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Viaduct removal could squash business for produce warehouses

Vancouver council’s plan to alter the road pattern just east of downtown — part of its initiative to demolish the…

By Matthew Parsons , in City , on November 21, 2012 Tags: , , , ,

Trailers often block Malkin off completely when they back into the loading docks. (Photo: Matthew Parsons)

Vancouver council’s plan to alter the road pattern just east of downtown — part of its initiative to demolish the city’s 50-year-old viaducts — has workers in Vancouver’s produce-distribution hub alarmed at the major upheaval that would mean for an industry dependent on clear roads for its trucks.

The plan to take down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, major commuter routes into the central city, has had city engineers and councillors openly contemplating moving traffic from the current connecting street, Prior, to Malkin Avenue just to the south.

But that avenue is lined with warehouses and is currently free of commuter traffic.

“It would essentially cripple the businesses that are on this street,” said Chris McWilliam, the logistics specialist at Fresh Direct Produce. “It isn’t reasonable to ask us to have to change our business for road development.”

The produce warehouses set up shop more than 50 years ago. “Produce row,” as some who work there call it, is a clearing house for much of the fruit and vegetables in the city. A middle-sized company distributes thousands of 800-kilogram pallets of produce in a single week.

The pallets are moved by truck; traffic is always a challenge.

The Malkin connector, as the city describes it, would offer drivers coming from downtown an alternative route to Prior, along Malkin Avenue. The avenue would be widened to accommodate more lanes of traffic. Subsequently, an overpass or bridge would be built to connect Malkin to Clark Drive.

The warehouses’ 72-foot produce trucks block off the entire narrow road when they pull into the loading docks. Business owners worry that this new plan could make it worse.

Traffic woes

The city has talked about making Malkin into a major thoroughfare for decades, but it hadn’t been talked about seriously for years, until the idea recently resurfaced in conjunction with the city’s plans to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts. In July, residents on Prior Street took to the sidewalks to protest these plans, believing that the removal of the viaducts would add to the area’s high traffic.

Two lanes of parked vehicles add to the congestion on Malkin Avenue. (Photo: Matthew Parsons)

The city has since issued a report denying that its plans would increase traffic on Prior. Even so, Mayor Gregor Robertson has demanded that the Malkin connector be studied before council makes a decision on the viaducts.

But McWilliam said the Malkin option is even worse than Prior Street is now.

The city “would be putting some 40,000-odd cars a day that currently cross the viaduct into the downtown core onto this street, and every time a truck has to pull out, you stop traffic,” he said.

McWilliam fears that this would force his company’s trucks to wait for traffic to clear to move onto the road, causing serious delays in shipments.

This could potentially affect supermarkets, restaurants, and independent produce markets across Vancouver.

As McWilliam put it, “When you go to your local store and you’re buying a head of lettuce, there’s a very good likelihood that it passed through this area at some point in time.”

The city’s response

Colleen Goto, vice president of sales at FreshPoint Vancouver, wants the city to do more to help businesses like hers.

“They still have to understand that you can’t bring a load of 50-pound potatoes in on a bike or something. There still has to be commercial traffic,” said Goto.

The city is consulting with the business owners. According to McWilliam, the city held a meeting to explain its plans to companies on Malkin.

“They showed the plans for the area, and all the businesses just laughed.” After the meeting, McWilliam invited representatives from the city to come to Malkin and observe one of their daily rushes.

City representatives did visit the site and afterwards McWilliam said they promised to consider traffic before solidifying their plans.

Coun. Geoff Meggs, a proponent of removing the viaducts, believes that the changes that will ultimately be implemented by the city will not have an adverse effect on the warehouses.

“From the mayor on down, everybody’s very determined to protect those jobs and those businesses because they deliver a lot of food to the downtown core.”

Meggs also sees the potential removal of the viaducts as “opening the door to many improvements in goods movement.”

The city hopes to decide on the viaducts in January or February of 2013. The warehouses will likely find out about the final plans for Malkin sometime prior that decision. Removing the viaducts could lead to a 13 per cent increase in the green space along the north shore of False Creek and unlock land for mixed-use development.

Goto hopes city council reconsiders its plan.

“We’ve been here a very long time,” she said. “We’re a very successful company, and we’ve always learned to be flexible. We’ll just have to deal with this as well.”