By Aaren Madden, September 2012

It’s the latest word from the city-wide conversation on height, density and marrying new with old.

By April 30, 2014, Victoria’s skyline may have a new benchmark for what’s considered to be acceptable height. That’s the expected completion date for Promontory, a 21-storey condominium tower that will emerge from a hilltop in Vic West. At least until the Hudson tower is completed, Promontory, currently only a very large hole blasted into bedrock, will, at 66.3 metres, be the tallest building in a city where height can be a major contention. 

Skylines speak volumes about a city. Given its height and position in the landscape—off to one side of Downtown’s main core where it will stand out—Promontory will make a strong contemporary statement, even as it attempts to balance that with material choices that reference the site’s history.

All cities grapple with a tension between past and present in their own way, but in Victoria, few things reflect that tension more immediately than building height. The height debate dates back to at least 1969, when the 22-storey Orchard House was completed in James Bay and became, to many, something to fight against in order to preserve Victoria’s unique character. The controversy erupts on a regular basis.

Limited height means limited density, though, and these days, that doesn’t wash. Climate change in general and our own shifting demographics in particular mean density has, in fact, become a priority, if not a measure of a more moral approach to development. Indeed, terms like “ecodensity,” a policy supporting high population and mixed land use embraced by Vancouver some years ago, attest to density being seen as intrinsic to sustainability. Victoria, officially and otherwise, envisions itself as forward-thinking, green, sustainable. The City’s newly-minted Official Community Plan lays out parameters meant to balance height and heritage to create “a greener, more resilient and healthy city.” It designates areas for density in and near the core, with strong guidelines and limits in heritage areas, with the aim of accommodating a projected increase of 20,000 people by 2041 in the city proper. Promontory’s height and subsequent density (177 units) will be one of the first manifestations of the city’s values, as laid out in that plan. 

The tower is just one facet of Bayview Place, a development by Ken and Patricia Mariash’s Focus Equities (no connection to Focus Magazine), spanning 20 acres just over the Johnson Street Bridge with enviable views of Victoria’s Inner Harbour. They have recently partnered with Bosa Properties of Vancouver, who are in charge of the Promontory project. Eventually, Bayview will consist of the 11-storey Bayview One (architects Davidson Yuen Simpson), which is already completed (the Mariashes occupy the penthouse); Promontory; and a third tower of 17 storeys. West of these, the Roundhouse area will include more high-rise residential towers, a hotel and 40,000 square feet of retail shops, along with the restoration and reuse (as a public market) of the century-old former E and N Railway roundhouse, a national historic site. There’s parkland as well, and to the south, a retirement residence will skirt Kimta Road, adjacent to the low-rise Songhees condo developments. So the landscape of the entire area is being transformed.

The architect behind this ambitious project is Norm Hotson, now a principal with Dialog Architecture, a cross-Canada, multidisciplinary firm. His credentials seem impeccable: he was behind the rehabilitation of Vancouver’s Granville Island, a paradigm for revitalizing former industrial spaces into vibrant public spaces, and remains the coordinating architect for its redevelopment. Hotson was also involved in the False Creek Olympic Village design and a proposed plan to replace Vancouver’s car-centric viaduct area with green spaces, waterfront access, and neighbourhood links that some say could redefine that city. He sees the public realm or streetscape as the lifeblood of a neighbourhood, and has been known to argue against high-rises in certain locations. Here in Victoria, Hotson is also the architect for the RailYards, the mixed-use development on a former brownlands site on the Upper Harbour, a chunk of blasted bedrock’s throw northeast of the Promontory site. 

While the RailYards uses colours and materials in whimsical reminiscence of its former use, the built historic context of Promontory called for a different approach. Hotson explains, “There is a very important principle when it comes to building adjacent to historic buildings, or even adapting historic buildings. The accepted practice is to produce the new work with materials that actually are contemporary and contrast the historic materials. That way people know what was built in the earlier 20th century versus that which was built today.” For the public and retail spaces surrounding the brick roundhouse that means “using painted steel in the railway idiom,” he says, with steel, bolts and plates forming the details.

Beyond that, the desire was still that new and old structures spoke to each other across the whole site. “There is a material palette that we felt should be common to all of the buildings—to greater or lesser degrees,” he says. In that regard, a brick close in hue to the original roundhouse building will be an important component of Promontory’s façade. “Our intention is to use it on Promontory in combination with the contemporary materials of glass and aluminum,” says Hotson.

While Bayview One does the same, its designers also integrated imitation stone into the lower portion of the façade. For Promontory, Hotson felt that relegating stone to the landscaping “would tie in more to the natural character of that particular site.” As a result, an interesting tension exists between the historical brick (arguably a non-traditional material for a condo tower) and the contemporary glass and aluminum. 

Promontory’s elevation and proximity to Bayview One sharpens that contrast. Hotson suggests, especially as one approaches from downtown, Promontory could even be overshadowed by Bayview One. “Although it’s only 11 storeys high, it is so broad in the landscape that it is actually a very imposing building. Bayview One is a very, very dominant structure now in Vic West,” he argues. 

Due largely to height constraints in Victoria, that low, wide massing is certainly the predominant silhouette for most of Victoria’s recent waterfront structures—look across the harbour, for instance, to Shoal Point’s own brick and ornamental stone edifice. 

From other vantage points, though, Promontory will hold its own: “You are going to see this tower on a hilltop; it’s going to be a very imposing new piece in the landscape,” Hotson admits. That’s why they requested a variance from the City, increasing the tower’s height from 17 to 21 storeys. Says Hotson, “It will be more elegant in the bigger landscape by being a taller, slimmer tower.” 

Yet, perhaps the city’s traditional reticence about height has played into the design. The verticality of Promontory seems challenged by how the exterior materials are placed. The aforementioned brick is used in alternating patterns; on the west- and east-facing façades, horizontal strips of brick of increasing width reach to the penthouses, which are large glass cubes topped by a metal grid extending over the penthouse roof line. On the other sides, two thin strips of brick extend vertically, acting as dividing walls between balconies. They stop about two thirds upward from the main floor, which is itself mainly composed of brick; the rest is glazed, with sizeable balconies adding another strong horizontal element. The overall effect (at least in the renderings) pulls the building ground-ward visually, making it appear shorter. Visual rhythm is constantly interrupted, as vertical and horizontal counterpoint, if not outright battle, creates a certain irony—like a very tall person trying to appear shorter by wearing bulky clothing and horizontal stripes.

Yet it’s impossible for Promontory to not stand out: it’s on a hilltop with—right now—nothing other than much shorter buildings anywhere near it. Due to its departure from the traditional Victoria building profile, it may very well impart an elegance—and certainly a contrast—to the larger landscape despite its horizontal overtones.

That contrast, and the way contemporary and historic materials are applied and arranged in the structure itself, should provide enough tension to keep both the skyline and the conversation interesting, at the site and city-wide.

Writer Aaren Madden and her family live in Vic West. She has an academic background in art and architecture.