A committee of the whole meeting about the future of Port Alberni’s train station on Monday, July 15 turned into a larger discussion about the revitalization of Uptown Port Alberni and the waterfront.
Seismically, the city-owned, heritage-designated train station is in need of “robust” upgrades to meet modern codes, architect Will King told city council. There is also an issue of a leaking roof and poor insulation, as well as a heating system that needs to be upgraded. The building’s heritage status, he added, makes this difficult.
King suggested a “rehabilitation” of the train station—making contemporary use of a place while still protecting its historic value. The surrounding area also needs to be rehabilitated in order to make this sustainable. He drew comparisons to other industrial waterfront areas, such as Granville Island in Vancouver, the Duncan Garage and even Pike Place in Seattle, and suggested that Port Alberni can offer the same type of attraction in the Harbour Quay area.
“Great industrial infrastructure…can bring vibrancy that will attract people from all over the world,” he explained.
He offered a few suggestions, from a rooftop patio over the truck garage to blocking off traffic on part of Argyle Street to create a pedestrian focused area.
Members of council all agreed on Monday that doing nothing isn’t an option.
“It’s not just a train station, it’s the linchpin,” said Councillor Ron Paulson on Monday. “If we don’t take care of it, we’re in danger of losing it.”
A number of Port Alberni residents stepped forward to speak on Monday. Chris Washington, the owner of Flandangles and the chair of the Uptown Merchants Association, said she was excited about the concept. “I’ve seen this type of development all over the world,” she said. “It’s awesome what this does for communities.”
Washington has brought similar concepts to council in the past, advocating for improvements to Port Alberni’s Uptown with things like lighting, washrooms and pedestrian-friendly streets.
Some people offered suggestions. Nancy Blair, a member of the Community Arts Council in Port Alberni, proposed an “arts hub” for the train station. “[It] would bring life into this historic venue,” she described. “We’d like the chance to be considered.”
Aaron Colyn, the owner of Twin City Brewing, said that he has been looking for a location to expand his business, and has been keeping an eye on the train station. His vision, he said, is to preserve and celebrate the fact that the building was formerly a bustling train station. “We are looking for more space,” he said. “There are more people than we have seats for.”
Other speakers emphasized the importance of retaining the building as a train station. Council agreed in February to put a temporary halt to railway operations in 2019 due to budget concerns. However, both the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society and the McLean Mill Society continue to hold conversations with city staff about running the trains in 2020 and repairing the No. 7 “Baldwin” steam locomotive. McLean Mill Society president Sheena Falconer said on Monday that the society is working to make sure the trains can return next year, and wants to see the link maintained.
“We’re open to other organizations being in there,” she added. “But it is a pretty key component for the trains.”
In another interview, City CAO Tim Pley said a potential redevelopment of the train station wouldn’t necessarily affect future operation of the trains.
“There’s no reason why it would affect operation of the trains,” he said. “The deck and the rails for the train would remain in place. There’s no plan to remove those.”
Although the train station and train have a “natural synergy,” he said, they are not connected.
Because Monday’s meeting was a committee of the whole meeting, no decisions were made. The topic will be brought to a future meeting of council.