Robson Square is no longer working the way it was intended to be, says one Vancouver City Councillor, who now wants the roadway running through the public space reopened for other uses.
Non-Partisan Association councillor Melissa De Genova will be proposing a motion next week to request City staff reopen the one city block stretch at 800 Robson Street – running through Robson Square – to transit buses and cycling.
Additionally, the motion proposes a re-evaluation of the space’s usage by all vehicles and to continue using it as event space by occasionally closing it for festivals and special events.
De Genova says she was initially supportive of the permanent closure when City Council approved the plan in April 2016, and this was followed up last summer by the temporary improvement of asphalt paving to create a single-level, pedestrian-only plaza.
However, she feels the space no longer has a safe, family-friendly, all-ages atmosphere because of the illegal cannabis dealers that operate in the space almost everyday.
There have been incidences of alleged harassment and violence by the vendors towards the public and even police.
“It’s a concern to me when it starts infringing on other people’s enjoyment of the atmosphere, what Robson Square was supposed to be,” De Genova told Daily Hive. “More and more, I’m getting emails and phone calls from families who are concerned about walking through Robson Square.”
As well, she says the vendors are operating without a permit, even though the rules should not be different for them than anyone else.
“I completely support peaceful protest, but this isn’t protest,” she said. “This is a for-profit operation and I’ve actually debated these vendors before. If this is truly a protest, why are they profiting from this money? Are they donating this back to organizations that support the legalization of cannabis?”
Even a flower seller at the plaza on Valentine’s Day was forced by police to pack up and leave, but the cannabis vendors are treated differently.
“I look at the food trucks and other small businesses that have to play by the rules, even the marijuana dispensaries who need to pay licenses,” De Genova continued. “Is it fair to those small businesses who are barely struggling to get by that they have to pay a fee to the City and have to abide by certain rules whereas these people don’t have to at all?”
There was an effort to remove the vendors by the Vancouver Police Department in January, but many of them returned the following day.
Another issue with the roadway’s closure is the traffic congestion and delays to bus services. To accommodate the permanent closure of the roadway, the No. 5 trolley bus route serving downtown Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood had to be rerouted to a longer detour.
The permanent closure of the roadway will cause the permanent rerouting of the No. 5 trolley bus route that serves the West End neighbourhood.
“The bus went through straight that area and it was very important to seniors and people of disabilities,” she said.
De Genova believes poor implementation of the permanent closure is a significant factor to the challenges that Robson Square now faces as a central public space for everyone.
She also says in other cities like Montreal, there would be City-led initiatives to program such high-profile public spaces with outdoor entertainment and festivals, but there has been none of that in Vancouver.
“Although I think it would be fantastic to have more public spaces in Vancouver, and as a former Park Board commissioner I am certainly a big supporter of any family-friendly, all-ages spaces,” De Genova continued. “Unfortunately, from what we’ve seen with Robson Square, Vision Vancouver has made sure it is a missed opportunity because there really is no programmable space in there. People have one-off events.”
The current plaza with its asphalt layer treatment is meant to be temporary until work gets going on a $6.5-million permanent redesign.
Charles Gauthier, the president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), agrees with De Genova’s general sentiments that more attention needs to be focused on activating the public space.
“This is a coveted public space that requires a coordinated approach to steward the space and funding to program the space year round,” said Gauthier.
“The DVBIA supported the creation of this plaza on a number of conditions that included these two. We will work with the City to ensure this plaza is a success and realize that it will take some time. I fear that the public may not be as patient.”