A little more than a decade ago, Main Street in downtown Vancouver offered a one-way trip leading out of town. It was a sad and symbolic message about the state of the city’s core.
Since then, Main Street has been opened to two-way traffic, and several areas of the central city have been rejuvenated. From the Waterfront Vancouver development to Uptown Village, Vancouver has enjoyed a revival that enhances life for residents and attracts visitors from near and far.
Meanwhile, Vancouver officials have teamed with private interests to promote and pursue development at other spots along the Columbia River, in east Vancouver along Mill Plain Boulevard and along 192nd Street, and in the Heights District. The work has been laudable, but Main Street has largely languished while the city has flourished around it.
That could change with the Main Street Promise project, which received final approval recently from the Vancouver City Council.
According to a memo from the city, “The Main Street Promise project is the culmination of nearly 30 years of efforts to improve lower Main Street to meet the needs of our community and the multitude of businesses along the corridor.” The memo adds: “The Main Street Promise Project features a complete reconstruction of lower Main Street between Fifth Street and 15th Street. The project includes the reconstruction of sidewalks, curb ramps, streetlighting, traffic signals and the roadway surface.”
That sounds impressive. But ensuring that renovations can be made with minimal disruption to existing businesses and that the final product attracts patrons to support those businesses is the key. Change for the sake of change can be an expensive exercise in futility without genuine improvements.
In that regard, Vancouver officials have embraced an ethos that is reinventing cities throughout the country: “The team was instructed to consider Main Street as a place for moving people and not vehicles.”
Methods for achieving that include parallel parking spots rather than the current diagonal parking, curbless sidewalks that are the same level as the street surface and features catering to bicyclists. There are benefits to those ideas, but there also are drawbacks.
Segments of Main Street, at certain times of day, already have a shortage of parking places; removing diagonal parking will further reduce the availability. And while curbless streets are more accessible for low-mobility visitors and other pedestrians, people still need a way to reach the area — and that often requires parking.
Encouraging bicycle traffic and the use of mass transit is essential for a modern urban area. But it requires some balance with a nod to reality. If a visitor wants to see, say, the New Seasons Market at 15th and Main streets and then visit the Vancouver Farmers Market and the Waterfront Vancouver, they probably are going to require a vehicle.
That might be looking beyond the mission of the Main Street development, but it reflects a desire for tying together the currently disparate attractions of the city’s core.
Focusing on that development, we can envision a future where portions of Main Street are blocked off to vehicular traffic, allowing for retail kiosks to pop up in the street and for pedestrians to stroll or sit between visits to local businesses.
In that regard, the Main Street proposal is enticing. And it represents the kind of forward-looking thinking that has helped turn downtown Vancouver into a vibrant area that is attracting residents and customers.