Our chance to get Robson Square right

The City of Vancouver just announced another public consultation process accompanied by the usual social media hashtags and online surveys on the future of the plaza at 800 Robson St., also known as Robson Square.

If I sound a little skeptical it is not because I believe we should shut out the public in planning our public spaces. It is just that we have done so much of this brainstorming by committee lately as to make it almost meaningless.

Crowdsourcing is a poor way to accomplish urban design excellence. When it comes to 800 Robson St., we need a bolder approach.

The quirk of this block is that it is not really a public square in the true sense. It is a hodgepodge of Vancouver heritage, forgettable clamshell rooftops, flagpoles, uninspired kiosks, a subterranean skating rink, a failed retail space, decommissioned fountains, a former roadway, UBC’s downtown campus, and many steps that provide adequate, if not comfortable, seating.

Yet, in spite of the poor sight lines, an uneven plaza and dated design features, citizens still covet the block as a place to gather. Not only does this place provide a physical epicenter of the region, Vancouverites collectively think of it as the heart of our city.

I am convinced it is the most significant gathering place in the whole province.

During what was arguably the most joyous celebration in our city’s history — the moments after the gold medal men’s hockey game during the 2010 Winter Olympics — it was 800 Robson Street where it seemed like all of Canada converged. It is no surprise either that the British Columbia Pavilion was located here during the Games.

800 Robson therefore demands a certain reverence in how we imagine its use. In a downtown that too often feels choked by traffic gridlock, this is the one place that should be defiantly people-focused.

I can imagine this space as a contiguous solid surface where thousands can gather to celebrate, to protest, or to mourn together. With the Vancouver Art Gallery likely departing the old courthouse, we can rediscover new ways to incorporate Francis Rattenbury’s classic structure into the surroundings.

There is a hitch, however, to any plans to reshape and re-imagine this place. It is not owned by the City of Vancouver. Rather, it is the property of the provincial government, giving them final say on its future.
Block 51 — the area surrounded by Howe and Hornby streets, and West Georgia and Robson Street — is one of three land parcels that include Blocks 61 and 71 that stretch down to Nelson Street. Most of it is occupied by the Arthur Erickson-designed provincial courthouse, with landscape design provided by Cornelia Oberlander.

With all due respect to the late architect, the so-called skyscraper laid on its side conceived by Erickson had a deadening effect on Howe Street it has almost never recovered from. Hornby Street has not fared much better. In spite of Oberlander’s best efforts to soften the bunker-like exterior of the Provincial Law Courts building, it almost always feels desolate.

Erickson designed the building so the public would “walk all over it.” But they almost never do.

The three blocks from West Georgia to Nelson Street bounded by Howe and Hornby have never been so energized as during the 2010 Games. What could allow this to ever happen again is some imagination and more than a few dollars, in combination with a lot of political will.

When it comes to city-provincial relations, however, there is a tension not unlike separated parents showing up to their kid’s birthday party. Neither seem terribly interested in helping the other along.

It will take a champion with impeccable skill to cajole all levels of government, as well as a financial benefactor to partner on a project that should be the measure of Canada’s largest and most prosperous metropolitan area west of Etobicoke.

This is a challenge that goes way #beyondhashtags. We have our chance finally to get 800 Robson right, and build the public square Vancouver sorely lacks.

Originally published at Vancouver Courier