Monday, January 9, 2012

The Park(ade) of the Covenant

For much of the twentieth century it was there, balanced on those dozens of bare metal supports drilled into the ground, standing between the city and its waterfront. The New Westminster Waterfront Parkade appears to be the single largest assembly of parking spaces in the downtown area, with seven hundred and forty-nine spots available, but at the cost of completely overshadowing Front Street and acting as a physical and psychological barrier - not to the same degree as something like the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, but a barrier nonetheless. The approaching completion of Westminster Pier Park may change this, but for now the parkade is, for all its potential utility, a definite eyesore that means downtown perpetually has one foot in the 1950s.

What's worse is that it's not even heavily utilized. Back in 2008, the city government found that demand for the parkade's spots was such that there was only a 38.3% usage rate; I visit the parkade fairly regularly on the weekends, as its top deck provides an excellent vantage point for photographs of the bridges, the mountains, the river, and the Surrey waterfront, and in my experience it's never seemed as if even a third of the spaces were being used. Meanwhile, down underneath the business of Front Street soldier on in obscurity, with handmade signs placed at strategic Columbia Street intersections to let people know that, yes, there are actual things underneath that hulking assembly of green-painted steel. Only to a degree, though; Front Street is a wasteland between McKenzie and Begbie, and I can think of only a single business that actually operates there between the shuttered doors and newspapered windows.

Recently, though, downtown New West has begun to experience a renaissance. Much of the preparation for this was made before I arrived, but even in the last year I've seen the development of downtown with the opening of River Market and the transit-oriented construction around New Westminster Station and the work on the Pier Park and the Multi-Use Civic Facility. Downtown New West may be leaping into the twenty-first century, but... there's still the issue of the parkade; there's a small but growing divide between those who want to maintain it and those who want to tear some of it down.

It's the business owners of downtown New West, by and large, that want the thing to stay up. Last week the New Westminster News Leader covered some of the issues surrounding the parkade; Bill Shannon of the Downtown Business Improvement Area led off the article with concerns about how a lack of parking could increase uncertainty for businesses, particularly with so many new people coming to downtown in line with the new developments. I can understand where the BIA's concerns come from, but I can't help but feel they're rooted in a view that is becoming increasingly out of step with the modern world.

The upper deck of the western end of the downtown parkade, photographed on Sunday, January 8 at 2:30 PM. This is the section currently being considered for removal by the city.

The BIA's concern is that a more people coming to downtown New West to live or to visit will create a parking crunch; based on what I see, I can't take that view. The civic facility will include a small parkade of its own when it's finished, and there's already significant on-street and in-lot parking in downtown for visitors to the pier park. What I take issue with in this is what seems to be an unconscious twentieth-century bias; all people are assumed, as a matter of course, to be reaching downtown by car.

My own view is that private vehicles will bear an increasingly small percentage of the modal share for transportation to downtown as time goes on. It's easy to get to downtown by transit; it's bracketed by two SkyTrain stations, an advantage that many cities in the Lower Mainland lack. Beyond that, I don't see how an increase in downtown's population will be the salvation of the parkade; it seems to me that people who live downtown would patronize downtown businesses as pedestrians, not drivers.

My own view is that the city should remove the underused, western portion of the parkade. It would open up an entire block of Front Street to the sky and to the riverfront. If additional parking does become necessary somewhere down the line, I'd rather see the city investing in a new structure that's far more integrated with its surroundings, and which doesn't look like it'll come down like a bunch of Jenga blocks in an earthquake.

I'd like to see downtown really move into the twenty-first century. Re-evaluating the parkade would, I think, be a good place to start.

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