Arbutus Corridor: One track minds

A CRISP WIND blows early one April afternoon as Kay Teschke and her charcoal-coloured poodle mix Kiwi walk north along Arbutus Corridor where it parallels Quilchena Park on Vancouver's West Side.

Kiwi darts ahead as Teschke strolls down the narrow, well-trodden gravel path that stretches in front of them in the shallow valley between the rail track, which is no longer in use, and overgrown grass.

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It's quiet aside from the rumble of cars on West 33rd. Budding trees on one side and an upscale residential street on the other flank this portion of the corridor whose length covers 9.5 kilometres and encompasses 45 acres from the Fraser River to False Creek.

Canadian Pacific, which was granted the land by the province more than a century ago, stopped shipping product on the rail line in 2001. It's since become an increasingly popular route for trespassers — walkers and cyclists seeking refuge from city roadways.

Teschke, a UBC professor at the school of population and public health, imagines it becoming even more popular. She's behind a fledgling Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) campaign to encourage the rapid development of Arbutus Corridor into a paved cycling and pedestrian path. It's an ambitious idea among several possibilities touted for the valuable real estate, including a streetcar and limited "green" development. It's difficult to say whether one or more of these propositions could be incorporated in the future, but deliberations could be complicated.

The city has designated the land for transportation or for greenways, but it remains private property. In the past, there were suggestions the city buy it or make a deal with CP, but formal discussions cooled during years of contentious court battles centering on what the property can or should be used for, the buildup towards the Olympics and other priorities.

There haven't been official talks between CP, formerly known as CPR, and the city in recent years and it's unclear how long it could take before anything is resolved.

City and CP officials met informally during the Olympics and discussed a host of common issues, including Arbutus Corridor, but the property's status is unchanged.

"There have been many suggested uses for the Arbutus Corridor over the years, but CP has never formally discontinued the track, so any specific discussion on a future use is premature," CP spokesman Mike LoVecchio says during a phone interview. "The track remains designated as a rail right of way to be used for rail purposes."

AN INTEREST IN cycling led to Teschke's involvement in the years-old Arbutus Corridor debate. She joined the city's cycling advisory committee seven years ago and served two terms. Troubled by "decision-making without research," Teschke reviewed cycling data then launched a Cycling in Cities opinion survey and research project whose findings have been released over the past few years.

Roughly 1,400 Metro Vancouver adults were quizzed about 16 route types and 73 other factors that might encourage cycling. It revealed 31 per cent of adults in the Vancouver region are in the "near market" for cycling. The best route to encourage cycling is a paved, off-street path for cyclists only. Design features that encourage cycling include routes away from traffic and noise pollution, located near beautiful scenery, with minimal slopes and distances, and smooth, non-slip surfaces.

A dearth of such routes was cited as a key reason for not cycling more. Armed with these findings, Teschke approached VACC last fall. "The biggest outcome of our survey was how people wanted to be able to ride away from traffic. There are other things like beautiful scenery and away from pollution, and all these things added up to the Arbutus Corridor," she says.

The cycling coalition agreed, then asked Teschke to chair an Arbutus Corridor committee. "It was awkward to say no at that point," she says with a laugh.

The case is compelling. Arbutus Corridor is an obvious connection point in the region. The Canada Line Bridge, linking Richmond and Vancouver, features a cycling lane that dumps users on the Vancouver side by railway tracks that connect to Arbutus Corridor.

The route, whose width ranges from 15 to 20 metres, passes through Marpole, Kerrisdale, Arbutus Ridge/Shaughnessy and Kitsilano, before ending near the south end of Burrard Bridge.

Arbutus Corridor is appealing due to a lack of steep hills thanks to the low grade provided by the unused rail line. "One of the wonderful things about this corridor is there are at least 20 schools within a kilometre," Teschke adds. "There are 15 different shopping districts. There are four community centres and a whole bunch of theatres, so it really serves so many things."

VACC has launched the obligatory Facebook page to garner support, sought backing from the Vancouver School Board and the committee plans to approach city council, community and business associations. Teschke concedes success is not guaranteed.

"I always say wouldn't it be nice if something could be done before I'm too old for cycling. But you can't let that stop you from trying," she jokes. "This is exactly what people want to ride on — the top choice. This isn't the third choice. This is the top choice, assuming it were paved... to me it's almost my responsibility as a researcher to follow through with what people want and make sure something happens."

CANADIAN PACIFIC ANNOUNCED in 1999 it would no longer service Molson Brewery, its only customer along Arbutus Corridor. It proposed developing the land for commercial and residential use, but that ignited a backlash from those who saw the route more suited to public transportation or a cycling, jogging and walking path.

