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“The gentrification of Chelsea was under way long before the High Line, although the park certainly helped to establish as a credible residential neighbourhood an area that previously had little open space and no park.” – Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the September 2, 2010 issue of the magazine.

Having attended Wednesday night’s presentation on Northeast False Creek featuring James Corner, I left with mixed feelings. The draft design of the park provides a significant number of desirable public amenities, however the looming question of affordability hangs like a shadow over all new developments in Vancouver – even parks.

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Northeast False Creek draft plan by James Corner Field Operations. Image Credit: City of Vancouver

A park loaded with attractive features, designed by a world-renowned and award-winning firm, will inexorably cause a rise in adjacent land values. Without an adequate housing strategy in place this project may end up inadvertently exacerbating an existing problem. The NEFC draft area plan touches on this issue, suggesting 200-300 units of new social housing units be built in place of the viaducts along Main Street and 20% of new residential floor area be delivered as social housing. By comparison, the Woodward’s development (another significant intervention in the city’s fabric, built nearby in 2010) created 200 units of below-market affordable units (roughly 25% social housing by residential floor area), which did not compensate for the gentrification that continued in its wake.

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Northeast False Creek model, present at the City’s block party held Saturday June 11. Image Credit – Ken Ohrn

James Corner described Northeast False Creek as what could be Vancouver’s “most central” park – as it is easier to access for citizens who don’t live on the peninsula. Surrounded by so many growing communities, transit nodes, and the sea wall, this area is choice for a park, regardless of the circumstances. Cities should be affordable and have excellent public spaces. In this light, I offer some remarks about elements of the park:

  • The park promotes an “informality between people and places”, allowing people to clamber into and plop themselves down within “found nature”.
  • There is an intent to connect people with the natural environment, which James Corner notes Vancouverites are already better at than most – due to the consistent presence of our natural landmarks (and rain). Small tactile sensations, such as the presence of moss, are being considered in the park. Tall trees may one day return to the area with the inclusion of Douglas Firs. The presence of rich, educational gardens will bring forgotten species under new scrutiny.
  • Elements of the park have been informed by adjacent neighbourhoods ranging from the West End to the False Creek Flats, and from the Downtown Eastside to Southeast False Creek. The three primary contributing factors, reflective of these communities’ needs, are “destination”, “nature in the city”, and “community”.
  • Tiered steps will be installed below the high tide line, allowing for each level to serve as an inter-tidal diagram, and doubling as bench seating.
  • There will be a “found” beach only available at low tide.
  • The park is aligned with the Ontario Greenway, so bring out your tin foil hats if you are into ley lines.
  • The height of the hill in Andy Livingstone Park will be advantageously re-purposed as stadium seating to view the neighbouring sports fields.
  • A sensuous, meandering boardwalk over tidal zones will challenge pedestrians to take their time enjoying and respecting the water’s edge.
  • There will be places of respite, yet James Corner noted that some park management boards close their parks at night (I experienced this in Chicago’s Millenium Park, when my friends and I were hastily removed for exploring after dark). Further, some boards will design a park’s view corridors to place “eyes on the street” such that people who are homeless or whose circumstances do not fit within acceptable norms of park usage do not feel “safe” staying in the park.
  • The new park attempts to include and run contiguously with a refreshed Andy Livingstone Park, but the connection is interrupted at grade by the relocated (and wide) Pacific Boulevard. A passerelle (note: not a bridge) provides a gently sloped, slender footbridge over the boulevard, while cyclists will likely cross at grade. As a person who should really exercise more often, I hope I am inclined to expend the necessary energy to walk up and over the passerelle. I wonder if the new Pacific Boulevard will one day be closed to traffic in the same fashion as the recent closure of Robson Square.
  • Collaboration with First Nations stakeholders was only briefly mentioned, which I am hoping to hear about in greater detail. The draft area plan notes “The City of Reconciliation framework goals include strengthening local First Nations and Urban Aboriginal relations; promoting Aboriginal peoples arts, culture, awareness, and understanding; and incorporating First Nations and urban aboriginal perspectives for effective City services.”
  • There is a raised platform for bicycles to enter the park from Dunsmuir Street, which along with the passerelle are the closest thing the scheme has to previous calls for re-purposing the existing viaducts. In the spirit of creating a place with a sense of shared memory and city history, will a fragment of the viaduct remain?
  • Due to the seriousness of the housing crisis, I am curious if the ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver, titled The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st-Century City will have an influence on the park’s neighbouring developments.

For those interested in future events involving Northeast False Creek, there is one at the Vancouver Public Library on June 13, and another at the Sun Wah Centre on June 15. For those with comments on the park, a survey is available here until June 30. For more information, the City’s Northeast False Creek website is here.