Vancouver approves permanent public plaza at Robson Square
Published on April 26, 2016 in the Globe and Mail
City advocates have dreamed of a grand public plaza in Vancouver’s downtown for decades.
A diagram buried in the Vancouver Archives from 1960 lays out the blueprint for a three-block-long space with a fountain, band shell, Tuileries-like rows of trees, and a lawn extending south from what was then the Vancouver courthouse.
In the 1970s, when Vancouver’s best-known architect, Arthur Erickson, transformed that courthouse into the new Vancouver Art Gallery and designed the modern courthouse complex that covers two blocks, he also incorporated a public plaza into his early concept.
Now, starting some time next year, that dream is about to become a reality, after council voted to close a block of Robson Street to all traffic to create a permanent public plaza at Robson Square. It’s a move many say will give Vancouver the natural public gathering place any great city needs.
“That’s really a valuable space for a city to have,” said Gordon Price, the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and a former councillor. “It’s where you go spontaneously, a collective understanding of where the centre is.”
But it took a long time to get there because there was always a fight over whether that one block of Robson was a vital piece needed for city transportation or whether it should be for the public.
“It was concluded by everybody that traffic was more important than the plaza,” said Ray Spaxman, who was the city’s planning director when the fight was going on.
Mr. Erickson and his project planner, Alan Bell, along with other allies, kept fighting to maintain a plaza. But the province’s Bureau of Transit Services was insistent that the street needed to be kept open at least for buses so they could travel in a straight line from the West End to False Creek.
Once the buses were in, the cars were allowed to join them.
For a long time, any suggestion to shut the street down, even during some of the recent summer closings, got blowback.
Residents were worried about the loss of a direct bus route from the West End.
Local businesses worried about losing customers who were frustrated by the dead ends on either side of the plaza.
But those businesses did a complete reversal in the past year after the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association did a massive consultation called Re-imagine Downtown Vancouver, talking to users about what they wanted to see in the central city.
“The turning point was what we heard,” said Charles Gauthier, the association’s executive director. People wanted public places to hang out that were filled with activities and were used frequently for festivals and events.
The association’s members, who spent much of the 1990s fighting city hall to get cars back onto the nearby Granville Mall, also had gone through a sea change.
“They’re much more about how do we get the millennials downtown, how do we appeal to our tenants,” Mr. Gauthier said. “We’ve evolved.”
The creation of a Robson Square plaza coincides with a remake of the art gallery’s north plaza.
Several trees there have been chopped down already. The fountain in the middle, which many always darkly suspected was installed by the provincial government to deter demonstrators, will be removed this summer.
The new north plaza – which has been the site for 4/20 demonstrations, the Occupy movement and any number of festivals – will instead be lined with double rows of trees and dotted with new light fixtures and bistro tables and chairs. Mr. Gauthier said his group would like to see chairs and tables on the new, smaller south plaza as well, along with lots of activities that turn it into something as active as New York’s popular Bryant Square.
For one person in particular, the transformation after 40 years is particularly welcome.
“This is what we wanted from the start,” said Mr. Erickson’s long-ago project planner, Mr. Bell. “It helps vindicate all those stages of fighting and pushback.”