The city enacted the Arbutus Corridor Official Development Plan, which designates the land for transportation, including rail and transit, or for greenways, following public hearings in 2000.

CP challenged the city's right to enact the plan through B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled against the city in 2002. The city appealed that decision to the B.C. Court of Appeal and it affirmed the city's authority. CP then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld the city's position in 2006.

In intervening years, interest in the corridor hasn't waned. In 2004, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation launched "All Aboard Arbutus Corridor," a design contest for individuals and professionals to share their ideas for its future development. More than 75 designs were submitted.

In late 2006, the park board passed a motion endorsing the inclusion of greenway features in the future development of the Arbutus Corridor. It urged the city to launch a study regarding the purchase of the property from CP.

THE VIEW FROM a 19th floor boardroom in a highrise at the north end of Granville Street is impressive. Towering mountains provide a striking backdrop for Coal Harbour where the new convention centre's green roof stands out in the concrete landscape.

Howie Charters witnessed its construction from Colliers International Consulting Services offices, where he's vice president and managing director. But today his attention is focused on another piece of real estate--the Arbutus Corridor.

Charters, a friendly and well-connected West Sider, is not authorized to speak on CP's behalf, but he's well versed in the debate. He became an adviser to the rail company on the Arbutus Corridor file about five years ago during the lawsuits. "It might have been between the first and second [lawsuit] and there was not a lot of goodwill between the two parties," he recalls.

Charters helped instigate a CP-funded visioning exercise within the four neighbourhoods the rail line runs through. The object was to look at the property with fresh eyes using sustainability as the underlying theme.

Stanley King, who handled the visioning process for the Woodward's redevelopment, was brought in, along with an advisory panel headed by Nola-Kate Seymoar from the International Centre for Sustainable Cities. Panel members included Patrick Condon, a UBC professor and expert in sustainability, Jim O'Dea, former chair of the B.C. Housing Management Commission and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt.

The goal was to involve individuals who would be seen as above reproach, according to Charters, adding CP took a big risk by staging the visioning exercise since it didn't have control over the findings.

In the half-inch thick final report unveiled in 2007, the advisory panel concluded "the best use of the Arbutus lands will come from a coordinated development that integrates them with surrounding city owned lands into a comprehensive development plan."

The report dismissed using the lands solely for a greenway with bike paths and walkways because, despite meeting sustainability principles, it wasn't financially feasible and it didn't include "smarter, greener buildings and infrastructure, nor diverse housing choices." In terms of a purely transit option, community participants favoured a streetcar system that also allowed for biking and walking, but that alternative also didn't incorporate housing or economic aspects of sustainability.

The panel judged a "hybrid" option as best, taking into account land owned by CP and adjacent city-owned land. It envisions parks and green spaces, a transportation corridor and clusters of housing and commercial use, particularly in areas such as Kerrisdale where space allows. The land — if city and CP-owned was combined--is wide enough for a streetcar to be diverted onto East Boulevard in this section, along with a bike and pedestrian path, while West Boulevard could be reserved for traffic. The middle portion could feature "green" commercial and residential development, Charters says.

The advisory panel dubbed this the "Sustainability Vision"— a combination of greenway, transportation and eco-density. A review of the financial feasibility of selling these lands for limited development, combined with possible trades with CP lands, led to the conclusion that the hybrid model met with sustainability principles and had the potential to generate income for the city.

Seymoar wrote in 2007 that it would be in the best interest of Vancouverites if the land issue was resolved sooner rather than later. "It's clear that implementing the Sustainability Vision, with its potential to create new revenue for the city--conservatively estimated at $200 million, could give the city more options in addressing pressing issues before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and provide a constructive example of the city's EcoDensity Initiative."

That didn't happen, but now that the Olympics are over and it's 18 months before another civic election, Charters suspects the time is ripe for a deal. He's convinced both sides are prepared to move forward and that an agreement could generate good will that spills over into future mutually beneficial projects.

"My view is if a deal is going to transact between the two parties, it'll have to transact within the next 12 months. If it doesn't, I think the owner will probably have become exhausted and lose interest for the moment--not to say if the city wanted to revisit it in the future they wouldn't return phone calls, but I don't think they'll put any more energy in it."

