Shift

By Gene Miller, November 2013

Despite some foot-dragging, trends are pointing to a revitalized Downtown.

When I drove by on a mid-September Saturday morning, the crane truck was lifting the word “PUBLIC” into place above a steel-frame marquee at The Hudson, Townline Development’s residentially and commercially re-purposed Hudson’s Bay store. The next day, it had been flanked by the words “VICTORIA” and “MARKET.”

That Monday, the market opened formally to congratulatory speeches before a large, enthusiastic crowd of merchants and well-wishers. The opening followed years of speculation about the flickering possibility that a supermarket might occupy the cavernous ground-floor space (names like Thrifty’s, or a Market On Yates clone, and even Whole Foods had swirled through the Downtown rumour mill); and what made any of this gossip interesting was not only who the candidate would be, finally, but open questions about how and whether any full-scale supermarket could make the numbers work in such a location on the northern fringe of our small and far-from-populous Downtown. Supermarkets vote with their cash registers and require, if my information is current, about six thousand shoppers in their “capture zone.” Six thousand.

I guess the north end of Downtown isn’t near that number yet, but in a possible foretaste of the future for this area, including the 18-square-block Rock Bay bowl immediately to the north, the individually-owned shops that have opened up at the Public Market are light on dishwasher detergent and toilet paper, heavy on gluten-free baking, a global selection of olive oils, spices, cheese, charcuterie, seafood, pies, cakes, fresh produce, Indian food, Mexican food, tea and gelato, with more to come. You know what that foretells: young urban professionals. Circle the wagons! Millennials and Cultural Creatives on the ridge!

The “wagons,” I suppose, are the industrially-disposed stakeholders—businesses and property owners—in Rock Bay whose activity is supported by current industrial zoning and by popular sentiment. Consider: Who’s not for “real” industrial land use as opposed to opportunistic developers building condos for yuppies? 

The City has its own reasons for foot-dragging—not just the political whiplash, but that it may have to put scarce taxpayer dollars (giant sucking sound coming from the Blue Bridge, Bay Street Bridge, firehall, Crystal Pool, etc) into new amenities, upgraded streets and subsurface infrastructure to replace ancient pipes and sewers if the Rock Bay area is redeveloped. 

Also, it’s a mixed bag for landowners who know that Rock Bay has a long history of dirty industry which has in some key places left a toxic legacy—that is, their properties may be laced with costly-to-remove contaminants from the industrial bad old days, and this will require expensive mitigation and will impact property values and/or development costs if new land uses are contemplated. Industry gossip says that the landowner is spending something approaching $90 million to clean up the glow-in-the-dark mess behind that curtained ex-BC Hydro super-block on Government at Chatham.

I’ve written before about a possible future for Rock Bay in which lots of residential and new streetfront retail/commercial gradually fills up Rock Bay’s vacant lots and replaces some of the light industrial and service uses that operate, in many cases, out of one-storey structures surrounded by wide aprons of surface parking. But before you go to your corner on the (in some circles) touchy subject of land use in Rock Bay, it would pay you to actually walk the Rock Bay area—Chatham to the south side of Bay Street, Store Street to the west side of Blanshard—to take in the current realities of land use. A lot of folks assume the area is exclusively industrial, presumably because that’s an easy handle for this generally un-groomed frontier that most of us drive through, not to, with its still-operating asphalt plant at Store and Pembroke and a hodge-podge of service, commercial and light industrial uses, with a strong emphasis on automotive services and freight handling. 

Remember though, that such uses share the neighbourhood, even now, with a dog-minding/walking service, Paul’s Restaurant and Motel, the White Spot, Capital Iron, Discovery Coffee, Club Phoenix fitness centre, H&R Block, a children’s gymnastics studio, Jordan’s Furniture, an Apple service store, and Cascadia Bakery and Sager’s Furniture a half-block south on Government Street. Up the side streets on Princess and Pembroke between Douglas and Blanshard there is even a small cluster of humble, occupied houses, some with modest heritage chops. The one chimney in the area, part of the ancient and long-disused BC Hydro power plant near Store Street and Pembroke, hasn’t smoked for a lifetime and is now worthy artifact, not working flue. The neighbourhood, you might say, is half service/commercial Rock Bay, half proto-Herald Street. 

