C-Tran plans new downtown bus rapid transit station

Turning Turtle Place into terminus concerns businesses

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It's been seven years since C-Tran's Seventh Street Transit Center closed, but memories of the downtown Vancouver bus mall still leave a bad taste in the mouths of business owners who operated nearby.

The site became a magnet for loitering, occasional police calls and generally bad behavior. When it closed, part of the property became what's now Turtle Place — a public plaza that marked a welcome improvement, neighbors say.

But that arrangement was never meant to be permanent, said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association, a partner in the Turtle Place project. Now the site may again see buses rolling through it as part of C-Tran's proposed bus rapid transit line in Vancouver.

"We knew that at some point, we would be taking the plaza apart," Rafferty said. "That was in our future. It was a temporary park."

The $53 million BRT line would stretch between the Westfield Vancouver mall and downtown, primarily along the city's Fourth Plain corridor. Planners have selected Turtle Place as the end point for the enhanced bus system, said Katy Belokonny, C-Tran's community outreach coordinator. It will not, however, be a hub for multiple routes like the old transit center, she said.

"We are proposing to have it be our terminus station, but not be a transfer point," Belokonny said. "That's really different from what it used to be when it was the Seventh Street bus mall."

BRT would replace C-Tran's existing No. 4 and No. 44 routes between the mall and downtown. Riders continuing to Portland would have to catch a separate shuttle bus across the Columbia River. But those transfer points would be located at other stations, not the end of the line, Belokonny said.

"You are either going to that (terminus) station to get on your BRT, or you are getting off and walking somewhere," Belokonny said.

BRT uses larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms and other features in an effort to move people more efficiently and reliably. C-Tran's system would use 60-foot articulated buses that bend around corners. (Most of the buses in its existing fleet are 40 feet long.)

The proposed line could open as early as 2016, according to C-Tran. But BRT still must get past a key vote by its board of directors in July, when the board will be asked to commit some two-thirds of C-Tran's uncommitted capital reserves to help pay for BRT.

Not everyone is happy to see Turtle Place turned into a BRT station. Rafferty said her organization supports the project and appreciates its partnership with C-Tran, but the group believes the property could have more value if developed with retail or residential use in mind. Sending BRT vehicles through the site could create traffic and safety issues as buses make tight turns in and out of that location, she said.

Planners should consider both the short- and long-term impact of any decision, Rafferty said.

"There's a new sense of optimism on that street, so we want to do everything we can to advocate for that continued trajectory of good health and vibrance," Rafferty said.

C-Tran chose Turtle Place as its terminus station in part because the transit agency still owns the property, Belokonny said. And the station could incorporate some elements of Turtle Place, such as the sculpture and mural there now, she said.

Lori Suhrstedt will have a front-row view of the end result. Suhrstedt and her husband Shawn own one of the buildings directly across Seventh Street from Turtle Place, which houses their business and others. A relatively recent arrival, she views BRT as a positive change for the area. But Suhrstedt also knows many of her neighbors have misgivings.

"We didn't experience the transit mall," Suhrstedt said. "We just hear the rumblings about how bad it was. People are still pretty raw about it."

C-Tran has heard those concerns, too, Belokonny said. Discussions with local businesses and property owners are ongoing, and there are more conversations to come, she said.

"There's an opportunity there for this site to really be something special," Belokonny said.