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February 6, 2024 at 10:11 PM

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Creating a Gastown Pedestrian Zone – Five Ideas for the Pilot Project

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Gastown Summer Pilot - Water Street2

On Wednesday (February 7), City Council will be considering a proposed Gastown Summer 2024 Water Street Pedestrian Zone Pilot Project. A long title, but the gist of the project involves a six-week transformation of Water Street into a mix of car-free and car-lite spaces, along with changes to permitting to increase the size of patios and allow new types of street vending. The pilot is part of a larger initiative to test out ways to pedestrianize parts of Gastown, and linked to a Gastown Public Spaces Plan that’s currently being developed.

Cities across Canada (and around the world) are testing new approaches to people-friendly streets. Last year, Montreal alone rolled out 12 large-scale pedestrian transformations across its boroughs. Here in Vancouver, we’ve seen smaller-scale pilots on Granville Street, along with a roster of single-day events in other neighbourhoods. The Water Street pilot is an overdue step in creating livelier, more people-friendly streets.

The VPSN wrote to Council and offered our support for the pilot project, along with five suggestions which we felt would strengthen the pilot.

1. Increase the duration of the pilot project

Culture change, particularly when related to transportation and business practices, takes time to ‘filter outward’ to the broader public, tourists, and specific user groups. For those engaged in programming the space, the opportunity for small-scale testing, learning and adjustment also takes time. Good quality “tactical” interventions are iterative in nature. A key challenge in this regard: the current pilot is only six weeks in length, and any construction-related delays will further constrain an already-narrow window of opportunity.

Recommendation: We suggest extending the pilot through to the end of September, and ideally to Thanksgiving (mid-October).

2. Undertake public life studies before, during, and after the pilot.

Public life studies assess both the volume of people in a space, but more importantly what they’re doing and how they are spending time. More detailed analysis can also explore key demographic considerations, people’s motivations for coming to a public space, their sentiments about the space, and other considerations. Undertaking these studies at key milestones can provide a much clearer picture about the efficacy of a placemaking project. The current pilot only outlines a plan to undertake vehicle and pedestrian counts (p.5).

Recommendation: Direct staff to undertake more detailed public life studies at key project milestones. Provide additional funding to support this work.

3. Prepare for uncertainty – particularly with automobile and tour bus routing.

We have long stated that the Gastown transportation network is a ‘sticky problem.’ The existing block and alley configuration, and mix of uses (residential, commercial, tourist, etc.) makes the situation complex. We confess an uncertainty about the ‘dumbbell’ approach outlined by staff: two car-free “gateways” (Cordova to Cambie and a portion of Maple Tree Square), and two interior car-light blocks. This limits some of the larger programming opportunities that might otherwise be available, and also poses a challenge about the legibility of the changes to both car drivers and pedestrians alike. We recognize that different ideas will need to be tested to determine the best long-term solution.

Recommendation: Ensure that traffic monitoring methodologies test for pedestrian/automobile conflict. We further suggest detailed monitoring at Maple Tree Square and Blood Alley, as the diversions proposed in this area could pose challenges for the use of these public spaces.

4. Create opportunities for community-led interventions.

As presently drafted, the Gastown Pilot report focuses mainly on the enabling conditions for late summer activation, and a series of initiatives to test changes to permitting (e.g., for larger patios, sidewalk merchandise, etc.). These are important, but we suggest that you should also be looking to enable opportunities for other types of placemaking – in particular, community-led activations. Having organized several events in Gastown over the years and can speak to the popularity of these events. They don’t cost a lot, can engage the community and volunteers, and will create a more inclusive and interesting public space.

Recommendation: As part of the summertime pilot budget, create a small stream for community-led placemaking projects that could be integrated into the overall programming framework. Ensure that these are included in any monitoring and evaluation processes.

5. Don’t lose sight of other opportunities.

In our May 9, 2023 letter to Council, we noted that there are a number of opportunities to enhance Gastown public spaces. We recognize that there is only so much you can do in one pilot project, but we would be remiss if we didn’t use this opportunity to say don’t forget about the following opportunities:

  • Using street-end segments of Cambie, Abbott, and Carrall (north of Water) for gathering areas
  • Re-opening the CPR right-of-way that runs diagonally between Columbia and Pender
  • Placemaking in commercial laneways (e.g. Homer-Cambie-Cordova Alley, Harbour Light Alley)
  • Introducing a linkage to connect CRAB Park with Gastown
  • Integrating public space network connections to Granville Street and the Waterfront Hub

This is an ambitious project, and we are excited to see where the discussion goes at Council. With any luck, we’ll all be able to enjoy a stroll down the middle of the street come July of this year!

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