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Metro Vancouver waterfronts: Beautiful, but boring

Blog by Shaun Kimmins | May 29th, 2010

ch seawall.jpg

Cyclists enjoy a sunny day riding along the seawall in Vancouver's Coal Harbour. The city's 22-kilometre seawall is also home to countless joggers and in-line skaters, yet there are few restaurants, and most marinas are off-limits to non-boat owners, notes columnist Bob Ransford.

Photograph by: Les Bazso, Vancouver Sun

Urban waterfront redevelopment in Metro Vancouver has made our shorelines sterile and boring. Expensive new homes at the water's edge that turn their backs on city life offer little more than picturesque distant vistas.

This is in contrast to the gritty, bustling and eclectic waterfronts of Metro Vancouver's past. Up until the past 25 years or so, the shorelines of Burrard Inlet, False Creek and the Fraser River were primarily places of industrial activity. Any homes that existed at the water's edge were usually in cheap, ramshackle buildings perched over the water and shoehorned between smoke-belching sawmills, smelly fish canneries, bustling cargo wharfs, huge warehouses and busy boat works.

The waterfront was a mixed-use urban zone with all kinds of small businesses that supported the industrial activity. These industrial waterfronts were home to everything from greasy-spoon cafes that fed longshoremen, millworkers and fishermen, to repair shops, ship chandleries, small grocers and rooming houses.

Work boats, fishboats, tugs, barges, freighters, float planes, water taxis, canoes, skiffs and pleasure craft plied the waters night and day, moving raw materials, goods, supplies and people. Coves, small bays and river channels were storage areas for log booms, liveaboards and floating craft of all kind. The waterways were not only busy transportation corridors, they were the stage on which the continuing show of marine life unfolded around the clock.

The public had little access to the water's edge. Much of the waterfront was owned privately. Where government owned the foreshore or water lots, they restricted access to those who needed to be there for industrial and transportation purposes.

These waterfronts of the past were more animated places than today's waterfronts. A wide range of activities occurred on land and on the water -- many activities that are no longer compatible with city life, but activities that nonetheless attracted people and made these waterfronts of the past interesting and lively.

Today, miles of shoreline have been reclaimed from industry, cleaned up and moved upmarket. Public access is no longer an issue. Most of the waterfront has been bought by governments.

In fact, continuous, uninterrupted public access along the shoreline has been a key planning goal in waterfront redevelopment in our region.

Vancouver is proud to advertise its 22-kilometre seawall -- a walking, jogging, cycling and in-line skating path that lines the waterfront from the

convention centre on Burrard Inlet, around Stanley Park and False Creek, past Granville Island and ending at Kitsilano Beach Park. The city claims it is the most popular recreational facility in Vancouver.

Lined up along the upland portion of the seawall and set back an appropriate distance from this long, linear public park are countless residential buildings that boast glass walls providing thousands of residents in expensive condominiums an opportunity to look out over a park that is reserved for little more than walking, jogging, cycling and in-line skating.

The value of these condos is not measured by their livability in an urban setting. In fact, the most expensive ones are the ones with water views -- facing a single, ideal environmental setting, turning their backs to city life.

It is ironic that city life is nonexistent at the water's edge. You can count the number of restaurants that line the seawall on one hand. I can't think of a single shop, recreational outlet, office or home that extends past the seawall out over the water.

Beyond the seawall is a vista over the water where, compared with the activity of days gone by, relatively little happens. There are only a few marinas, most of them off-limits to non-boat owners. There are no floating restaurants, entertainment barges and only one small colony of floating homes in False Creek at Granville Island.

You might see a sailboat, an expensive yacht, the regular dragon-boat practices, one water taxi service that regularly plies Vancouver's urban waterways and, in Burrard Inlet, the float planes that are a nasty annoyance to their new waterfront neighbours.

Things are worse on Vancouver's Fraser River waterfront. It is a place where planners have fallen prey to the notion that when redeveloping a waterfront for housing, we must preserve that single ideal environmental setting, one that tries to recreate wilderness in a city.

The quality of urban waterfront development only gets worse as you move farther out to the suburbs.

Steveston, where I have long lived, has one of the most unexciting, sterile stretches of Fraser River waterfront in a setting that was once home to one of the busiest harbours on the coast. Walk along the stretch of riverfront where B.C. Packers' Imperial fish processing plant once stood. Beyond what happens in the private apartments and townhouses that now occupy the upland, absolutely nothing is happening either on the water side or the shoreline, where a fenced-off wasteland awaits a land-use designation that will work to make this once interesting waterfront vibrant again.

How can our urban waterfronts become exciting, lively, eclectic and attractive places? Let me know your ideas, and I will share some of mine in a future column. Stay tuned.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues. E-mail: ransford@counterpoint.ca

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