The Arbutus Line

Vancouver’s Arbutus corridor – Kitsilano Rail

Two years ago, eight bright orange metal silos—each five-stories in height—appeared overnight on the land abutting rail giant, BNSF’s Winnipeg track. The rail corridor cuts through the heart of Winnipeg’s Tony River Heights neighbourhood. “An eyesore,” claimed one resident; “it’s like someone erected a big ugly apartment block overnight.”

Vancouver should take note. The city’s leafy West Side could see a similar industrialization along the city’s so-called Arbutus corridor, the CP-owned, 45 acre stretch of land that also happens to lie at the heart of the world’s most expensive real estate.

Winnipeg’s fluorescent silos house an agent used as a de-icer in winter and to minimize dust on gravel in summer. Described by one Winnipeg citizen as “humongous, larger-than-life, ugly as sin,” residents stormed City Hall, complaining about a drop in property value, a sharp increase in traffic due to a new loading facility and the impact of the increased industrialization on the character of the quiet, residential community.

Despite the City of Winnipeg’s claim that the silos breached by-laws, they remain and are now part of the city landscape. According to BNSF, the massive U.S. railway, it could have been even worse. The silos, according to one spokesperson, are “the nicest looking tanks that we have. They’re not dented or banged up.” To the railway, centralizing the silos near Winnipeg’s downtown enhanced operational efficiency and is part and parcel of the railway business.

As the fight over Vancouver’s Arbutus corridor continues, business decisions on how to optimize the rail line are underway in CP’s Calgary corporate headquarters.

In 2001, the last train ran on the Arbutus line; ever since, CP’s intention to sell or develop the land has been thwarted by city planners. First, the city devalued the property with a new development plan limiting any future use of the land to a public thoroughfare—a bike or footpath. CP was furious and took the city to court, a case that eventually wound its way to the Supreme court with a decision that satisfied neither side. CP and the city have been quietly at loggerheads since. This spring, their fight went public. CP, frustrated by the slow progress of negotiations, announced plans to reactivate the rail line for commercial purposes and began upgrading the track.

There was much hue and cry over the removal of the beloved gardens residents had erected on the track and the land snug up against it. CP is entitled to use its land as a railway, as Winnipeg’s River Heights home owners found.

This week, residents were notified that herbicide spraying and track repairs were imminent. This prompted a truce, and a return to the bargaining table. On Wednesday, the city announced that senior officials had entered into negotiations. And CP announced it was suspending planned maintenance for up to three weeks.

But when it comes to setting a price, there’s a big gap between the two sides.

CP is legally bound to act in the best interests of its shareholders; this means it cannot discount or give away the valuable piece of real estate, as some residents and officials seem to hope. On the basis of adjacent land value, the property could be worth as much as $500 million. According to news reports, CP is said to be asking $100 million and the City is said to be offering $20 million.

Armistice aside, some residents, bloggers and gardeners remain convinced there will never be a return to an active rail line. With an over-run track and centralized operations elsewhere, talk of commercialization of the line is nothing more than posturing, they claim. Mayor Gregor Robertson waved off CP’s garden evictions as “bullying tactics.” For their part, CP spokespersons have been clear: they intend to “utilize assets”, to “re-consider operational options” and to “optimize the use of the corridor.”

And, “railway” carries a wide meaning according to Canada’s Transportation Act, including “equipment, stores and other things connected to a railway.”

“It’s a tough call” when a residential area grows up around an industrial one, BNSF acknowledged in the spat over Winnipeg’s silos. River Heights residents never considered the possibility of new structures, activity, noise, and loading facilities. CP is legally entitled to use the land as it sees fit.

And, a railway, like any other publicly traded company must act in the best interests of its shareholders, even when it means not being very neighbourly. Vancouver, which seeks to be the world’s greenest city by 2020, should be prepared to pay full market value. Or be willing to accept industrial activity on its West Side. The choice is theirs.

by Mary-Jane Bennett

Courtesy of The Frontier Institute for Public Policy, fcpp.org