Lance Berelowitz
Lance Berelowitz
Image of the north-east False Creek plans.
Graphic: City of Vancouver
Image of the north-east False Creek plans. Graphic: City of Vancouver

It's a small world. On the same day the City of Cape Town announced the winning bid for a scheme to redevelop the Foreshore Freeway Precinct, on the opposite side of the world the City of Vancouver approved its new north-east False Creek plan (NFCP). 

The two projects have much in common, addressing several of the same issues such as elevated freeways built as part of a larger network that was never completed, disconnections to the adjacent urban waterfront, the need for green space, social reconciliation, and lack of affordable housing. However, the two proposals address these issues in totally opposite ways: two cities, two opposing visions. 

Both Cape Town and Vancouver have long grappled with what to do about their urban freeways and how best to reconnect each city to its respective waterfront. And both are struggling with a housing affordability crunch.

 Vancouver’s NFCP proposes demolishing the twin Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts – which were the first part of a far larger urban freeway system that got stopped in its tracks by citizen opposition – and replacing them with a surface road system. This will open up the area for redevelopment. The plan also includes an expanded park network with 5.5 hectares of new parks and open space. 

The NFCP will enhance public access to the False Creek waterfront as well as providing both market and affordable housing. 

The plan calls for 20% of all new residential floor area to be delivered as social housing. The plan estimates this will result in about 1 200 new social housing units. Much of this new public infrastructure will be paid for by private development on the remaining land, which stands to substantially increase in value with the removal of the viaducts. 

The landowners are in effect partnering with the city to achieve public benefits along with increased private gains. 

Vancouver also has an agenda of reconciliation, with formerly disadvantaged members of society (indigenous, Chinese-Canadian and black people) explicitly built into the NFCP. While not all local pundits support the proposed removal of the viaducts and other aspects of Vancouver’s plan, including an apparent profit windfall for affected landowners, and even what some are calling politically correct tokenism, it is hard to dispute its progressive, sustainable credentials. Meanwhile, Cape Town’s winning bid, from local firm Mitchell du Plessis Associates (MDA), proposes to complete the unfinished sections of the elevated N1-N2 Foreshore freeway, which runs along the edge of the city centre separating it from the harbour. 

As Capetonians know, these freeways planned to funnel traffic into the CBD and connect the city’s eastern suburbs with those on the western Atlantic seaboard, were built in the 1960s when planners and engineers believed this was the best way out of congestion. However, the freeway network was never completed, and for the past 50 years the abrupt ends of the former Western Boulevard (now Helen Suzman Boulevard) and the former Eastern Boulevard (now Nelson Mandela Boulevard), which merges with the N1, have been a bizarre feature of Cape Town’s urban landscape. 

The completed freeways will simply punt the existing traffic congestion further down the road into Green Point. The opportunity to remove them completely is being foregone. The MDA scheme also proposes a phalanx of 11 market residential towers arrayed along the narrow strip of land between the two new parallel freeways that will be added. These tower blocks, rising some 36 storeys above the freeways, will rest on podiums that will partially support the new viaducts. Several other buildings will be slung in underneath or between the freeways. 

These lower buildings will host “affordable residential units”. The development proposes 3 200 market-priced residential units and 450 affordable residential units. That’s about 14% of the total. The City of Cape Town’s press release stated: “The new viaducts… will be higher than the existing freeways… to provide enough space, natural light and airflow for the development in the podiums. “The proposed podiums beneath the highways will accommodate the bulk of the affordable residential units, parking bays, convenience and speciality shops, retail space, and community facilities. In this way, the space under the highways will be transformed into a lively urban environment.” In fact, it is hard to imagine a less lively urban environment under (excuse the pun) these circumstances. 

MDA’s submission video also illustrates what look suspiciously like elevated pedestrian bridges weaving between the viaducts. Putting aside the question of why these are even necessary if most of the vehicles are going to be gradeseparated, many cities have learnt to their regret how poorly these systems work, and the damage they do to the public realm. 

Just ask Calgary. But perhaps the most egregious aspect of this plan is that, as Lisa Kane, honorary research associate at University of Cape Town’s centre for transport studies, has noted, the project “turns its back on the sea and effectively removes any future possibilities of linkages between the CBD and the sea”. 

What a missed opportunity. Why MDA was selected as the qualifying bidder is a mystery to this writer. Several local commentators have gone on record that their submission misses the mark in many ways, not even meeting the City of Cape Town’s own evaluation criteria.

 It makes you wonder what other factors weighed in the City’s decision. How to explain these very different responses to two remarkably similar sets of issues in two superficially similar cities? Perhaps it’s a reflection of two very different histories and cultures. A tale of two cities indeed. 

  •  Berelowitz is a Canadian urban planner, urban issues writer and commentator, and the award-winning author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Born and raised in Cape Town, he lives in Vancouver