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Vancouver Broadway businesses fear another Canada Line

Plans by Vancouver’s major political parties to improve transit along the Broadway corridor have some worried about the fallout on…

Crowded Broadway busses pass more than 2,000 commuters during peak hours.

Plans by Vancouver’s major political parties to improve transit along the Broadway corridor have some worried about the fallout on their businesses.

City transit is a top priority in election platforms, with the parties putting forward proposals to increase capacity and speed up service along Broadway.

The route stretching west from Broadway-Commercial station to UBC serves 100,000 passengers daily and is nearing capacity.

The challenge is finding a way to increase transit without harming local businesses.

“Broadway businesses are afraid that if they put rapid transit down the West Broadway corridor, it will kill Kitsilano as we know it,” said Donna Dobo, media liaison for the West Broadway Business Association.

Broadway business owners and landlords are well aware of what happened to merchants on Cambie Street during Canada Line construction.

“It would take four or five years of very low traffic and the businesses who rent would be forced out,” said Dobo.

“The landlords who own property would be faced with empty buildings for the duration of the construction. And then afterwards likely it would be a very different retail mix, similar to what we’ve seen happen on Cambie.”

Don Watters manages properties along Cambie Street and Broadway. He thinks Broadway businesses have reason to be afraid.

“What happened on the Cambie project was that what [TransLink] submitted to city council for approval was quite different than the project that ended up being built,” said Watters.

Many Cambie merchants suffered prolonged disruption and significant revenue loss when transit authorities decided to use the cheaper, more invasive cut-and-cover method of construction, rather than the bored tunnel method.

“It wasn’t until the very last minute that the city was even made aware. Therefore, the city couldn’t really do anything,” said Watters. “I’m afraid that’s going to happen again on Broadway.”

Jumpstarting transit

Vision Vancouver and NPA propose a SkyTrain traveling west from Broadway-Commercial station.

TransLink has completed phase two of the UBC Line Rapid Transit study.

They have designed and evaluated seven transit options for the future UBC-Broadway line. These options include an improved “best bus” service, bus rapid transit, rail rapid transit, two alternatives for light rail transit and two combination plans.

“The obvious goal here is to get something built efficiently at a reasonable price and at the same time cause the least amount of disruption,” said Ken Hardie, director of communications at TransLink.

“We’re just about at the stage where it’s time to come out with probably a very short list of options for people to consider,” said Hardie. “It’s quite likely that what people are going to see is rail options.”

“The city has favoured SkyTrain technology along the corridor,” said Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs.

“This makes the most sense at least as far west as Arbutus, because the area between Arbutus and Main includes the second largest business district in the province.”

“West of Arbutus we believe we should consider other technologies, including light rail, but density in those neighbourhoods will not grow under current community plans,” said Meggs.

The NPA’s Broadway transit plan echoes Vision’s.

“I love the SkyTrain, personally. I’ve used it since it was built. If you’ve traveled the world you’d know that it’s one of the best systems,” said NPA city council candidate George Affleck, noting that it is comfortable, quiet, environmentally friendly and inexpensive to operate.

“We’ve seen the success of the Canada Line to get people out of their cars as ridership is at near capacity. Let’s make that happen on Broadway. Let’s build the Broadway line,” said the NPA in a Nov. 15 press release.

Others want to see immediate improvements to Broadway transit.

COPE’s transit plan calls for bi-articulated busses and the installation of traffic light controls on TransLink busses. These will freeze green lights as busses approach intersections so they can pass more quickly, speeding up service.

Former Vancouver city councillor and director of SFU’s City Program, Gordon Price, recommended allocating a lane for express busses or light surface rail to alleviate overcrowding on Broadway transit.

“If what Broadway is saying is ‘we don’t want major impact,’ then the most that I think [the city is] really talking about is reallocating a lane,” said Price. “You’re not physically building and digging stuff up. … It’s very affordable [and] it will address the short term issue into the medium term.”