Worry does emanate from the heavy industrial operators along Bay Street who are involved in sand, gravel and cement production. Understandably, they have a variant of the “there goes the neighbourhood” fear that encroaching residential and retail uses will pressure them and crowd them out. But construction material activities are crucial to the city and will stay there as long as they are viable. That co-existence is possible is clearly demonstrated by Granville Island, home of a major cement production facility a thousand feet from “festival retail,” galleries, theatres and a toney boutique hotel.

When I first arrived in Victoria in 1970, Yates and Douglas was our city’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Classy stores (Miss Frith’s, Ingledew’s and Standard Furniture anyone?) and stolid banks framed the intersection and the 700-block of Yates. The old Carnegie Library at Yates and Blanshard (at whose footworn steps I was deposited the first day I came to town) was a busy place. People shopped Downtown, circuiting between the original Bay and the original Eaton’s, unless they were intent on stranded rural purposes like buying a dressed side of moose. 

Once things slid Downtown, though, they stayed slidden; and to this day, through the cycle of a whole generation, the immediate locale of the Yates/Douglas intersection feels lost and cheesy, less epicentric than epidemic, a fallen angel of commerce looking for a fresh mission. A short block south (avert thine eyes from McDonald’s), things pick up nicely at the Bay Centre, and the blocks south of Fort have been progressively redeemed by new residential towers. Out-of-town developers—Townline’s Rick Illich, Bayview’s Ken and Patty Mariash, Westbank’s Ian Gillespie, Dave Chard of Chard Developments, Reliance Properties’ Jon Stovell, David Podmore of Concert Properties jump to mind—and a large number of locals, too, have sniffed the wind and caught the scent of Downtown/central area rebirth.

To the north, after hopscotching Douglas Street’s still-poisoned blocks from Yates to Fisgard (even that will start to change when the Jawls put up a sister building to the Atrium), The Hudson, and now a second Townline tower going up behind it, plus a surprising number of newly minted and emerging residential buildings (the Janion, the Union on Fisgard, 601 Herald, and many more), or venerable older buildings revitalized for residential and commercial uses are improving not just the feel (and real estate values) of Downtown’s north end but also Rock Bay’s prospects, and may, in not too many years, leave Whole Foods regretting a missed opportunity. 

Mind, this isn’t unique to Victoria. Cities almost everywhere in North America are, to varying degrees, experiencing the same trends and rosy impacts. Jeff Speck, formerly a planner with DPZ (Duany Plater-Zyberk, the legendary Miami-based architectural firm) and co-author of Suburban Nation, notes in his 2012 book Walkable Cities that so-called millennials, cultural creatives, tech nerds and others in the younger generations are trading cars for shoe leather, and the ‘burbs for the urbs. He observes:

“It turns out that since the late ’90s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. The number of 19-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late ’70s, from 8 percent to 23 percent. This trend is seen as cultural, not economic, and fully 77 percent of college-educated millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores.”

Speck also notes that front-wave boomers, their commuter, child raising and backyard barbecue years behind them, are abandoning big, expensive-to-run, socially-isolating suburban homes for livable central areas that are more walkable, social and, frankly, more fun.

Victoria, then, is part of a larger trend: a North America-wide shift back to urban places. It’s something of an ironic confirmation of this shift that even suburban places are trying (unconvincingly, in my opinion) to become or appear more urban, to give identity, character and a borrowed authenticity to essentially placeless places. Go study the wannabe design of the Uptown shopping centre or Langford’s town centre on Goldstream Avenue. Both feel synthetic: vehicular destinations trying so hard to be what they’re not.

Cast your mind forward and imagine a vibrant and vigourous Downtown Victoria with a living population of 10-15,000—four times its current population, say. Imagine the street tone with pedestrians everywhere. Consider the financial health of Downtown businesses. Envision the size of the cultural audience. Picture the employment levels. Speculate with me about how many fig-and-herb-infused pork roasts the charcuterie at the Victoria Public Market would go through in a day.

Hey, leave some for me!

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.