Vancouver looks to make Gastown a 'pedestrian priority area'

It's the oldest and smallest neighbourhood in Vancouver — but could it be the only one without cars at its centre?

'Gastown's already a great place ... Can it be an even better place for people?' asks planner

Pedestrians walk through the busy intersection at Water, Carrall, Powell and Alexander streets in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood on Sept. 6, 2017. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Gastown is the oldest and smallest neighbourhood in Vancouver — but could it be the only one without cars at its centre?

Next month, the City of Vancouver will begin developing a transportation plan for the area. One of the four stated goals is to explore Vancouver's first "car-light or pedestrian priority area."

What exactly "pedestrian priority" could entail will be seen. The city says it will start "the very, very early stages of public consultation" in October, and will be listening to the public for quite a while before any proposals are developed. 

But potential options for Water Street, according to the City's 2040 Transportation Plan, range "from wider sidewalks with modified parking arrangements to car-free or shared spaces through parts or all of the day."

Brent Toderian, a former chief planner for the City of Vancouver, says it's a unique chance for the city to take innovative best practices in other countries and apply it to a highly-used area.

"I think there's the opportunity to do something more than the sum of its parts," Toderian said.

"Gastown's already a great place. It's a historic place, it's a beautiful place, it has a lot of character. Can it be an even better place for people?"

The Gastown area under study by the City of Vancouver. (CBC)

Aging streets

The city says the reason it's exploring possibilities is due to the major rehabilitation work needed for the cobblestone streets themselves.

However, Toderian notes that the Gastown core is already unique for how slowly the cars move due to the narrow streets and high pedestrian traffic, particularly around the Gassy Jack statue and famed steam clock.

"It's why you don't necessarily have to ban the car. There are other options that could be considered," he said.

"You're trying to create a special place down there that does many things very well, and to do that you have to rethink your priorities."

"I think Water Street and Gastown is probably the best opportunity in our downtown to try some things that not just rebalance the relationship between cars and people, but also represent a powerful placemaking opportunity."

Gastown's cobblestone streets are in need of repair, but aren't as old as they look. They were laid down in the 1970s. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Concerns from businesses

Reducing car access on downtown Vancouver streets often raises the ire of local businesses, but those CBC News spoke to weren't angered by the possibility of a reduced-vehicle zone.

"When something is serviced so well by public transit, I'm less opposed to restricting vehicles," said Alfredo Yabut, manager of the 131 Water Kitchen & Bar.  

Yabut did, however, raise concerns about how to supply his business if vehicles were restricted in the area.

"I think the challenge for us would be delivery ... they come frequently and often, and what would that look like?"

Unsurprisingly, pedestrians enjoying Water Street on a sunny September afternoon overwhelmingly favoured more room to traverse the area.

"It's part of the city that people are walking around in, and would make sense ... it's not really a good area to get cars through anyway," said Michael Greshen.

"If you had no cars here, I think the shops would probably perk up, you'd have things in the street more. It'd be good for the city," Greshen said. 

The city will begin consultation over the future plan for Water Street beginning in October. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

With files from Max Haberstroh and Anais Elboujdaini