Re-think Robson Square, but without closing it permanently

The following commentary was originally posted on Huffington Post BC.

Close Robson Street first, then ask the public what they think afterward. That's what was announced this week.

Vancouver voters by now are used to the 'act first, consult later' antics of the Vision government. On Wednesday a press release from the Vancouver Mayor's office said the "popular pedestrian plaza" installed on 800-block Robson Street will remain closed to traffic until at least the end of December while local business and Translink is consulted.

Make no mistake—the permanent closure of Robson Square is a done deal. The Robson thoroughfare is now cut off to transit and traffic between the West End community and the Downtown business district. Translink has already made contingencies for the Robson Street bus route to roll north, and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) has a poor record of getting what it wants from this council.

More concerning is the fact that the decision to close Robson was not made by city council, who were elected to represent the views of all Vancouverites. Rather, this decision was decreed by the Mayor's office after zero consultation with stakeholders or city council.

Huffington Post's own online survey shows that the decision to close Robson is a popular one. Lying around on giant beanbags and faux beaches on a downtown street has had some summertime appeal. There is undoubtedly a lack of public gathering spaces in our increasingly dense urban landscape. But what's the lost opportunity facing our downtown by ramming this through?

For years I've weighed in on the importance of Robson Square as the heart of Metro Vancouver. In 2008 I wrote about the "clam shell" controversy – a proposed structure to weatherproof the plaza during the Olympics. Just days after Vancouver 2010 Games concluded I advocated closing off 800-block Robson Street as part of an overall cultural district that included the Vancouver Art Gallery. Eight months later NPA councillor Suzanne Anton tabled a motion asking city staff to undertake a stakeholder consultation to "consider the feasibility of creating a major public square" at 800-block Robson Street that would include closing off the block.

Tut-tut came the reply from the Vision council. Anton's motion was thrown out, replaced by a watered-down motion by Coun. Andrea Reimer that said basically, "we're already looking at public spaces downtown through another process, so cool your jets." This is a tactic government majorities use to make sure they get credit for the good ideas, not their opponents. That's politics, which at the end of the day is really about bragging rights.

When the Vancouver Public Space Network again proposed that council look at closing Robson Street in summer 2011, Reimer was much more guarded about shutting it down. Last year she told The Province newspaper:

"We have to be quite mindful of the transit user. Closing that stretch of Robson . . . had a huge impact on the ridership in the west end, which is the highest in the city and skews heavily to seniors. We got a lot of complaints."

Presumably those same challenges exist. In reaction to the Mayor's Robson closure, one commenter on Facebook stated:

Pre-2010 we West Enders were promise that our transit (Robson Street) will be detour for 3 months during the Winter Olympics. Olympics been and gone and we still faced detours… City Hall to realize that there are transit users living in the Northwest and need Robson Street bus service all the way up Robson to the library then down Hamilton to Pender and west on Pender to Granville or Burrard. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

This may be a minority view, but the frustration some West Enders feel is clear.

Since the 2010 Olympics I've spoken to many people who object to the permanent closure of Robson Street. One realtor pointed out to me that on one side of the Square you can sell haut couture, on the other side you can sell pizza by the slice. Blocking the street has done little to improve the appeal of Robson street between Howe Street and BC Place Stadium. Keeping the street open in their view is important to its success. It helped me to moderate my own view on closing off 800-block Robson.

Why not, I wonder, attempt temporary closures instead? A city block like Robson could be safely closed off by installing removable bollards. Robson could be closed during weekends or during special events instead. It's hard to imagine the appeal of laying on a beanbag during a dreary Vancouver November, so why bother to try?

The most famous piazzas in Europe adapt throughout the day. In the morning a market exists to buy fresh produce. Tables are moved in during midday to host lunches. Later in the day the plaza is cleared so kids can kick a soccer ball around. It's called adaptive re-use, and it is something that Vancouver has so far failed to explore.

Good use of public space?

The real problem with Robson Square is that as a public space it's a disaster. The space is too disjointed thanks to the steps, landscaping and subterranean ice rink. It worked during the Olympics because of the huge crowds and animation above and below street level. Today few of us want to wander far from the street because that's where the action is. If, on the other hand, the plaza was made level – a contiguous space between the VAG and the Law Courts – Vancouver might get the true public square it has long needed.

Ideas like this could come forward if the Vision council actually decided to undertake the conversation with the public they proposed to do back in December 2010. Instead they've just carried on without consulting affected stakeholders. If the reaction from the DVBIA's Charles Gauthier is any indication, downtown business owners are also fed up with the lack of public process.

Gauthier says that downtown business owners support the temporary and seasonal closure of streets. But, he adds, there is a lot of disappointment with the Mayor's office because they never even bothered to let anyone know they planned to close Robson down until December. "I'm hearing a lot from our members about the inconvenience," says Gauthier.

"The city does a lot great things, and we're a partner on a lot of them," adds Gauthier. "We just ask them to engage us in a more meaningful way. Hearing in the media that this decision has been made and we're going to be consulted afterwards just feels kind of insulting. Why not just ask folks like us 'what do you think of closing it off?' The process in place just feels to me and many others like a sham."

Most of us might wonder what's driving this decision by the Mayor to close off Robson first, then start consulting about its future. After all, the summer-like conditions which make Robson an attractive hangout will be gone in a few weeks. Gauthier thinks he has an answer.

"It's obviously a political decision to take away space from the car. Why aren't we instead exploring how can we turn it into a true piazza, rather than just closing off a street?" he asks.

A simple phone call from the Mayor's office to the DVBIA might have paved the way for a successful re-think of Robson Square. According to Gauthier, downtown businesses will think twice when it comes to Vision's future schemes. "If you want to do another summer program [street closure] in the future, our members are not going to be so enthusiastic," he says. "Why would they if they think it's going to be permanent?"