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Robertson says City will not allow CP to put real estate development in Arbutus Corridor

Urban gardens threatened by renewed cargo-train traffic along Arbutus Corridor. This is not about cargo, though: it's about real estate. CP wants to build along the Arbutus greenway, and the City of Vancouver does not.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson
Mayor Gregor Robertson: The City will fight any Arbutus Corridor cargo-train scheme

The City of Vancouver has long been opposed to development along the 60-foot-wide Arbutus Corridor. The most recent of several high-court battles went the City's way, giving Vancouver and not CP the power to decide the Arbutus Corridor's fate.

Mayor Gregor Robertson reiterated this at a press conference this morning.

"Canadian Pacific has the right of way, through the [Canadian Railway Act of 1906], through Vancouver to the Arbutus Corridor. I'm hopeful they will respect what the neighbours want to see there and that we have an intact greenway through our city. There's no longer industry along that track, and in the future we'd like to see light-rail transit use along that line. Right now there's no business case for that, but a greenway for the time being and light rail eventually, not cargo trains," Robertson said,  at the Dodson Rooms on Hastings.

CP recently sent a letter to residents of the Arbutus area as its employees start to clear the weeds for the first time in recent memory. Read it here:

The Arbutus Corridor rail line's 45 long, narrow acres have been effectively abandoned for nearly 14 years. The last train ran in 2001, and since then the corridor been popular with dog walkers, joggers, urban wildlife, local gardeners, and weeds. However, CP has not abandoned the corridor in the legal sense.

If so inclined, CP would be within its legal rights to attach a single cargo car to a single engine, and run it up and down the corridor, if that were how the company wanted to play.

What CP wants, though, is what it has always wanted: to develop the Arbutus Corridor for real estate. As per the letter to residents,

For many years now, CP has been involved in conversations to convert the Arbutus Corridor for a number of combined public uses, such as a greenway, public transportation, community gardens and Eco Density development. Despite our efforts, the company and other parties have been unable to achieve a plan for the disposition of this valuable asset.

The letter says, in effect, "If we can't monetize through real estate, then we'll monetize through train traffic."

Speaking to the idea that CP is using the threat of cargo trains to leverage a development deal with the city, Robertson said, "The City will not let anyone develop that land. The City has control of the development on that stretch, and we have taken that to the Supreme Court and had that validated."

However, Robertson stopped short of describing this escalation as an undercarriage-measuring contest. "I wouldn't characterize it as that... It's become an important greenway in the city, and hopefully we see CP respecting that."

Mayor Gregor Robertson at Dodson Rooms

"The City can't actually make any impact on CPR's ability to operate trains on that line." Vancouver has consistently kicked the notion of cargo traffic along the Arbutus Corridor to the curb, but Robertson himself, he said, has not spoken directly with CPR's higher-ups in a few years.

At the end of the day, CP can activate the neglected rail line at its discretion, and the City can't do much about it; provided CP's activity is limited to running trains. PR-wise, the train company's move is perhaps ill-timed. CP's move comes just as Vancouver's politicians and citizens are stepping up their activism against the various pipeline interests converging on the Lower Mainland.

"It would be a huge concern," said Robertson, "if  was dangerous cargo on that corridor, given it runs right through the middle of several neighbourhoods of Vancouver." While federal laws are in place to govern the transportation of hazardous materials, laws cannot physically stop a spill, as we've learned several times within the past year.

Robertson said that discussions of what to do with the land, including selling it to the City, have ultimately gone nowhere. He was unaware of First Nations involvement in the ongoing discussion; Vancouver itself sits on unceded Coast Salish territory.

The way-back machine

This looks like a trains-or-condos ultimatum, but is it possible that Canadian Pacific is just bluffing? "I don't know what they're up to, "said Robertson. "I'm hopeful that they have the City's and the neighbourhoods' best interests in mind, but certainly we're very concerned and we're gonna be watching very carefully."


Robertson described the ongoing Vancouver-CP communication as "a historic exchange", and that is an apt term. CP's real-estate interest in Vancouver goes back to before Vancouver was Vancouver. CP moved its terminus from Port Moody to what was then called Granville in 1884. The city was incorporated as Vancouver two years later. Since then, CP's real-estate intentions have shaped our city's fate (pdf).

Though many Vancouverites are just hearing about the Arbutus Corridor dispute today, it's but an echo of tensions that have been in place for well over a century.

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