Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

11 Responses

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  1. Ironically it is the sections with car traffic and parking where businesses are doing the worse. Even more ironic is that the section that has been torn up due to Canada Line construction is doing better than the section with traffic and parking. Seems like on-street parking is worse for business than subway station construction.

    My theory is that parking blocks the view of storefronts from the street and blocks people’s view of each other from across the street making people watching much more difficult. Parking also makes the sidewalks seem more dark and dangerous at night especially when the vehicles are large.

    Many planners insist that parking improves the pedestrian environment by providing a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. I suspect this is only the case when the traffic is moving fast. Along this section of Granville, wider sidewalks and no parking would probably be of greater benefit to businesses and pedestrians.


    July 9, 2009 at 2:41 pm

  2. I posted a while back that Pacific Centre was the reason for the failure of so many businesses along Granville in the 1970s.

    The automotive portion of Granville was in decline for as long as I can remember. I rode the bus to a job near Howe and Drake for several years before, during and after Expo 86, and saw the inside of some of the local establishments on pub crawls and stags for older friends. At that point Wolfe and Dobson represented the last hold-out of high class retailing in the area. Hotel sales and renovations for Expo 86 did little more than put a new façade on the old grime.

    During Canada Line construction pedestrians have been funneled into the the construction zones along Granville bringing greater foot traffic to the shops there, but I wouldn’t think it has increased sales. I found the construction zones exceedingly crowded and filled with more smokers than I thought existed in Vancouver. I certainly never noticed the shops I was passing, being far too concerned not to bump or be bumped by my fellow pedestrians. After a few times I decided my interest in watching the construction simply wasn’t enough to justify the uncomfortable walk and took to using other streets as much as possible.

    I have hope that the huge number of new condos in Downtown South will one day restore Granville. The new residents are generally young and wealthy; just the type of people who make sidewalk shopping a popular reality. Several of my co-workers walk everywhere because they live in the West End or Yaletown and don’t own cars. A few more cycle to work from the Commercial Drive area. They too have no motorized vehicle. Making Granville more attractive will help.


    July 9, 2009 at 4:41 pm

  3. I never found the “Theatre Row” section of Granville mall all that bad. I don’t recall the Golden Age of Granville as depicted in the photos of Leonard Frank or Fred Herzog, but do recall many excursions (the first, April 28 1977) to the mall… it was always busy on the weekends and “$2.50 Tuesdays”. Now with all but one theatre gone there’s not much reason to go there anymore… Sure it was bit on the seedy side, and yould count on the murmers of dealers offering their wares, but the busineses on the street like the Mall Book Bazzar, or “Crak a Joke” seemed to survive… It never seemed like a pedestrian mall with the constant trolley traffic, and the section north of Georgia where the sun seldom shines seems paticularly devoid of life… It’s too bad the buses are coming back, they’ve been on Howe/Seymour for 3 years without hardship… a true *Pedestrian* mall would be a worthwile experiment imo.


    July 9, 2009 at 8:46 pm

  4. I agree with David last post.. Have any of you noticed the strange posts on the sections between Nelson and David? the sidewalks are wider but right down the middle there are 2 parralel rows of thin black posts, a bit above waist high (for a 5′ 7” guy). I haven’t measured their spacing but when you look down the street it look like fence posts..waiing for a fence. What in the world are they?
    I have seen many a pedestrian area in Europe and Asia, and also avenues with very wide sidewalks (those on the Champs Elysees are each 16 metres wide) yet none has such fixed posts???

    Red frog

    July 9, 2009 at 10:30 pm

  5. We’re certainly not finding that pedestrianised streets die here, quite the opposite, although convincing shopkeepers is another matter.

    Andy in Germany

    July 10, 2009 at 7:39 am

  6. […] Top 10 endangered historic buildings [Vancouver Sun] Traffic calming and fact checking [Price Tags] From the rubble, will a Great Street emerge? [Stephen Rees's Blog] HEAT Rash [City Caucus] Promote bike path, Vision Vancouver tells members [The […]

    re:place Magazine

    July 10, 2009 at 8:04 am

  7. The posts running down the middle of the side walk are demarking the parking area on the sidewalk. I assume that during the day, parking will be allowed between street trees along the street side of the posts. At night, the parking will be restricted as to allow wide enough sidewalks for bar goers rather than shutting down granville and save the associated police costs.

    If you look at the city’s design website, it looks like those posts might be replaced with pedestrian scale lighting.


    July 10, 2009 at 8:44 am

  8. Yeah, some of the posts will demarcate parking spaces “flex space” between trees and others will be bases for the landmark lighting fixtures planned for the street. Others will undoubtedly be for the street signs that need to explain the unique parking regulaions on the street.

    As for the southern strip of Granville being seedy – there are a number of older residential hotels (SROs) on Granville street. Given their age, dating back from the 1920s or earlier I would guess – the area has catered to a transient population for many years. Where it was probably construction, railway and longshore workers back in the day, it’s now drug addicts and the disenfranchised.

    While I agree that Granville suffered when a more desirable shopping experience opened in Pacific Centre, the rise of Robson St. despite the established presence of the mall would suggest that more issues were in play on Granville St. i.e. Robson St. is not “hindered” by a transient resident population above its storefronts.

    Granville has been coming back in the past few years, with the Future Shop, Winners, Urban Outfitters, Quicksilver, Puma, Adidas and others occupying the Bonnis’ families properties on the street.

    One of the current issues will be maintaining pedestrian interest across storefronts of nightclubs that are typically closed during the daytime. But Granville is destined to be more of a neighbourhood shopping street (with many restaurant by the looks of it), rather than a destination shopping street (and that’s probably a good thing given Vancouver’s size).

    Robson St. east of Granville will also be a primarily neighbourhood shopping street (in part because condo podiums often do not provide the larger premises desired by multinational retail tenants (L’Hermitage would be the exception, and maybe L’Atelier may provide a large retail space too)).

    Ron C.

    July 10, 2009 at 3:06 pm

  9. Last post on the posts, I promise!
    Thank you for explaining the role of the posts but I am still very skeptical. Whatever their function these 2 rows of posts (on EACH sidewalk) look like a light duty version of anti-tank devices.

    Lots of streets in the world let cars park at certain times on the sidewalks and a basic painted line mark the parking area. This leaves the whole of each sidewalk free of any obstacles for the odd days when they are used for a market, a street party, standing room for spectators of a parade etc.
    Of course many towns also never had individual parking meters, only a meter machine per block. We sure seem to like clutter around here!!!

    Red frog

    July 10, 2009 at 9:21 pm

  10. Red Frog

    The city will be testing one “meter machine per block” on Granville.


    July 12, 2009 at 12:31 am

  11. The “anti-tank” devices are to protect the trees that will be placed between each parking space from cars backing into them.

    Ron C.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:23 am

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