By Leslie Campbell, April 2012
The right of public access to the waterfront has been a hallmark of Peter Pollen’s long service to the community.
PETER POLLEN HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY RETIRED from business and politics for many years now, but he still likes to talk about them. During our wide-ranging conversation in his gracious Uplands home, I had to work hard to keep the focus on his life—he often seemed to be trying to interview me.
The den we meet in looks out onto a Garry oak meadow, with feeders attracting many chattering birds. The room is full of art—including a large Herbert Siebner—and family photos and books. Pollen is an avid reader, especially of Shakespeare and history. Today he has The Collected Essays of George Orwell open.
His wife MaryAnn brings us tea, then joins the conversation and is especially good at recalling specific dates and names as we drill down through the decades.
POLLEN GREW UP IN Saskatchewan and Ontario. He credits his engagement in public service largely to his education at a small boarding school which preached social responsibility, along with teaching him table manners and ancient history.
He initially came to Victoria when he was 34 and an employee of the Ford Motor Company. It was supposed to be a two-week trip to help out the local dealer. But, in short order, the dealer convinced him to leave his job and take over running the dealership. It was a rather daring move for the young family, but Peter thrived at business and eventually owned both Ford and Honda dealerships.
It was a former mayor, R.B. Wilson, who came to Pollen one day and urged him to run for city council. For Pollen, who equates luck with “preparation and opportunity,” it was good timing.
After being an alderman for two years, he served four terms as mayor of the City of Victoria: 1971 to 1975 and 1981 to 1985.
“I liked it and I didn’t like it,” muses Pollen, adding, “It’s not where you make money, not where you get medals.” But it is, he acknowledges, an opportunity to make a difference to one’s community.
One theme of Pollen’s time as mayor—one that still runs in his veins—is his love of Victoria’s downtown and Inner Harbour. In recent years, that’s translated into his vocal opposition to the marina for mega-yachts. Though the City was able to reduce its overall size, it’s still going ahead. He complains that the province has leased the water lot for only $40,000 per year (for 50 years), while the developer is selling the 26 individual slips for $800,000 apiece. Pollen and MaryAnn are active sailors and have no problem with a smaller-scale marina, but find the idea of “billionaires parking their boats there” distasteful. It’s Pollen’s view that the harbour and its walkways and vistas should be accessible by all citizens. He compares selling off that waterlot to the “filthy rich” to selling off our resources to China.
Pollen’s politics are hard to categorize. Though he once ran as a Conservative (unsuccessfully) in a provincial election, he tells me, “In a way I’m a bit of a socialist; one of my primary duties in life is to care for the people who need caring for.” He says he admired former premier W.A.C. Bennett because he didn’t have a political bias: “If something needed to be nationalized—like the ferry system—he nationalized it. If capitalism wasn’t delivering hydro power, he’d make damn sure somebody did and set up BC Hydro.”
Around heritage issues, too, he’s not a purist. He’s not opposed to highrises and he thinks the Northern Junk Building is, well, junk. But last year the Hallmark Society presented him with an Award of Honour “for long service to heritage in Victoria”—even amid a record building boom which he supported in other ways. The Society cited his engineering of the purchase of the Esso Service Station that now functions as the Visitor Information Centre, a ban on billboards, wrangling a free three-acre park at Laurel Point, saving the Malahat Building from demolition (he bought it and still owns it), a moratorium on building heights, the creation of the Lower Causeway, saving the Royal Theatre, and stopping “the Reid three-tower project,” a development proposal that involved three highrises—19-23 storeys high—on the waterfront near the foot of Bastion Square.
That’s quite a legacy. Regarding the causeway, Pollen says he had a vision—and drawings from Arthur Erickson’s firm—to make a beautiful, terraced walkway by the sea. Knowing the City couldn’t afford the $600,000 price tag, he called up then-Premier Dave Barrett and gave him a pitch. The next day Barrett called back, saying, “Build it; we’ll get you the money.”
Preserving the Royal Theatre was another favourite accomplishment. “We were confronted by the fact that Famous Players were going to sell the lot and tear down the theatre. So council said ‘to hell with that; we’re going to save it’—and we bought it for $265,000. And spent three times more fixing it up. It’s got lots of character; I love it!”
Pollen and his councils can also be credited with rejuvenating Government Street, broadening the sidewalks and planting trees, with the idea that it would become a pedestrian mall with no car traffic. But that was one battle he couldn’t win. The merchants then (as more recently) felt their business depended on cars being able to drive on Government.
Pollen’s philosophy of running the city was not unlike that for running a business: “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” And remember the taxpayer who has to pay for everything. He worries about businesses in Victoria who pay 3.5 times the general tax rate. “You’re going to kill them if you’re not careful,” he warns.
In keeping with his focus on the Inner Harbour, heritage and taxes, Pollen is appalled at the decisions around the Johnson Street Bridge. He believes the replacement is too costly and unnecessary. He asks, “Why didn’t they service the bridge for six years?” and characterizes the lack of rail capacity on the new bridge as “absolute madness, outrageous.”
POLLEN IS THE FIRST TO ADMIT Victoria has been very good to him and his family—four children and 13 grandchildren all living within 10 blocks of him—and that’s one reason he went into politics in the first place. As mayor, he was able to make a difference and make many good friends. He and MaryAnn were able to go to China in 1982 when it was just opening up. Closer to home, but just as memorable, was a trip with his friend, naturalist Bristol Foster. They circumnavigated Haida Gwaii’s Moresby Island in “a tin boat, with a nine-horsepower motor” doing a pelagic bird survey (fuel was dropped off by plane).
These days he admits he’s slowed down some. “In your 70s,” he says “you might as well be 45, but when you hit your 80s, you…can’t fight any more dragons because the armour is too heavy.” If something moves or riles him, he jokes “I think about it and then I sit down!” But he can and does still write letters to the editor and lobby various authorities on his causes.
“The most important thing is to get the hell out of bed in the morning,” he concludes.
Leslie Campbell moved to Victoria in 1985, so has—up until now—taken for granted the many lasting improvements made by Peter Pollen and his councils.