If the city designates an express bus lane, existing parking lanes along Broadway would close.

“I think that’s basically what the debate’s going to come down to,” said Price. “Are we prepared to take space away from the car on a major corridor?”

It’s all about choices

Vancouver's Broadway corridor is the region’s second largest business district and the busiest bus route in North America.

TransLink plans to release a short list of transit options for Broadway in early 2012.

“Certainly there are some techniques and options that emerged from the Canada Line experience that we would want to have very, very good discussions with people along the [Broadway] corridor about — residents and merchants alike,” said Hardie.

Cambie business owners and landlords are skeptical about how much the city and TransLink actually learned from the Canada Line experience. They want to see more transparency in the planning and development process.

The public gets “a very limited view of how the project is going to proceed,” said Watters. “Public consultation takes place even before the bids are fully disclosed. Therefore, due to privacy issues and non-disclosure agreements that [TransLink has] signed, they can’t fully disclose what those bids are or what the projected work is.”

The West Broadway Business Association would also like to see a promise from the city that businesses will receive financial relief throughout the construction process.

“This thriving, diverse community of independent retailers needs to be protected,” said Dobo.

Watters suggested the city should grant existing Broadway merchants on or near construction zones some form of financial relief. How much businesses receive should be based on square footage of space occupied and gross rent.

“The city should have a physical presence, not only on the street, but in hands-on working with the merchants making sure that access is not denied to those properties, that street use is maintained at its maximum level that can be obtained during construction,” added Watters.

“In the impacted zones as construction progresses down Broadway, the city should cap property taxes at the previous year’s level until construction is complete for the whole corridor,” suggested Watters. “That way they are showing fairness to everybody.”

Doing better

The Cambie Village Business Association submitted numerous recommendations to TransLink on what they could have done better during the Canada Line project.

[pullquote]City staff are very clear there can be no repeat of the Canada Line fiasco[/pullquote]“There’s a lot of things they could do better,” said Leonard Schein, president of Festival Cinemas and a board member for the Cambie Village Business Association.

“On Cambie they just cut and they never covered. So they could do 100 metres at a time where they cut, install the tunnel, cover it, then move on another 100 metres,” said Schein. “That would only be about 12 to 15 weeks in front of any business, rather than years in front of any business.”

Schein thinks governments rarely learn from their mistakes and doubts the city or TransLink will listen to recommendations.

“City staff are very clear there can be no repeat of the Canada Line fiasco,” said Meggs.

“Personally I can’t see how you could tear up Broadway like they did Cambie without a revolution,” he said.

The Metro Vancouver Mayor’s Council recently approved a $2.24 billion transportation plan and outlook that will fund the long-awaited Evergreen SkyTrain expansion.

Funding for the Broadway rapid transit line has not been determined.

Canada Line highlights and lowlights

  • Construction of the Canada Line began in Sept. 2005 and was completed in Nov. 2009.
  • It is 19.2 km long and has 16 stations from Richmond/Bridgeport and YVR airport to Waterfront station.
  • The Canada Line cost approximately $2 billion to build and was funded by a public-private partnership.
  • Ridership far exceeds expectations with an estimated 116,000 passengers daily.
  • Leonard Schein, president of Festival Cinemas and a board member for the Cambie Village Business Association, estimates that 40 Cambie Street businesses relocated or closed during construction.
  • As MLA of Vancouver-Fairview, Mayor Gregor Robertson was a strong supporter of Cambie Street businesses. He referred to Cambie Street during Canada Line construction as a “war zone” and what happened to businesses as an “injustice.”
  • Susan Heyes, owner of Hazel & Co., moved her maternity clothing shop from Cambie Street to Main Street after losing $900,000 due to disruption caused by construction. She is currently embroiled in a legal battle against transit authorities.
  • The Cambie Village Business Association, comprised of approximately 280 Cambie Street landlords and business owners, is filing a class action lawsuit against Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc. for private nuisance. A court date is yet to be set.