Robson Square not yet the celebrated heart of Vancouver it's designed to be

The 800 block of Robson Street is supposed to be a vibrant gathering place, but the city hasn't even finished designing it.

The City's vision for the permanent plaza won't be fully implemented until 2019

A pedestrian walks through the 800 block of Robson Street. The city says the plaza isn't finished yet. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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. 

The square is not yet complete. It's expected the permanent plaza will be complete in 2019. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

Sisters Joni McPhail (left) and Mariane Davis (right) meet for coffee at the footsteps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a spot they say they don't typically come to. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

City of Vancouver says on a busy day 2,500 pass by the 800 block of Robson Street in one hour. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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 is no permanent seating at the plaza yet, because people kept stealing the furniture. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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. 

The concept renderings for the plaza show street furniture and landscaping. (City of Vancouver)

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. 

Thai food truck operator Aree Rakkiat say the unlicensed vendors selling marijuana around the area are harming business. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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 800 block of Robson Street has long been a place for artists and buskers. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"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. 

Unlicensed vendors daily sell marijuana along the 800 block of Robson St. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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. 

Willie who lives on the streets says he has been coming to the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery almost every day for the past nine years, just to kick back and take in the scene. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)