She cancelled the Retail Census. Even so it was not hard to show at planning enquiries that major new malls sucked the life out of London’s shopping streets. I wasn’t here in 1974 – but I would bet that the opening of a major pedestrian mall parallel to Granville Street was the main thing that reduced retail trade on that street. Just as the opening of the Eaton Centre in Toronto caused the decline of retail quality on Yonge Street – which remained open to cars but still became pretty tatty.

And it is also my observation that “fast-food outlets and porn shops moving in to the increasingly vacant storefronts” were more apparent in the section that remained open to cars – not the bit that was bus only.

One of the keys to revitalizing London’s High Streets was taking out the cars and creating spaces between the shops that people wanted to spend some time in. Of course, experience varied and different regimes tried different approaches – but keeping fast moving traffic in the centre while pedestrians were forced onto narrow sidewalks obviously did not work. Oxford Street – London’s main shopping street – was made bus and taxi only and the sidewalks were widened – and it remained successful despite the opening of many suburban car oriented malls. It is still a major destination and is very busy.

Putting a subway underneath Granville will change things. The new Canada Line stations will be the generators of pedestrian traffic – and will probably be more concentrated than the bus stops they replace. The street will still be a major transit interchange. And the Pacific Centre Mall will still be a route where people will be able to walk through and escape the rain and the wind.

The social problems that beset downtown Vancouver have also not been solved. The measures that have been introduced like downtown Ambassadors have simply moved people around a bit. There are still druggies and drunks, panhandlers and other unsavoury creatures – and, as in any city, crowds of people attract those who prey on them. Changing the street surface and the trees will have little impact on any of this.

It is also the case that Robson Street has also changed its character significantly in the same period – and that is where the highest retail rents are charged now. Is there room for two Robsons?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 9, 2009 at 2:11 pm