Vancouver to explore making heart of Gastown car free

Traffic in the Gastown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Traffic in the Gastown neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The City of Vancouver is — once again — exploring making Gastown's Water Street off-limits to cars.

Mayor Ken Sim announced a motion would be presented to council next week to explore a new vision for the area, with a focus on improving the pedestrian experience and repairing Gastown's bumpy cobblestone roads.

"Decades of underinvestment have led to the deterioration of many of the streets in the neighbourhood," said Sim at a news conference at the end of Water Street, the three-block street that makes up the heart of Gastown, as vehicles passed through the busy and tight corridor behind him.

"For many years, there's been an inability for the city, community members and local businesses to agree on a vision for the future of this neighbourhood."

The motion to be put forward by Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung will direct staff to immediately address patching and repairing Water Street while also beginning a new planning and design process for Gastown as a whole.

Part of that process, said Kirby-Yung, would include looking at making Water Street car-free or car-light on a seasonal or year-round basis.

"As we've seen with so many cities around the world, we have the potential to make Gastown truly a destination neighbourhood by moving this forward with this more cohesive, bold vision."

"What we're looking to do here is harness the history of Gastown and unlock the vibrancy and the potential of a neighbourhood."

"It's the birthplace of our city': mayor

The neighbourhood has faced challenges over the last few years stemming from the pandemic and increased fears around safety in the adjacent Downtown Eastside, and Sim said it was important for the city to prioritize its revitalization.

"It's the birthplace of our city, and it's been central to many of Vancouver's defining moments," he said.

"But as much as we treasure Gastown and the role it's played in the story of our city, we know that there remains incredibly untapped potential."

There is currently $10 million set aside in the city's capital for improvements to public space and transportation improvements along Water Street and Gastown.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

'Stars are now aligned'

Long a centre of tourism activity and heritage, both real and manufactured — the cobblestone streets were created in the 1970s, and the famed steam clock doesn't run on steam — Vancouver has debated making Water Street car-free for decades.

The most recent push came in 2017 when the city created a "Complete Streets" plan for the area that explored making Gastown the city's "first car-light area."

In 2018, the city reported that it consulted with 3,000 people and 50 local groups about what it wanted to see for the neighbourhood, but no further progress was made.

Kirby-Yung said the delay was partly due to the Kennedy-Stewart-led council not prioritizing moving forward and partly due to a lack of consensus on how to proceed.

"There's been a number of different studies, but we haven't put the investment behind the plan, and we haven't had everybody come together on one vision," she said.

"I think right now the stars have aligned."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC