A park runs over it: Rethinking the Port Mann Bridge demolition

Idea floated to save span for green space instead of tearing it down




Imagine an aerial park perched above the Fraser River featuring two kilometres of trees and green space with meandering pedestrian paths and a public plaza in the middle.

It’s an alternate vision for the Port Mann Bridge, which is now slated to be demolished once the new 10-lane toll bridge rising beside it opens just over a year from now.

The idea of saving the old bridge as a unique park was quietly floated by a Metro Vancouver manager at a regional parks committee meeting Wednesday.

SFU City Program director Gordon Price rates it a long shot – but a fascinating one.

“Wow – that would be spectacular,” he said. “I love the idea. It’s just so audacious and jaw-dropping to think of what the possibilities might be.”

Tempting as it is, Price said, it probably won’t happen.

The provincial government has always said the existing bridge must be torn down to eliminate the ongoing maintenance costs.

Victoria is also determined to tear down the old bridge so there’s no way it could ever re-open as a free crossing for motorists in competition with the toll bridge.

Cycling and pedestrian lanes will also be provided on the new bridge, so keeping the old one might be considered redundant.

Still, Price thinks the park idea merits a look.

“People love this stuff,” he said. “If it’s going to cost a lot to tear it down there might be an argument to leave it for now. Maybe it could be done over time.

“People might look back in 50 or 60 years and say this was a stroke of genius.”

Old bridges and railway viaducts have been turned into elevated parks elsewhere in the world.

Paris has the Promenade Planteé, the world’s first elevated parkway converted from an unused raised railway in the 1990s.

New York has the High Line Park, a similar rail viaduct in Manhattan that was saved from demolition and transformed into a popular linear park and public space.

“It’s been spectacularly successful, generating billions of dollars of associated development,” Price said. “It’s one of the best things that’s happened in New York.”

Price couldn’t think of anything in the world like a Port Mann park above the Fraser, offering incredible mountain, city and river views.

The bridge would also fit nicely with the Experience The Fraser master plan for a vast network of trails on both sides of the Fraser River linking parks and destinations all the way from Steveston and Tsawwassen to Hope.

“You can’t go too far wrong in joining up parts of the region with greenways,” he said.

A transportation ministry spokesperson was unable to provide estimates of annual maintenance costs of the bridge or the estimated price tag to demolish it. The demolition cost is built into the new span’s construction cost.

The spokesperson said alternative uses were never considered because the existing approaches must be dismantled to make way for the lanes accessing the new bridge.

The green space concept was raised by Gaetan Royer, Metro’s new manager of metropolitan planning, regional parks and environment.

Royer urged the parks committee to “think big” in considering new ways to expand and enhance the regional parks system, potentially by looking at Vancouver’s viaducts and other highways, overpasses or freeway ramps that might otherwise be torn down.

He stressed he’s not proposing a green conversion of the Port Mann nor has Metro studied the idea.

Royer offered it merely as “food for thought.”

He was also inspired by the High Line in New York.

“They put a layer of dirt on top and some pavers and it’s just a gorgeous elevated park,” Royer said.

The High Line isn’t contiguous – it’s broken up in places where the original viaduct was torn down.

Likewise, Royer said, even if the main span of the Port Mann is torn down, one or both of the approach ramps could be kept as park space.

“You could have a lookout over the water that creates access at a place that’s regionally significant and could possibly be turned into a tourist attraction,” he said.

“A park does not neccessarily have to be the traditional piece of land somewhere. As density increases, we need to learn to do things differently.”

Parks committee chair Gayle Martin lauded Royer for “thinking outside the box” and said it’s a concept worth discussing.

“What a wonderful way to have an amenity right over the Fraser River,” she said. “Especially when you think about the demolition of the Port Mann Bridge, the cost of it and the materials that have to be gotten rid of somehow.”

A linear park using the old bridge would allow bikes and pedestrians to stay off the traffic-filled main bridge, she said.

“I don’t know where it’s going to go from here,” Martin said. “It’s not a structure that we own.”

PHOTOS: Construction of new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge alongside the existing span;Reimagining the bridge as green space. (Gaetan Royer photo-illustration)

Slideshow: New York’s High Line Park