Designing Arbutus Greenway filled with challenges

Buying Arbutus corridor took years, which were filled with legal twists and turns. But planning its design comes with its own set of challenges. Aside from the technical difficulty of squeezing various uses and amenities into limited space, city staff must wrestle with competing views of what it should look and feel like. But for Lon LaClaire, the city’s director of transportation, another challenge is managing expectations to have it built quickly.

“That’s something that is probably not going to happen really fast. It’s a long corridor, it’s nine kilometres… At some of the open houses, some of the older people expressed that concern — that they want to be alive when this thing is completed. They’ve been really anticipating it for a long time, they’re really excited about it and they’re worried it will take too many years for us to deliver it,” he told the Courier shortly after the latest round of Arbutus Greenway consultation concluded Feb. 15.

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LaClaire hopes completing the temporary path this spring, including the planting of wild flowers, will ease those concerns.

“People are going to be surprised at how that’s pretty good already — that they’re able to go all nine kilometres in relative comfort and safety and have a pretty good experience. Ultimately, it’s not the best, it’s not the final thing. We will be coming back to improve upon it, but I think that might relieve some of the pressure for us delivering ‘the ultimate’ really quickly. That’s at least two years away or more.”

Survey says

Greenway project staff are now analyzing a mountain of feedback. Close to 4,000 people submitted input — 3,000 completed a city survey, 910 visited two pop-up events and 260 attended open houses. The city also received 20 emails, letters and 3-1-1 calls. City advisory committees being consulted include ones for active transportation; children, youth and families; persons with disabilities; and urban aboriginal peoples.

arbutus greenway
During the open houses for Arbutus Greenway, CityStudio had a table where they would talk to individuals and then try to bring their ideas to life through sketches.

Some of the input will be incorporated into design concepts for the greenway, which is intended to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and, in the future, a streetcar.

Nothing outlandish was suggested based on LaClaire’s initial survey of responses, but he had yet to go through open-ended questions where some might turn up.

Seventy per cent of respondents want to walk along the greenway, while 57 per cent plan to bike it. A sizable portion want to experience nature (56 per cent), but what surprised LaClaire the most was the percentage who want public arts and plazas (43 per cent) and, in particular, those who want to use the corridor to access restaurants (40 per cent).

“Right now, we’re just developing a vision for the corridor. Ultimately, we’ll be coming up with design options, selecting a design option and then building it,” he said. “But in the future phases, we’ll probably be looking at the land uses along the corridor. That’s when we’ll be getting to that other area that people are interested in, which is how does the land along the corridor develop.”

Seeking solutions

Reaching consensus on the route’s design could be complicated. Since the city purchased the property from CP for $55 million in March of 2016, debates have pitted those who envision a quiet, natural path against those who imagine it as lively route through the city.

arbutus greenway
CityStudio helped produce sketches based on ideas at open houses.

“There’s certainly people that are not used to a lot of people on the corridor, so I think the thought that we would make this a really inviting and welcoming place that would attract a lot of people had them a little bit concerned about how that would change the character of their area — I do hear that,” LaClaire said.

“But the reality is that it’s clearly been purchased for transportation purposes. From that perspective, we need to do a good job of the transportation corridor. And when it’s doing a good job, it is inviting lots of people."

There were only three options for the land, he added. CP could have kept it as an active railway and run trains along it, it could have been sold for development or be maintained as public land. “So I think they do appreciate this is the best [option],” he said.

One of the keys, he added, especially for those worried cyclists or a future streetcar will be moving too quickly along the finished greenway, is ensuring proper separation between users, so everyone feels comfortable.

Keep it simple

The corridor ranges in width from 15 to 20 metres, raising anxiety the city is trying to pack too many uses in. It’s a point raised during consultation where one of the main messages LaClaire heard was “people want something pretty simple.”

“I heard some people concerned about what we’re trying to fit in the right-of-way… trying to fit a streetcar, walking and cycling doesn’t leave much space,” he said. “That is going to be a challenge in the design. It will be interesting in the next phase, when we come up with options, how it can fit and get people’s reactions.”

arbutus greenway
CityStudio worked with open house participants to produce sketches that outlined their ideas.

Deciding the route for the future streetcar is one the first priorities because it will inform the rest of the design. There may be portions where the tracks could veer off the corridor and move back on at a different point. LaClaire has been talking with city engineers about the possibilities.

“In itself, that will answer a lot of questions because when we’re just solely looking at the streetcar route, some sections might be better not to be in the right-of-way and we need to know those locations now so that we can then free them up for walking of cycling or plazas or other things,” he said.

“After we’ve looked at the best alignment for [the] streetcar, then there’s the secondary kind of question, which is in areas where it’s tight… where streetcar is actually squeezing out walking and cycling, is there an option for a streetcar alignment that would be almost as good but maybe not ideal which is also out of the right-of-way.”

While a streetcar would be able to operate in two directions in some sections, it’s possible a single track might be sufficient in other areas. That’s the case in other cities, according to LaClaire, such as in Amsterdam where there’s a narrow street in the downtown where a busy streetcar operates in both directions on a single track.

But detailed design work on the final greenway is a long way off.  This fall, design options will be unveiled followed by further consultation. A preferred option, which might be a combination of more than one, will be released in the spring of 2018.

@naoibh

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