Saturday, 22 April 2017

Sidewalking Point Roberts, Washington

The remains of an old wharf on the western side of Point Roberts.

Approximately 50 kilometres away from Victoria is perhaps one of the most interesting geo-political places in western North America, and almost no one ever goes there. 

Point Roberts, Washington is what is known as an exclave. The Oregon Treaty that was signed in 1846 demarcated the 49th parallel as generally the border between the Britain and the United States from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. In drawing that line, it sliced through this tiny peninsula. While there have been discussions about what to do with Point Roberts over the years, it has remained generally the same, a ten square kilometre piece of the United States attached only to Canada. 

Looking at the map you can see that each time you sail to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal you also pass through US waters.

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The left hand side of the picture is Canada with the
United States on the right. 

While having to cross through two international borders to get to the rest of your country is a major inconvenience for a lot of things that locals need to do on a regular basis, it also has many benefits too. The suburban sprawl that goes right to the border is non-existent and crime is virtually unheard of. 

I get the chance to visit Point Roberts on a regular basis as I have family that lives there. I also grew up just on the Canadian side of the border in Tsawwassen, so I am going to have a particularly biased opinion about the place. It is amazing.
The grocery store and one of two banks.

You do have to cross through a border station to get into Point Roberts, but it generally does not take too long, still despite its size, you will require a passport or enhanced drivers license to visit. Once you are through, however, it is like breathing a sigh of relief. The hectic traffic and general busyness of the Lower Mainland disappears. Forest lines the main road leaving the border only to be replaced a while later by open fields with a few businesses and houses. 

The remains of the cannery at Lily Point Park.
The economy of Point Roberts is built on a few things, those that hop across the border to grab something quick like gas, milk or a package from Amazon; those that has a vacation property or boat on the Point; and the 1300 permanent residents that support the first two things.   

Once you are on the Point, there is pretty much everything you will need, a large grocery store, numerous gas stations, a couple of restaurants, a pub, a cafe and a collection of other businesses. The locals also have a library, a school (just to grade three), a garbage dump and an airport (grass runway). Accommodation is limited to a campground and just a few private rentals, but they can be found.  
One of the many beautiful beaches to explore.

If you do stay down overnight there is a fair bit to do. There are two county parks both of which are great for a walk. Lighthouse Park on the south-west corner has many excellent picnic tables with wind breaks and lots of beach to play on. On the south-east corner of Point Roberts is Lily Point County Park which has beautiful views back across Boundary Bay to the mainland United States. Lily Point was also the location of a massive salmon cannery and there are trails that take you down to where the buildings and docks used to be. There are also public beaches near the border on both sides of the Point. 
The amazingly retro sign at the Reef Tavern.

For the evening, I would highly recommend dinner at South Beach House at the southern end of the Point and for a great place to kick back with a beer in the sun or have some late night fun, there is Kiniski's Reef Tavern on the western side facing the ferry terminal is a true American experience. 

Next you are over on the mainland for a few days take the short detour through Tsawwassen to Point Roberts, it will be an experience that you will not soon forget. 

Sunday, 9 April 2017

From Blight to Icon - The Urban Cool of Lower Pandora

The Union Building
When I moved to Victoria in 1995, Lower Pandora was a dead zone. Where the Union Building is now, there was a giant vacant lot; the shops were mostly boarded up; and that was the dead side of Market Square. The intersection of
Government and Pandora had the Old Age Pensioner Hall (formally the Kinemacolor Theatre) on one side and on the other was a wartime government building (with ground floor offices), across the street was Monty's Strip Club. At the other end of the block, the one sign of life, sat Swans Hotel, but across the street was the spooky hollow shell of the Janion Hotel. When you went downtown, you didn't go down Pandora Avenue past City Hall unless you had to. It is hard to imagine it now, but really, north of Johnson Street, the city didn't have that downtown feel to it anymore.  

In the early 2000's that began to shift, though slowly at first. The first change was the redevelopment of the old Kinemacolor building into a mixed residential/commercial building. While the few residents of this one building were not enough to change the street, it gave the promise of what could be in this area. It was also a cool redevelopment, one that at the time was surprising for Victoria. 
The closed Plaza Hotel, former home to Monty's

The big shift for Pandora actually happened on Government Street with the makeover of the giant office building into the mixed use Vogue Building in 2008. This project probably was not just the catalyst for what we see now on Lower Pandora but the north end of town in general.

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This block also had a couple of stalwart businesses that have helped shape it into what it is today. In particular, Swans Hotel and Habit Coffee. The Swans Hotel with its brewpub on the ground floor has been a draw to the area for locals and visitors alike for the last 28 years. Just one of the many jewels left to Victoria by Michael Williams. Even in the 1990's when this area was in disrepair, Swans was a shining light at the end of the block.
Habit Coffee

Another business that really entrenched the idea that this block could be cool is Habit Coffee. Founded in early 2007 by Shane Devereaux, Habit has an amazing urban vibe that focuses its customers on the craft of coffee. Habit has been doing it since before there was craft coffee shop on every block in Victoria. Habit opened a second location in the Atrium Building (Yes this Atrium!) a number of years later, but the two could not be more different in the atmosphere they provide. Back in 2007, there were lots of places where a new cool coffee shop could open and Pandora would not have been the first thought. 
A former government office building about to see new life
as a condo building

I had a chance to sit down with Shane this week and talk about his vision for Habit. I asked him what he saw in this location; it was his thought that Habit could be place for people, not just to come and have coffee, but to be a centre for community. In choosing Pandora for the location, Shane was hoping to have a place that focused on locals first. As for the future, while Habit sits in one of the only undeveloped buildings on the block, Shane said to me, "Things are only going to get better, Pandora will be rivalling Johnson Street for vibrancy." 

Lower Pandora Now

Starting a walk at either end of the block will be rewarding no matter which side you walk up. Walking along the south side of the street, you can look across to the recently completed Union building and the nearly completed heritage renovation at 534 Pandora. While you walk up this side make sure to stop in at The Drake, perhaps the funkiest taphouse in Victoria. It always an amazing selection of beers and the atmosphere is definitely different than your average pub. 

Walking on the north side of Pandora will give you a view of the long ago renovated heritage buildings of Market Square and the almost complete renovation of 595 Pandora, another former government office building that is getting a new life as condos. Along this side of the street is, of course, Habit and also the very popular restaurant of Mo:Le

This is just a sample of what is along the street and certainly the last few years the amount of stores has dramatically increased.  


In the not too distant future, Lower Pandora will be seeing a
The new bus stop and bike lanes
being put in
few more changes. The City is in the last stages of building bike lanes which will lead from Cook Street to the Galloping Goose across the almost complete Pandora Street Bridge (I know it is the Johnson Street Bridge, but have you seen the new alignment??). As mentioned, there are also at least two new projects that are almost complete and with them, I think that the block could be completely built out for the next many years. The west end of the block will also soon have a large public square that was part of the Janion Hotel redevelopment.  

I really can't think of another block in the city that has seen as dramatic turnaround than Lower Pandora. Next time you are nearby spend some time taking a walk around!