Heart-warming

By Gene Miller, January 2013

Close to 3000 new Downtown residences are under construction or in the development pipeline. Only 22,000 to go.

With the headline “Alligators Guard Pot in Stripper’s Home,” the Huffington Post recently created an informational dilemma: file under pets, home security, agriculture, careers, or real estate?

But in a more locally relevant wildlife story, the cranes are returning to Victoria. No, not the stately birds, but the ones that augur construction activity. Really, it’s an extensive list of downtown and shoulder-area projects marked by excavations with cranes sprouting or soon to sprout, projects poised to begin construction, others currently in the development approval pipeline, and projects planned if not yet detailed. If you do the math—economic energy embedded in potential dwellings and commercial space (more people, more businesses, more jobs)—it’s an impressive amount of activity, and it promises to improve prospects in and around downtown. So, let’s enumerate downtown’s hopes and blessings:

Union, under construction in Chinatown, spanning Fisgard Street and Pandora Avenue, will have 133 units of residential and commercial frontage.

The Mondrian, an almost 100-unit, 10-storey residential building with commercial frontage, is well along in construction on Johnson Street at Cook.

Era, a 15-storey, 150-unit residential and commercial project, is just starting in the 700-block of Yates Street, immediately west of the Odeon Theatre.

819 Yates is a Chard Development project targeted for the surface parking lot stretching from Yates to View, immediately behind the renamed but still architecturally monstrous Famous Players/Capital 6 theatre. By the time plans are made final, Chard’s vision may expand to encompass both the parking lot and the theatre property, emerging as a larger residential/office/commercial project of 16-17 storeys and, rumours be true, including a supermarket.

The St Andrew’s School site on Pandora Avenue at Vancouver Street, across from McDonald’s, has been purchased. The site, which backs on the narrow, lovely and fragile Mason Street, is likely to feature residential units (I hear rental) and given the enormity of the property, 200 or more suites would be a reasonable guess. I gather that there is some possibility of a new supermarket as part of the development.

Hudson Mews, a 12-storey, 120-unit market rental development by Townline, is emerging behind the old Bay building, itself residentially repurposed as the Hudson condos.

Jukebox, a 200-unit, 8-storey small-suite project, will occupy the long-vacant lot on View Street just east of Vancouver Street. On hold for now, pending improved market conditions, it is being developed by Don Charity and Fraser McColl, the same team who brought the nearby trendsetting Mosaic on Fort Street and The Reef in James Bay to life.

On the heels of their success with the Atrium, new home of BC Ferries and a ground-floor strip of very successful commercial businesses bracketed by Zambri’s and Pig restaurants, the Jawls have acquired the site on Douglas Street across from City Hall, encompassing a thin line of now-threadbare retail/commercial on Douglas and several surface parking lots behind, running from Pandora Avenue to Cormorant Street. Presumably, the site is slated for a significant office and commercial development.

Promontory, Bosa Developments’ 21-storey residential highrise, is coming out of the ground in Songhees, beside Esquimalt Road. It’s the first in a multi-tower project slated to provide hundreds of residential units along with a public market (“festival retail,” to use the industry term) that will emerge at the car barn, roundhouse and stores buildings of the former CN Rail property.

The Sovereign, an 11-storey, 36-unit residential condominium project with commercial frontage, is going up on Broughton Street between Government and Broad Streets.

Northern Junk, the two rubble-and-brick buildings that frame the curving southern exit from the Johnson Street Bridge, are poised for heritage rehabilitation as part of an additional five-storey residential and commercial redevelopment. 

Janion, the long-suffering and gradually decrepitating brick pile immediately north of the downtown-side approaches to the Johnson Street Bridge, is soon to be developed as 100 micro suites. A large banner hangs from the wall of the building with the ironic and iconic message: “Finally.”

200 Douglas, six storeys—38 condominiums—across from Beacon Hill Park, is in sales mode as I write.

Duet, another of the busy Dave Chard’s projects at 640 Michigan, beside the James Bay firehall, is a go. The two-building, eight- and four-storey residential project will have 90 units.

Jack Julseth’s Sawyer Sewing Centre Building, a combination of renovation and new construction slated to create about 40 new small suites in the 800-block of Fort Street.

257 Belleville, currently the site of the Admiral Inn Motel, is approved for an eight-storey residential project. 

Westbank, one of these days, will dust off its plan for the redevelopment of the boarded-up City Centre Motel on Belleville, across the street from the bowling green.

