How to boil a city

By Gene Miller, June 2012

Put all the politicians, bureaucrats and engaged citizens in a big pot and turn up the heat until everyone screams “Density!”

From my eastern windows dawn landed like the Apocalypse a couple of Fridays ago: a tortured sun fighting its way through volcanic black stormheads churning below a leaden sky that flattened the landscape from horizon to horizon, north to south.

“The end of Fairfield and pricey Gonzales?” I wondered. “Maybe there really is a wrathful Higher Power. But why Cook Street Village? Why? Why? Why?”

God works in mysterious ways.

I consulted my well-thumbed Bible For Dummies. And there it was, a portent, a message. The text in Renovations 4:17-3 read: 

Sayeth the Lord: For your iniquities and inertia I will tear down your great works, heritage and otherwise, for ye have abandoned your downtown and left its economy in the gutter. And I will cause ye to wander in Langford without a cool coffee shop or rustic baguette with herbs and sea salt for forty years. Your supplications come too late, declareth the Lord. Time for tough love and Tim Horton’s, I say unto ye. Yes, this means ye.

Scripture! Wow!

On the very same day and at the very same hour that architect/urbanist Franc d’Ambrosio and I were giving a presentation to a hundred-strong UDI Victoria (Urban Development Institute) luncheon audience, including Victoria’s mayor, half of City council, numerous property owners, developers, architects and other professional stakeholders about the urgent need to turn Rock Bay at Downtown’s northern door into a great new mixed-use urban neighbourhood filled with residents and workers, Jim Hartshorne, currently president of the West Shore Developers Association and prime consultant on Westhills in Langford, was addressing an audience of commercial realtors at some other rubber chicken palace about the Westhills plan to build a total of 6000 homes and (I hope you’re sitting down) six million square feet of commercial space. If the details reached me accurately, it appears that the Stewarts, deep-pocketed developers of Westhills, are prepared to spec-build the first quarter-million square feet.

Well, doesn’t that make you want to slit your dainty Victorian wrists? If you’re having trouble getting your head around the number, six million square feet is about 2000 Pagliacci’s. Not, of course, that there is any danger of—excuse me a second. What? No, reception’s good. Oh, Pagliacci’s is closing up on Broad Street downtown and moving to Westhills?

I’m just kidding...probably.

Here’s a thought: maybe, instead of issuing proclamations that the Belarus Navy is not welcome in our harbour because of that country’s sub-par diversion of recyclables from its landfills, Victoria Council should be confronting the immediate reality that Downtown is slowly but steadily losing its status as the economic epicentre of the region. Maybe this is just the way some downtowns wane—not with a bang but a whimper, through a process of slow haemorrhage, so imperceptible at any given point over time that it hardly seems worth dealing with...until, of course, Downtown crosses a tipping point and wakes up dead, an economic backwater, in spite of all conceits about being the “centre of it all.”

While it’s good that the mayor, several months ago, intervened literally at the last moment to reduce the severity of the City’s bonus density policy (in which the City keeps urban densities artificially low to force developers to “buy” from the City the additional density they need to create viable projects), his actions simply softened Victoria’s development policy disincentives. The City has to stop thinking that a move from -5 to -3 is palliation worth cheering, and must figure out what a set of +5 policies would look like.

I don’t know how to say this more simply: Victoria needs 10,000-20,000 new people living and working in and near Downtown. That’s the goal; everything else should be the how. 

Imagine an insufferably cheery, peppy extrovert who meets a healer who says: “You’re not really happy, are you?” and places magical fingers on her third and fourth chakras. Tears well up in her eyes and in a moment she’s gasping and shaking with soul-racking sobs, admitting that she hates her life.

That’s our girl, Victoria. For more years than any of us can count, the City has honed its genius for inertia. It has set up a complex network of systems and policy structures, rules and regulations designed to slow and frustrate constructive ambition; a forbidding, hermetic “don’t bother me” service culture; and a “plan to plan,” consult-everybody-but-do-next-to-nothing modus operandi. The whole thing is a vast, institutional lie, an emperor’s new clothes representation of good municipal management, but it has become so ingrained and has delivered dulling pain and stress for so long, that people within the municipal organization and citizens at-large find it hard to believe that things could or even should be any different. It’s a lot like what happens in a bad marriage that endures well past its sell-by date. And as in a bad marriage, all parties are complicit—politicians, administrators, citizens: good people trapped in a bad context.

