The problem with density

By Pete Rockwell, March 2013

A proposal for a new 200-unit building shows competing visions for a quiet North Park neighbourhood.

It’s almost warm in the sun on this cold clear day as I walk down Mason Street, which runs parallel to Pandora, just off Cook Street. On my left is a modest park. A few trees. Couple of benches. A small playground where two mothers push their kids on swings. Two older women sit and talk on a bench. A Hipsterish couple walk their dog. Across the street a young guy with a beard talks to his cell phone and leans against the brick wall of a coffee shop called Yoka’s. 

Walking west, I pass the Mason Street City Farm. Neat, well-tended vegetable gardens and a few greenhouses occupy the back and side yards of older wood frame houses. Earlier era houses extend down to the end of the block. Narrow Mason Street seems a modest, friendly, quiet place. So close to downtown, yet a world away.

On the south side of the street, just past the park, across from the houses, is the chain-link fenced playground of St Andrews School. On the fence is a two-by-three-foot sign. It says: “LAND USE APPLICATION.” Hmm. 

I walk back to Yoka’s Coffee. There’s a sign in the window. Something about development. I go in. What’s the deal? Tristan Trotter is making a cappuccino. He tells me, “They [BlueSky Properties, part of the Bosa group] want to build a six-storey gated apartment block where the school is,” adding, “It would be totally out of scale to the neighbourhood.”

Deirdre Gotto, who’s in Yoka’s and owns a house on Mason Street right across from where all the traffic would enter and exit from Bosa’s proposed project, assures me she isn’t against the site being developed, but that this plan “flies in the face of what we’re trying to achieve here: a safe, open community.” She says, “It’s a gated community. The interior courtyard is for residents only, the gates will be closed at night, the developers seem to think that will be a positive for the neighbourhood.” 

I heard more about the problems that day in the coffee shop. Besides the “massing”—the six-storeys occupy close to one-half of the city block—their other main objection is the increase in traffic from the entrance on Mason Street, 200 new homes, a proposed grocery store and other businesses. They question the need for a large grocery store when Wellburns is in the same block and Market on Yates is nearby as well. They also have something to say about the apparent reluctance of the developer to listen to their ideas.

Later I visited City Hall to look at the plans on file from BlueSky/Bosa (Bosa is also building the 21-storey Promontory in the Songhees) which has optioned to buy St Andrews School, subject to City of Victoria approval of its plans. The plans show a six-storey structure which essentially fills the lot. Ground floor plans include a 32,000-square-foot grocery store, a 6000 square-foot bank, and seven smaller retail spaces along Pandora and Vancouver Streets. Above are over 200 rental units; below is parking for 273 cars and loading docks for the commercial units. In the approximate centre of the structure, on the roof of the second floor, there’s an open air terrace for tenants only. 

Before Bosa came along, the North Park Neighbourhood Association (NPNA) caught wind that the Catholic Church planned to sell St Andrews. According to Trotter, “In the beginning there was our visioning meeting where we had no idea who the developer would be, so we wanted to make a case for the community in terms of what we wanted.” Neighbourhood members hoped to set design parameters that would facilitate a community that is structurally open and accessible. People could walk and bike through greenways that function to connect different parts of the area, as well as provide light, air and views. They envisioned clustered buildings of human scale that didn’t overwhelm existing homes and buildings. They wanted the space between Pandora and Mason Streets to be a transition zone between downtown and neighbourhoods to the north, rather than an extension of downtown. Any tall buildings housing commercial spaces, they wanted to run along Pandora Street. They wanted the building heights to terrace down to Mason Street and the park.

According to Trotter and his neighbours, during the meetings that brought Bosa and the NPNA together—as part of the required “consultation” with neighbours—Bosa’s response to the NPNA vision was consistently: “It doesn’t work for us.” They cited financial constraints or they pointed to City of Victoria rules about traffic. 

Charles Joerin, a member of NPNA’s board, expresses dismay at the current process which costs all parties time and expense in drawing up plans, making reports, and going to meetings. “We [developers, City, and neighbours] should develop a vision together, so that it would be a collaboration rather than people taking sides. Try to come up with something each side can live with…if it’s a real collaboration there are no sides, it’s one vision.”

Because the site is currently zoned institutional, virtually any developer of that site will be applying for rezoning. The Official Community Plan will act as a guide in that process. Its maps indicate the border between higher “core” and lower “urban” densities and heights runs right down the centre of Mason Street. Yet the OCP also emphasizes that “new buildings and features [should] contribute to the sense of place.”

So it’s not a done deal, though given events so far, Trotter predicts BlueSky’s proposal will soon go to the City’s Land Use Committee  with a recommendation from City staff that it go ahead. The minutes from North Park Neighbourhood Association’s meeting in January bear him out, reporting that two of its members met with City Planner Mike Wilson and City Engineer Steve Hutchison, and that the planners stated: “City staff have no say on the design features of buildings. They only are concerned with whether proposals follow regulations. If there is no violation, then they will recommend that City council approve proposals…NPNA’s stance that the proposed development does not fit with the neighborhood was rejected.” 

The Land Use Committee consists of three councillors: Marianne Alto, Lisa Helps, and Pam Madoff. Asks Trotter: “Are they going to listen to the part of the OCP that says high density on that site, or are they going to listen to those parts of the OCP that say there’s place making; it has to respond to the neighbouring context, it has to be green, it has to be cycle friendly, pedestrian friendly, support neighbourhood gardens, etc?”

Councillor Lisa Helps says she understands the neighbours’ concerns, particularly with regard to the traffic on Mason. “Maybe the way the visions can be reconciled is actually at the Planning and Land Use Committee table when we see the plans and we say, ‘OK, yes, you can have this, but in exchange you have to give this.’ I still see that there’s lots of room to make this work for everybody or at least most people.” However, she cautioned; “it’s not going to remain a grassy field…”

The Mason Street neighbours accept that. They just hope the Land Use Committee can help move BlueSky towards a plan that—literally and metaphorically—casts less shade on their neighbourhood.

Pete Rockwell is a photojournalist living in Victoria. Plans and more photos, and a longer story is online at www.treelinephoto.ca/index.php?/idle-no-more/mason-street-resists/