Longtime readers will know that some of my favourite things downtown are the numerous mid-block shortcuts that you can take across the city. You can read about some of those here, here, here, and here.
Mid-block walkways give you the ability to avoid walking all the way around a block and also can be a great way to access stores that are just halfway along a street. I enjoy them because they are primarily for pedestrians and there are not too many transportation routes through the city that are. There is also a sense of being in on a secret when you can make your way across the city in ways that others aren’t necessarily aware of.
In the last few years we have seen many mid-block ways enhanced and made truly part of the public realm. When you walk between Pandora Avenue and Cormorant Street next to 750 Pandora, you don’t have a sense that you are on private property. It is open, well designed and interwoven with the public aspects at either end. The Hudson projects north of Fisgard have also made the walkways an integral part of their project. Giving priority to the pedestrian encourages walking and actually makes the city safer as more people use some of these less trodden parts of the city. Unfortunately there is another trend that will have the exact opposite trend.
In just a short few months pedestrian walkways between Johnson and View off of Yates Street have been gated. The first one was to be expected. When the parking lot behind the Capitol 6 theatre was developed into the Yello project, it was known that there would be a mid-block walkway and that it would be gated. It just wasn’t clear how unfriendly it would look. Just across the street from the Yello project is what is now called Yates Centre, an office building. The front facade of this building is actually the former Coronet Movie Theatre. It is a pretty cool looking facade if you can look past the po-mo-ization. Just to the east of the Yates Centre is a mid-block walkway. Some people may not have noticed it before as it was just next to a big parking lot for many years. Like many of the parking lots in the city this is being turned into new homes, with two twenty storey towers rising here. The irony is that with the loss of the parking lot there is more need than ever for the mid-block walkway, but the owners of the Yates Centre have now built what has to be the ugliest fence in the city to stop anyone except those working in the building from going through.
I do understand the closing from a safety and risk mitigation perspective ,especially with the very challenging housing project just across from the walkway entrance on Johnson Street, but I think from a good urbanism perspective it is the wrong direction to take. We are all well aware that creating tight quiet and invisible spaces will lead to negative uses by people, whether that is open drug use or a college student creating a new urinal, but the answer should not be just to fence off those spots.
Part of the problem comes from the simple perspective of property ownership. The owner says it is their land and they will do what they want. This happens even when the city puts an encumbrance on the title like they did with the Victoria Bay Centre when it was built. As part of the deal in providing the developer with the part of Broad Street that was eaten up by the new structure, there was a requirement that public access would be maintained from the early morning until the late evening, but as you can imagine the mall operator did not like some of the challenges this caused over the years and the City has been less willing to force the point, so just try to walk through the mall from Broad to Broad at 7pm on Sunday evening. The same almost happened with perhaps the saddest mid-block walkway in the city that goes through the Falls development. I am not even certain why the city decided that this project required a mid-block walkway but they did. It is still there, about 10 metres from Douglas Street, which again kind of negates its purpose. Nevertheless, the city put it on the buildings title and shortly after the completion of the construction the strata of the building tried to close it off. This time some push back by some local citizens made sure the walkway stayed open.
Coming back to the pathways on Yates Street, both the Yello one that remains open and the Yates Centre one that is now closed, they have another option rather than making them either hostile of completely sealed off. If you want to minimise negative uses, rather than limit access or build a hostile environment you can do the opposite.
The opposite is of course to make the space as welcoming as possible. Make it the choice option for walking between Yates and either View or Johnson because this actually makes it a destination of choice. A welcoming public space is going to encourage use and that will mean higher volumes of pedestrian traffic. With higher traffic volumes moving through, those individuals that are looking for a place to pee or use drugs are going to go elsewhere.
I think in both of these two mid-block walkways what could work well is some artistic lighting and perhaps with the Yates Centre in particular actually make it a bit of a destination. The Telus Gardens building has a seriously sketchy alley running through part of it yet some amazing lighting and art makes you actually feel safe. With these two walkways in Victoria, you can still close them off at night as there comes a point where there just isn’t enough people out in the city to make it work, they should still be open for the majority of the day. Put in some art, benches; encourage staff in the building to use it for lunch. The key is making people care about it. For now though both of these walkways remain with their hostile fences and just the hope that the City will step in.
What do you think could be done with mid-block walkways to encourage pedestrian use while discouraging negative uses?