Something, someone has to release the City from this culture.

I’m staring at the cover of an important official document entitled Victoria Economic Development Strategy. In an introductory chapter I read this freighted note: “Population and job growth is projected to accelerate in the suburban areas, particularly in the Western Communities. As population and job growth become more concentrated in suburbia, the impact on the Downtown core could be profound.” And a bit later, “We can accept these trends as inevitable or we can commit to a bold new approach that will change our course and manage our future.” 

In its Action Plan summary, the Strategy states: “Enhance the vibrancy of Downtown” via these priority actions: “Increase residential density; increase cultural development and programming; reduce commercial vacancies; increase the economic potential of the harbour; increase safety, security and cleanliness.” The document was produced by the City in 1997.

The broad social indifference to climate change has a lot to teach us here. It’s hard to get people to recognize and mobilize against threats that move only with (in this case, literally) glacial speed. That is, Victoria, trapped in the euphoria of lottery win-like real estate value increases (the “somebody up there loves me” syndrome), chesty with long-standing conceits about its regional importance and economic and cultural heft, convinced that the city’s appealing physical setting is a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card from God, and in a dozen other ways swallowing its own horseshit, has been mostly blind to the northward-drifting centre of regional economic gravity and its implications. 

The history of nations and cities (and yes, downtowns) is loaded with cautionary stories like this, of once-successful places and cultures that became self-congratulating, dulled and inattentive to shifting conditions. Usually, in these situations, the wake-up call comes late.

Know where I would consider putting the new central library were I the head of long-range planning for the regional library board? At Uptown. Know where I might locate if I were an educational institution looking to strategically position a satellite campus? At Uptown. Do you imagine, somehow, that regional calibrations of this kind are not being considered by savvy institutional decision-makers, by developers, by business and shop owners?

Brooke, a young, attractive sales associate, has been with Urban Barn long enough to remember the customer count and daily sales performance at the old location on Herald Street, in the heart of Downtown’s so-called “Design District.” Now the store is adjacent to Future Shop, along the faux streets of Uptown. “We’re much busier now,” she assures me. “Our store traffic count is way up.” She’s excited about what Uptown’s emerging later phases will do for her business.

Is it some twitchy, leftie response to enterprise, an indisposition toward red-meat capitalist adventure, or some unique blend of values forged in the city’s long history—the British-y past, the pervasive and falsely calming economic presence of the provincial civil service, the intransigent complacency of a retired gentry—that has made this town so ditzy and extinction-prone when it comes to economic development?

Recently, at a business event, the mayor stated that the City held a presumably impressive 42 percent share of regional employment. I thought: How do we grab the other 58 percent? Why is it so hard for Victoria to breed (and elect) its own version of municipally self-interested carnivores like Langford’s Stew Young and his council? Why, in the highly competitive regional brawl between municipalities, is Victoria’s reflex response a Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement and a default to “the regional context?” If I ever hear Young agonize about what Langford can do to help the City with its downtown street population and its homeless, or if the lily-whites on and off Central Saanich Council reverse themselves and extend a rousing welcome to Woodwynn Farm (Creating Homefulness Society) and ask what they can do to help to make it a big success, I’ll start to believe in the regional context. 

Rock Bay—the “subject area” of Franc’s and my UDI presentation—is roughly 18 city blocks between Chatham and Bay Streets, the harbour and the west side of Blanshard. It is an area about half the size of the existing Downtown core. If you walk its entirety you will discover first, that it’s a big sloping bowl with million-dollar south-westerly views over the harbour all the way to and past the Sooke Hills and the distant Olympics; and second, that it’s mere minutes by foot from the heart of Downtown.

After your Rock Bay walkabout, grab a latte at Discovery Coffee just around the corner off Douglas on, uh, Discovery Street, sit down, and ask yourself why an ambitious city wouldn’t be falling all over itself to produce a fresh land-use vision rich with strategies, policies, incentives, a taxonomy of beneficial partnerships, a dynamic business plan and related marketing and so on intended to produce a living/working population in Rock Bay of, say, 10,000 over the next two decades.

Chakras are the sacred energetic gateways to healing and wholeness. Know anybody with magic fingers?

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.