There are rumbles these days about plans to redevelop the surface parking lot at the bottom of Fisgard Street, with extensive frontage on Store and Herald Streets. As well, rumours, but no details, circulate concerning the former BCAA site at Cook and Pandora, and diagonally across Cook Street, the surface parking lot adjacent to the Medical Arts Building. 

This is by no means a complete list. There’s also a vacant development site on Fort Street, just up from Birk’s, across from the Bay Centre, slated for office/commercial redevelopment; the Fort-to-View Street surface parking lot just east of Lund’s Auctioneers; the someday-to-be-developed Gateway Green on Blanshard and Fisgard; the big hole in the ground immediately north of the Jack Davis provincial office building at 1810 Blanshard intersecting Herald Street, diagonally across from the arena, planned for a wood-frame rental project by Townline, developers of The Hudson; the vacant properties on the corner of Vancouver and View (next to the ex-bottle depot); the commercial strip on the southeast corner of Fort and Cook; the voluminous Price’s Locks property on Fort and Quadra; the balance of Dockside on the west side of the harbour (rumours of a play in the making on this one). Oh, and did I mention the roughly 18 square blocks of Rock Bay?

If you add the numbers, even leaving the new commercial and office components aside, this could represent upwards of, if not well over, 2000 new residential units, and easily 3000 new downtown-area residents. This is staggering! If all of this development takes place, and assuming successful market absorption, it will result, within the next five years—a decade at the outset—in 3000 or so new people buying food every day, getting their shoes repaired, acquiring mirrors and lamps, requiring tattoos, guzzling lattes, purchasing Spandex and Windex…in and around downtown!

While these numbers are significant, they are a small fraction of what the downtown area needs, and can handle. That number is closer to 25,000. Going back to the days of the Downtown 2020 Conferences several years ago, knowledgeable urbanists have been arguing that the City of Victoria needs to aggressively pursue a replacement strategy to offset residential and commercial flows out of the central area toward Saanich and the Westshore.

The fact is that businesses follows buyers, and it’s almost a complete waste of time for the City to court suburbanites who have organized their lives around automobile culture and rhythms, and who are served by a full range of suburban shops, services and amenities close at hand, offering car-based convenience. Rather, the City needs programs and policies (including an innovative, as-yet-unimagined, around-town mobility strategy) designed to encourage the growth of jobs and the steady expansion of the urban population—folks for whom downtown commercial, recreational and cultural activity will be convenient and reflex.

And you say: well, duh.

Of course, if it were easy, it would be easy. Standing as testament to the challenge of mounting such urban countertrends are the hundreds of North American cities and towns whose quiescent centres are struggling dead zones doughnutted by and largely irrelevant to self-sufficient, prosperous, safe suburbs. Compared to all of these, even as things are, Victoria ain’t doing so bad. Unfortunately, nobody has developed the fine-grained measurement tool, the heart monitor, to help cities (including our own) keep their fingertips on the urban pulse; and cities often discover they’re in big trouble only long after the trend lines have grooved deep channels. The risk, in other words, very much as with global warming, is that by the time people observe that there’s trouble in River City, the disinvestment and damage are ingrained and a very long time reversing.

It’s an unromantic formulation, but cities are an expression of social and economic arrangements: how we want to interact; how much energy we wish to (or believe we can) use; what styles of commerce we favour; what ideas of pleasure, well-being, status and comfort we value; what ideas of community, mutuality, memory and interaction, and opportunities for privacy and personal autonomy we think are best. These are the invisible principles that receive ceremonial re-enactment every time folks living on a single-family street fight a multifamily development proposal. Or when defenders rush to the barricades if a heritage structure is threatened. Or when people flee pricey neighbourhoods and buy in more affordable ones. 

For a moment, view our city-region as a place in which an evolutionary, ever-morphing board game is being played, expressed through land use rules, opportunities and economic behaviour; and as endless skirmishes mediated by regulation-bound bureaucracies and twitchy politicians; but also as an arena in which rot meets the future, and outdated uses succumb. 

As an urban population, we’re always straddling the restless border between the comforts of changeless streets and neighbourhoods, and the liberating energies of novelty and change. “Any place you don’t leave is a prison,” says a character in the movie Liberal Arts; but some of those prisons can be pretty appealing.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences.