Main Street Skytrain Station – The History, Part I

The following is an excerpt from my final research project in the SFU Urban Studies program. If you’re interested in Main Street Skytrain Station, the neighbourhood around it, or the history of land-use planning policies in eastern False Creek, you’ll love this series!

A pivotal moment in the history of Vancouver’s transportation policies was the rejection of a downtown freeway system over forty years ago. A proposal in 1967 to open up expanding commercial development downtown with a new freeway (the route would have been along Main Street) was met with intense public opposition. By 1972, after several years of failed attempts to scale back and revise the proposal, the plans to build the freeway through Chinatown and along the waterfront were scrapped and a new political party, TEAM, was elected to council. By then, investment in a regional rapid transit system was favoured not only by residents, but the Downtown Business Association (see The Vancouver Achievement, John Punter).

While the GVRD had recommended a light-rail system linking Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster prior to 1980, the Provincial Government, which took over the project, chose instead to proceed with a proprietary technology developed in Ontario that was called advanced light rapid transit (ALRT). The ALRT system would be run on an elevated guideway for much of the alignment. It was a driverless technology that required an exclusive right-of way, and this could be most economically achieved by elevating the tracks along a guideway (see Jess Stutt’s research project).

There were several implications for the Main Street station when control of the project was assumed by the Province. The GVRD had designed an elevated light-rail station for the centre median of Terminal Avenue, adjacent to Pacific Central Station (CN train station), and a track that would run at grade, east along Terminal Avenue.

An activity centre station is located on the aerial structure at Terminal Avenue adjacent to the CN VIA Rail/Amtrak station. This station will enable LRT passengers to transfer to and from the heavily travelled Main Street bus and it is also convenient to the transcontinental passenger train terminus and a proposed location for the inter-city bus terminal (GVRD Rapid Transit Project, 1979).

LRT Station designed for centre median of Terminal Ave. GVRD, 1979.

Context illustration of Main Street Station. GVRD, 1979

However, on 25 January 1982, the provincial government announced that the Main Street station would be built on land on the northwest corner of Main Street and Terminal Avenue. While there is no one clear and simple reason why the station location was moved from the original GVRD proposed site, a few probable reasons can be determined from historical documents and the project’s context.

In the summer of 1981, the Urban Transit Authority (precursor to BC Transit) began searching for alternate locations for a station because it was decided that the proposed GVRD station in the median of Terminal Avenue would block views, including traffic lines of sight, require the removal of trees and have poor bus passenger access. The Province was also under a strict deadline to have the entire ALRT system operational for Expo 86. The Main Street station in particular would be the first station ever built for a demonstration line in 1982. It was essentially an experiment to test the ALRT technology, determine what equipment and amenities would be required for stations, and to teach local contractors how to build the system. The purpose of the “pre-build” was to learn critical information that could be used to generate lower competitive construction bids and ultimately save millions of dollars.

Look at the price of gas! Early 1980s. Courtesy: City of Vancouver Archives

Construction starting on demonstration line. Courtesy: City of Vancouver Archives

Site of future Main Street Station. Courtesy: City of Vancouver Archives

A consultant, Richard Mann of Thompson Berwick Pratt, was hired in July 1981 by the UTA to examine alternate locations, and two in particular were recommended: the northwest corner of Main and Terminal, and the southwest corner of the same intersection. The site on the southwest corner was owned by the City, however it was being leased by a gas station. The City and the UTA determined the buyout costs of the lease would be $150,000 (approximately $350,000 in 2011 dollars) and take 6-9 months to complete. According to the UTA, this time and extra cost were not compatible with the project deadline or budget, and so an agreement was negotiated with Robert and Gerry Olma (of O&K Tract Developments); the owners of the site on the northwest corner.

O&K Tract Developments owned the land on the northwest corner and agreed to sell the right-of-way through their property for $1 and to coordinate a joint development with the station. As part of their agreement with the UTA, O&K Tract also agreed to pay $2 for every constructed square foot of floor space, which could amount to approximately $2 million. This fee was negotiated in part because of the expected increases in land value due to the presence of the rapid transit station, as well as the additional costs associated with building the station on this site. It also meant that it was in the financial interests of the UTA, a provincial corporation, to not only preserve this deal, but see that the proposed development went through.

The provincial government are now in a form of partnership with the Olma brothers and their O&K company. The reason they’re in partnership is that the larger the commercial development at that station site, the more UTA gets back at $2 a square foot… (Debates of the Legislative Assembly. 32nd Parliament, 4th Session).

A resolution submitted to Vancouver City Council on 1 February 1982, recommended that the station be relocated to city-owned land on the southwest corner of Main Street and Terminal Ave. This resolution, moved by Alderman Eriksen and seconded by Alderman Yorke, suggested that “increased land values resulting from rezoning of transit station sites should benefit Vancouver taxpayers” (Council minutes).

A letter written by UTA project administrator, Michael J. O’Connor, argued that the increases in land value would affect all four corners of the intersection of Main and Terminal, including City-owned property on the south side of Terminal Avenue. According to the UTA, there would be little or no added value by moving the station from the northwest corner to the southwest corner on city-owned land – which was the intention of the proposed resolution. It was calculated that as a result of the adjacent ALRT station, a net gain in the range of $10-$15 million could be realised should the City wish to sell or develop their land. It was also noted that City land would remain unencumbered by the station or guideway foundations, suggesting it would be easier for redevelopment to occur.

The City and transit users are thus getting for no extra expense a station that is: more convenient for passenger access and transfer; involves fewer pedestrian and bus movements at a busy intersection; [and] an integrated development that should be attractive and convenient (Michael J. O’Connor, 1982).

Significant station design considerations had already been made for an integrated development with O&K Tract Developments, and the pre-build demonstration line was to be constructed that same year. This meant that Main Street station would have to be fully constructed by the end of 1982, and a change in location would have major cost and scheduling consequences (as argued by the UTA). There was also, clearly, a mutual benefit to both the UTA and land-owner of the northwest site because of the right-of-way and development deal that had been reached.

The motion to relocate the station to the southwest corner, however, was defeated in City Council on 9 February 1982, by a vote of 8 opposed (including Mayor Harcourt) and only the original movers, Alderman Eriksen and Yorke, in favour (Council minutes). Construction on the station began in May 1982 after the UTA awarded an $11.2 million contract to Commonwealth Construction Ltd of Burnaby, and was expected to be completed by 10 December 1982.

ALRT demonstration line and Main Street Station. Photo taken 7 August 1983, Perspective 5 Photography.

Because of the requirement to have the ALRT (SkyTrain) system completed by 1986, time-sensitive decisions played a critical role in determining the current location and design of Main Street station. While the original location proposed by the GVRD related better to Pacific Central Station and offered a shorter walking distance for transfers, there was little time between 1980 and 1982, when the pre-build demonstration line was constructed, to confirm the necessary details of design, land-ownership and location. This experimental station became a necessary component to the project because it would familiarize contractors with construction methods, generate feedback from the public on station amenities and ultimately save money when construction bids for the rest of the system were awarded.

The long-term implications of an experimental station design have meant poor integration with adjacent development, devastatingly bad accessibility and unnecessarily long transfers to Pacific Central Station. More on this later.

ALRT demonstration line. Courtesy: The Buzzer Blog.

Part II: An Integrated Development Plan

Part III: Planning for Transit

Part IV: The Transit and Development Paradox

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12 responses to “Main Street Skytrain Station – The History, Part I

  1. Pingback: A History of the Main Street SkyTrain Station « Price Tags·

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  3. Pingback: Main Street Skytrain Station – An Integrated Development Plan, Part II | Urban Studies·

  4. Pingback: Main Street Skytrain Station – The History, Part 1 | Andrew Trevor Jones·

  5. Pingback: Main Street Skytrain Station – Planning for transit, Part III | Urban Studies·

  6. Pingback: Main Street Skytrain Station – The Transit and Development Paradox, Part IV | Urban Studies·

  7. Andrew, I found your perspective interesting. Although Dick Mann was the overall co-ordinator for the Project, I was the Planner for all of the multi-use stations and worked closely with UTDC planner Mike Schabas. I still have all of the studies we did and the paper for CIP which discussed the sale of air rights. If you ever want information from someone who was actively involved in the Project, let me know.

    • Andrew, I found your perspective interesting. Although Dick Mann was the overall co-ordinator for the Project, I was the Planner for all of the multi-use stations and worked closely with UTDC planner Mike Schabas. I still have all of the studies we did and the paper for CIP which discussed the sale of air rights. If you ever want information from someone who was actively involved in the Project, let me know.

      • Hi Jean, thanks for getting in touch. I would love to see some of those original studies on Main Street Station. Most of my research was based at CoV archives, so I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to look at them before I completed my project! Are they in hardcopy?

  8. Pingback: Main Street Station Redesign | Andrew Trevor Jones·

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