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ABC Vancouver's 'bold vision' for Gastown includes shutting down Water Street

Mayor Ken Sim: "It's a vision for a Gastown that is people-focused, vibrant, prosperous and fun."
Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC Vancouver colleagues want to see Gastown become more friendly to pedestrians while at the same time ensure repairs and improvements to streets become a priority.

Shutting down Water Street in Gastown to cars is one of the potential outcomes of a motion a Vancouver city councillor will bring to council next week with the aim to make the historic district more friendly to pedestrians.

At the same time, Sarah Kirby-Yung and Mayor Ken Sim announced Tuesday they want to see immediate patching of Gastown streets and improvements to traffic flow, with Cordova Street potentially becoming a two-way route.

A public realm plan is also included in the motion.

“As much as we treasure Gastown and the role it's played in the story of our city, we know that there remains incredibly untapped potential,” Sim told reporters from Maple Tree Square.

“Decades of underinvestment have led to the deterioration of many of the streets in the neighbourhood. Improperly maintained infrastructure and the lack of a clear, cohesive plan for this neighbourhood has had an impact on residents, businesses and visitors alike.”

'Car-free, car-light'

Sim described his ABC Vancouver party’s push to improve the neighourhood as a “bold new vision” that respects and builds on Gastown’s rich history while looking towards the future.

“It's a vision for a Gastown that is people-focused, vibrant, prosperous and fun,” he said, before turning over the microphone to Kirby-Yung, who pointed out the crumbling section of street next to the square in her opening comments.

She said the centrepiece of her motion is to “pedestrianize” Water Street, and make it either car-free or “car-light” on a seasonal, or year-round basis. The city would first launch a car-free trial on Water Street, either for a month or on weekends, possibly this summer or in 2024.

“And we're going to direct staff to look at the longer-term potential for changing Cordova Street traffic configuration from a one-way to a two-way flow to better support the potential for a fully pedestrianized Gastown neighbourhood,” Kirby-Yung said.

ABC Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung and Mayor Ken Sim in Gastown Tuesday. Photo Mike Howell

$10 million

Walley Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, spoke at the news conference and told reporters he welcomed the direction from Kirby-Yung, the mayor and ABC councillors, most of whom were in attendance.

“We have spent many times in many meetings, talking about piecemeal projects in this neighbourhood, and finally, we're going to get a comprehensive, innovative public realm plan for this neighbourhood,” Wargolet said.

At least $10 million has been dedicated for improvements in the neighbourhood, which will come from the city’s 2023-2026 capital plan, with a potential for a “mid-capital plan adjustment,” according to Kirby-Yung.

Gastown, like other neighbourhoods in the city, was hit hard by the pandemic, with businesses shutting down and customers not visiting the area at pre-pandemic levels. Tourists have returned, with a couple from Dallas posing with the mayor prior to the news conference.

Asked how many businesses were operating in Gastown, the vacancy rate and average rent, Wargolet said he only knew the vacancy rate was hovering around seven per cent, which he described as “very healthy.”

Last week, council approved a flat parking rate of $2 per hour in Chinatown. The mayor wouldn’t commit Tuesday to extending the rate to Gastown, but promised to do “whatever it takes” with the Gastown improvement society and others across the city to improve the business climate.

“And if it turns out to be parking, and it works out, then we'll absolutely look at it,” Sim said.

Sim and Kirby-Yung made the announcement a couple blocks from East Hastings Street, where last month city workers, firefighters and police joined in an escalated effort to clear the sidewalks of people living in tents.

'Spillover effects'

Sim was challenged by a reporter Tuesday to answer how the plan for Gastown appears to be rooted in cosmetics and doesn’t address public safety and concerns from merchants in the neighbourhood about street disorder.

The mayor pointed out council approved the hiring of 100 police officers and 100 mental health workers, which he said will make a positive difference in all neighbourhoods. Programs dedicated to cleaning neighbourhoods will also help, he said.

“We've made investments revitalizing Chinatown,” Sim said.

“I know it's not in this area, but when you work on an adjacent area, it does have spillover effects. We've been working eight months to clear structures, unsafe structures on Hastings that were dangerous. So that has a spillover effect, and you're starting to see some of the positive changes from those actions.”

Added Sim: “Obviously, more needs to be done. This was just the start, but I think — knock on wood — we’re pleasantly surprised with the progress that we've made. And we will continue to push on these efforts to make Gastown, Yaletown, Chinatown, East Hastings safer areas for all residents and tourists to enjoy.”

Kirby-Yung will introduce her motion at the May 9 council meeting.