Robson Square not yet the celebrated heart of Vancouver it's designed to be
The City's vision for the permanent plaza won't be fully implemented until 2019
When Vancouver city council approved permanently closing 800 Robson Street to vehicle traffic in April 2016, it envisioned a vibrant space where people would gather, sit back and relax.
But even on a nice day in January, sun-deprived Vancouverites don't sprawl out on the plaza — in part because there is no place to sit.
Sisters Joni McPhail and Mariane Davis meet for a quick coffee before McPhail, who lives in Toronto, has to head to the airport. The two sit down on a concrete bench located at the footsteps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
There has been a rotation of temporary seating — from giant white bean-bag chairs and yellow and green benches, to the colourful Porch Parade.
The problem is, the city had to remove the last round of tables and chairs because people kept stealing them.
The plaza, as it was proposed, has not come to fruition and isn't expected to until 2019.
"Right now we are in the design phase of creating a permanent plaza at that location," said Margaret Wittgens, director of public space and street use with the City of Vancouver's engineering department.
That phase would include permanent street furniture — which can't be stolen — in addition to landscaping and lighting.
While the site hasn't reached its maximum potential, over the years it has been home to special events, film sets and a giant Christmas tree that has routinely served as the backdrop for many selfies.
But day to day, it's mostly frequented by pedestrians and cyclists who are passing by.
During its busiest hour, 2,500 people pass through the area, according to Wittgens.
The street was first closed in 2010 in order to create a gathering space for pedestrians during the Olympics. It has also been closed for annual public art installations.
In 2012 councillors asked city staff to investigate a permanent closure of the block and a report noted that turning the street into a public plaza would be in keeping with architect Arthur Erickson's original design for the Robson Square complex from 40 years ago.
Despite the lack of seating, the city approved the operation of food trucks that now draw thousands of people to the area.
Jim Mustard swings by two to three times a month to grab a bite at one of the food trucks.
"Closing of the street is irrelevant to me, it neither adds nor detracts for the reason for me being here," said Mustard.
"There never was a lot of traffic through the plaza in any case," he said.
The area is more lively in the summer months, especially with artists and buskers who don't require a city a permit to work or perform.
And food truck operators say business has improved ever since the area turned into a traffic-free pedestrian space, although they note that marijuana vendors have a negative effect.
On a sunny weekend, there can be up to 40 marijuana vendors that set up tables to sell a variety of products from joints to edibles.
"The way things are, it's like we're in hell, really," said Alistair Fitzgerald, owner of Sauzzy Thai food.
Fitzgerald has been operating at the site for three years but says he often closes early because the weed smoke turns customers away.
Plus, he said it's unfair that he has to pay $1,000 a year for a licence while pot sellers don't.
David Labadie sells marijuana edibles just a few metres away and says he's approached the city to request a permit, but was refused.
"It's not as if we haven't tried or aren't willing to play by the rules, but they won't allow us to, so we have to make our own [rules]," he said.
During a press conference earlier this month, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson expressed his concern about the unlicensed vendors.
"That's a situation we have to deal with," he said.