Dear TTTF Readers: I wrote this post sitting in a coffee shop only a stone’s throw from the infamously barren Hyack Square. I had every intention of publishing it right then but didn’t primarily because I didn’t want to just join the chorus of disappointment in the square’s reno if there was a movement afoot to fix it or if there was something in the works. This week we heard from Will at a recent council meeting that time and cost had limited the square’s final appearance – reminding me that other considerations are always at play. The City’s laudable Wheelability Project has inspired me to put this post out there as my contribution to the fresh discussion this initiative has raised about making New Westminster more welcoming to all. After all, if as a city we are going to undertake construction of public spaces, shouldn’t we also ensure that all of the public can make use of them?
By now we’ve all heard gripes about the so-called Hyack Square revitalization project, just recently completed with a replaced overpass grand re-opening this month. Last October, the whole square was closed for renovations made possible by the BC 150th Anniversary “Spirit Squares” project, in which Mayor Gordon Campbell contributed more than $382,000 to an estimated $1.5 million upgrade the square in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations for New West and the Province of BC. The proposed renovations were to include “a possible water feature, band shelter area for celebrations and an amphitheatre incorporating stairs, leading to the pedestrian overpass.” Since the grand reopening of Hyack Square, criticism has come on multiple levels. Now that it’s all open, however, it is an evident lack of criticism that concerns me most – lack of criticism of the replacement of a totally inaccessible pedestrian walkway to a now public facility that has no other safe wheelchair or stroller access, as part of the renovation of Hyack Square. Despite the $1.5 million spent on this project ($200,000 over budget and $50,000 spent on art), the square is now LESS wheelchair, stroller and disability accessible than it was before (due to the construction of more stairs that are ostensibly amphitheatre benches). Since the construction of the Westminster Quay Public Market and the redevelopment of the Quayside area in the mid-80’s, level, safe access to this new public space on other side of the railroad tracks has been difficult for pedestrians and tourists. If you can’t do stairs because of a mobility impairment, age or the need to use a stroller or grocery basket, street access is not an option for you. The pedestrian overpass has several flights of stairs on either side of the railroad tracks making it completely inaccessible to all but the most able-bodied people and those without small children in tow. Given that ours is a city of elders and young families, this seems like quite a large proportion of the population to exclude when building an access route to the City’s biggest attraction. This lack of attention to accessibility is even more curious given that the Quayside Drive social housing co-operatives have some of the only adapted housing for people with disabilities in the area.
View Wheelchair Access in Downtown New West in a larger map
There are two alternate routes to the Quay area from the other side of Columbia Street. The first, and shortest, clocks in at 499 M (almost twice the distance of the route over the pedestrian walkway, 264 m), a route which goes from New West station to Columbia Street, and up three blocks to Begbie. At Begbie and Front Street there is a complex intersection involving crosswalks across Front Street, the BCRail tracks, and the tail end of Quayside Drive. The three sets of tracks themselves are difficult to traverse in a stroller or wheelchair, each of which has a gap of approximately 4cm. This is wide enough for my wheels to sink into, and the uneven pathway has caused accidents for myself and people with canes and strollers. The third crosswalk is frequently blocked by cars backed up from the train crossing waiting to go across Front Street – and if there’s a train crossing, this route to the Quay is unavailable for up to a half hour. Another route leads down Carnarvon Street to the McInnes Overpass. I tried to get a % on the grade of the slope from the south side (from Carnarvon) but couldn’t find anything easily available online – what I can tell you is that I am a very strong, active wheelchair user with arguably more power going up hills than most manual wheelchair users and stroller pushers, and the north end of the overpass is just on the edge of my ability to wheel up independently. And that was before the scaffolding was put up over that part of the overpass to allow for construction. More bad news: this route is more than three times longer than the Hyack Square overpass route, 798m vs 264m. It involves two very steep grades and a long walk back through a scenic parking lot behind the Inn at the Quay. To give you a sense of the only transit solutions to this problem, check out the result I got from Translink’s Trip Planner when I put in FROM: New Westminster Skytrain Station TO: Westminster Quay Market:
The C4 doesn’t even stop at the Westminster Quay on the other side of the railroad tracks. The closest it gets (except for non-specified “limited service only” is Quayside at the McInnes overpass (note that I think that Translink’s TripPlanner has produced very strange results here, all requiring a trip from NW into burnaby first.) All the more reason to ensure that a $1.5 million renovation of the small square at the foot of the pedestrian overpass and the gateway to the Quay incorporated ways to provide safer, more direct and usable level access to the Quay.
Even more worrisome is the city’s continuing plans to improve upriver – this powerpoint presentation from a June ’09 workshop on proposed developments for downtown and the community consultation results received provides an interesting view into the City’s understanding of what “accessibility” means – given that two more “access” routes are planned for future developments toward the foot of 6th street on the newly-acquired riverfront… and both involve stairs. There is no doubt that this is a difficult access issue to solve, for the city, developers, and for transit. It’s not a new problem, either – but at least until the Hyack Square “revitalization,” they had the excuse that it was done in a previous age, that the overpass was too old to change and that there were no funds earmarked for this type of project. The minute the Hyack Square project involved replacement of the overpass, I believe the onus is on the City to replace it within existing BC Building Code, which dictates that new additions to existing buildings require wheelchair access to main entrances. This building project doesn’t fit perfectly into the Building Code’s provisions on wheelchair access, but to claim there is no requirement would be to use legalism to get out of a civic responsibility: the fact is that this city landmark and tourist attraction provides only vehicular access to those who can’t climb stairs, and puts many, many wheelchair users, stroller pushers, and those with other mobility impairments at risk every year by forcing them to two other very sub-standard alternatives for crossing the railroad tracks. So what could be done? It’s a tough one for sure – but if I can come up with three options, how many more could trained city planners and active citizens come up with by putting their heads together?
1. Re-design the overpass to incorporate a lift on the north side, from hyack square to the pedestrian overpass. This could be arranged to be a daytime-only service, locked out by maintenance personnel for the Quay building at night, removing some of the risk of vandalism and abuse. The south side could either have an elevator or be re-aligned to incorporate a combination of ramps to allow entrance to the Quay building. Perhaps this could be designed to construct an elevator providing service to the ground level entrance of the Quay, as well as the 2nd level entrance and the pedestrian walkway – making it possible to enter the Quay restaurants after the market (where the building’s only elevator is located) itself has closed. 2. Create a cost-sharing agreement between the City of New West and Translink to provide frequent, uninterrupted shuttle service between the door of the New West Quay and either Columbia or New West Skytrain Stations. There have been several short-lived attempts at Quayside bus service to the Quay itself, however none have lasted, presumably for cost and volume reasons. This agreement would see the Parks Department subsidize provision of this route in order to make up for the lack of access by other routes. 3. Create a separate crossing over the railroad tracks directly from the platform of New West Station that either joins the pedestrian bridge or provides a separate route of access.