ON A RAINY afternoon in late April, Arbutus Corridor is passable by bicycle on the short trip from West 6th and Pine towards West 41st, although the downpour makes it more difficult. Potholes quickly fill with water, creating a muddy, bumpy ride. Much of the rough terrain has been beaten down by foot and bike traffic, but certain sections are narrower or difficult to navigate, particularly for novice or young riders and people with children. Cross streets interrupt the flow, garbage is strewn about, weeds grow indiscriminately and railway ties are awkward. The draw of a car-free, low-sloped route on Vancouver's lush West Side is nonetheless undeniable. Gardens, sprouting up in some sections, add to its appeal.

The worth of Arbutus Corridor, given it runs through some of the city's most expensive real estate, is difficult to determine and depends on who you ask. A $100 million figure was tossed around years ago.

Rail right-of-ways are not assessed at market value, but Arbutus Corridor is made up of about 100 different parcels of land and its tax bill is in the $70,000 range, according to the city, although a spokesperson suggested confirming those numbers with CP. LoVecchio could not confirm the numbers, explaining the company does not report the assessed value of its land by subdivision, also known as segment of track.

He also could not say how much money the company makes from revenue on Arbutus Corridor through avenues such as parking because CP does not break down income from specific subdivisions.

But the city gets minimal tax benefit, while the railway makes money off its ownership, Charters says.

"So what can the city do to punish CPR — CPR has existed before the city and they can wait another 100 years [to do a deal]. All I know is if they bought it in 1998, the value was probably one third of what it is today and if they decide to acquire it in 2025 it's going to be three times what it is today, and you can interpolate that out forever. So it should be owned by the city in my view, and never mind my view, that was the view of this panel of people who are a hell of a lot more erudite than I am."

Charters says the worth of a property such as a rail right-of-way is usually determined by "over-the-fence value"— pricing based on the worth of land the property in question adjoins.

That produces an enormous number given the corridor's location, further inflated by a bonus that would typically be added because it's an intact corridor requiring no expropriation of land.

The city likely can't justify a deal based on that calculation, according to Charters, who speculates that if the city acquired it based on the sustainability vision, at a significantly lower price, the difference between the two figures could be made up by a tax credit. A tax credit wouldn't be based on a dollar for dollar amount, it would be calculated at about 20 cents on the dollar. The city could cover its costs by a land swap arranged through the city's Property Endowment Fund, an inventory of cash and real estate the city owns.

Ultimately Charters explains that the CP has to be able to justify any agreed upon amount with its shareholders, as would the city with its citizens.

He insists Arbutus Corridor would be of great value to the city. "This is how we analyzed it. The city has to do its own business case and come up with its own conclusions."

DEPUTY CITY MANAGER Sadhu Johnston says it's too early to predict what will happen — too many questions remain unanswered.

No staff members are dedicated to the Arbutus Corridor file at this point, according to Johnston, who isn't convinced the conclusions reached in CP's visioning document are realistic.

"My sense, to be quite honest, is that they lost a court case that dictated it would remain a transportation corridor and then their visioning document really kind of parted with that. The visioning document calls for a lot of development, which I'm not sure the community would want," he says. "I don't think that plan is readily achievable and I'm not sure that plan would get us what we want, which is a streetcar-capable bike and pedestrian corridor that we would need."

The property's value is a significant question, he says, citing potential "brownfield" issues--environmental contamination associated with underused or abandoned industrial or commercial property, especially when it's considered for redevelopment.

That and other issues would need to be resolved before a conclusion was reached, Johnston explains.

"You'd need to figure out are you looking at it based on this grandiose, pie-in-the-sky development concept or are you valuing it on what it is, which is a transportation corridor and what the courts ruled it as."

Even if the parties arrived at a value, Johnston wouldn't say the city would agree to a tax receipt and land swap and he isn't worried CP will walk if a deal isn't inked soon.

"We can wait as long as they can... But at this point, we're focused on rebuilding a relationship with them because they have a lot of land and we have a lot of interest in them being a successful company and working closely with them."

CP's LoVecchio won't speculate on how the Arbutus Corridor drama will play out, although there are many issues to consider. "It's not a traditional fee simple piece of property, so anything that we do would be governed by the Canada Transportation Act, and similarly the city would have to respect that act" he says.

LoVecchio doesn't have "any thoughts one way or the other" about the cycling coalition's proposal, but says what is good about the proposal is it encourages discussion on future uses.

"The fact that no progress has been made is not, in my view, the issue. It's important that people think about this, think about the fact that it is a rail right of way with a specific purpose in mind. If they have ideas on how to use it, yes, we're open to hearing from them, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to occur quickly. It'll occur in the time that it takes for it to occur."

Note: This story has been corrected since it was first posted.

noconnor@vancourier.com

twitter.com/naoibh

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