A Tale of Two Rails: Canadian Pacific Railway LTD vs. Gardeners Along the Arbutus Corridor

These past weeks what we’ve been dreading has come to pass.  The gardens, so lovingly built and tended, so integral to the community gardening legacy of Vancouver, have been ripped out.  These gardens, built over several decades going back to WWII Victory Gardens, were allowed by CPR from 1952-2001 – the entire time it ran trains on the Arbutus Corridor.   Who is this other CPR Ltd that has done this?

Before they were destroyed.SPEC has long taken an interest in the corridor because “Old Blue” the beloved building we occupied at 6th and Maple from 1981-2011 was right beside the corridor and beside some of the most beautiful community gardens in the city.  One of them, Maple Garden, was started by a SPEC staffer, Barbara Atkins in 1991, and we felt a particularly heavy heart when the bulldozers took out Maple and Cypress gardens. 

Before they were destroyed.

 After being destroyed

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd is in a very serious struggle with the City of Vancouver that’s been going on for most of a decade.  They want either that the Arbutus Corridor be rezoned for residential development, in order to capitalize on some very choice real estate in a very hot real estate market, or they want to sell it to the City – for $100,000,000.00 (that’s 100 Million Dollars). The Arbutus Corridor has been zoned as a transportation corridor for over 100 years and the city has so far refused to rezone it, presumably looking ahead to a time when there will once again provide commuter service along that route. They also don’t have $100,000,000.00 laying around unused to hand over to CP so they have sat on a decision.  As long as CPR was also content to sit, this worked out well.  But CP has decided to up the pressure by resuming use of the rail line and brutally removing the community gardens, hoping (I guess) the public reaction would pressure the city and willing (I also guess,) to take the public backlash.  It succeeded in pressuring the City who took them to court but the courts found for CPR and the destruction is underway.

I’m with the city on this because of the history, both the long ago history of railroad building and the recent history of neglect by CPR that has brought us to this point.  The long ago history for this particular rail company goes back to 1881 when Sir John A McDonald wanted a transcontinental railroad built to connect eastern Canada with the west and to forestall expansionist ambitions of Americans also swiftly moving westward.  CP got the contract which eventually included 25 M acres of land and, coincidently, about $100 M in public money in various forms (cash, tax benefits, ownership of rail already built at public expense, and a duration of monopoly rights on some lines)  While the Arbutus Corridor wasn’t part of this transaction, (it was developed at the turn of the 20th Century as part of a regional commuter rail network) CPR got a lot of public money and land to start a rail business and could, if they wanted to, consider that legacy and cut the gardeners a little kindness as they negotiate with the city.  The more recent past is that CPR ran its last train on the tracks in 2001 and has since been an absentee landlord of their property. 

A year before the last CPR usage of the tracks, SPEC  organized nearby gardeners and Montessori daycare students to stand on the tracks and demand they stop spraying Round-Up  as maintenance on  tracks.  The CPR of those days was engaged enough with the community to agree to do hand clearing in the areas adjacent to the schools and the gardens. Gardens started along the tracks as “Victory Garden’s” during WWII and were tolerated by BC Electric Railway Co until 1952 when CPR took over the line and continued to permit those gardens and, over the decades, allow others to be built.  For as long as they ran trains on this line, gardens thrived along many stretches of the Arbutus Corridor – What happened to that CPR?

When CPR discontinued use of the line, SPEC urged that it continue to be a transportation corridor and began a education campaign to inform and solicit public input on its future.  In 2004, Ivan Bulic and I created  “All Aboard the Arbutus Corridor,” a public design context on the future use of the corridor.  It drew 75 amazing (including professional) entries which were judged by a professional panel and publicly displayed in March 2005 at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design on Granville Island where awards were given out. 

That same year, The Arbutus Corridor Cleanup Committee was created and volunteers and sponsors came forward to help.  The overgrowth of tangled blackberries and accumulation of litter attracted rodents.  Brandan Norman first tried to get CP to do the clean-up but they were not interested.  On their first major project, volunteers removed 4 tonnes of trash in hundreds of bags of weeds and leaves in the Kerrisdale area.  Over the years, SPEC has supported other areas being revitalized as biking/walking trails and pocket parks for the public.

About a decade ago CP Rail initiated a series of neighbourhood workshops along the corridor to solicit public input.  Workshops were well-publicized and very well attended and CP was well prepared with ample table staff and an artist for every table of participants to capture their ideas in both verbal and visual formats.  SPEC attended every one of the workshops, to provide input, to assess the feelings in the neighbourhoods, and to be a voice of correction to any future manipulation of the data.  What repeatedly came out was a desire that it remain a transportation corridor with commuter rail serving the area, but participants were open to residential housing in areas where it was compatible.  A very high percentage of people wanted community gardens to continue to flourish along the corridor and a walking path safely separated from a commuter rail.  This may be a tall order to provide, but that was the picture routinely expressed by the public.    

I make these points not as a prelude to suggesting they give the land back.  That won’t happen.  But I do wonder at the ugly re-assertion of ownership and entitlement causing them to bull-doze gardens (albeit with court permission) that have existed along the tracks for 75 years and after walking away and leaving the clean-up of the corridor for the past 15 years in the hands of local residents who wrestled with blackberries to gain a little ground on which to grow carrots.