The Problem with Centennial Square

Centennial Square, next to City Hall, is supposed to be the main gathering place for the city. Instead, when it is not just an empty wasteland, it is taken over by some less than savoury characters. Why isn't the largest public square downtown not buzzing with activity and are people from all walks of life going their to relax? This post focuses on what in my opinion are the biggest issues with Centennial Square and where I think the City has some great opportunities to improve our central plaza. 

Problem 1 - No Reason to go there
The beautiful seating the City added that often sits empty. 

While it can be argued that many of the worlds great squares do not offer enticement apart from their existence to visit them, they are usually large central open plazas. Centennial Square is hemmed in on almost all sides in one way or another. It is not an obvious choice of places to go downtown. The City has done their best to create reasons for people to visit the square with concerts, plaza seating and even a micro library. Despite that work, on a nice summer day the square sits quietly with just a few visitors. Unless you have to pay for a parking ticket or are looking for a shortcut to Chinatown there is no reason to visit. A good square would create multiple reasons to go there and spend some time,

Problem 2 - Outdated and dead spots

While the City has updated the square in recent years, adding a performance space and
The dark and uninviting arcade
cafe seating, most of the square still dates back to its origins in the 1960's. The arcade to the north and the city hall addition to the south both come from that original build. While in some ways they represent an era, they do so in the worst possible way. The arcade in particular is both outdated and a dead space. 

If you actually go into the arcade, this is what you get
Newer construction has not done much better. The change of the old police department to the new CRD headquarters should have been prime opportunity to rejuvenate the the square but instead the project was completely outward looking. To the west, the commercial space used by Starbucks has created a vibrant new square abutting Chinatown, the portion of that project that makes up the northern wall of Centennial Square is comprised of ground floor office and useless plant gardens. 

In the most recent modernization, the old restaurant space that abutted the McPherson Theatre was removed and while this was a good decision, the replacement by cafe table seating goes unused. 
The open and well used new square to the northwest of Centennial Square

Problem 3 - The Tree

I am sure that this point of view will be disagreeable to many people, but in my opinion, the tree has to go. I am sure that the tree has a large cultural and historical significance, but its presence is perhaps the largest reason people do not enter the square. It blocks the view from Douglas into the square and physically, with the grassy area underneath it constrains the walking area into the square on either side of the tree. These all may seem like trite reasons to get rid of the tree, yet being able to see a space is really part of the way that you invite someone into a space. Making access to a space clear and safe (not constrained) will allow someone to choose the square as a pass through route more often or perhaps give someone that wants a place to eat their lunch see that it would be a good option. 

There are other more minor issues with the square like the design of the fountain and lack of other public art but the ones above are in my mind the major ones. That does not mean that there is nothing to be done. 

Solution 1 - Give people more reason to be there

As it is right now, most of the potential people that would use the square are in offices to the
Planters and ground floor office do not entice visitors
south of City Hall. Development to the north and east is just now starting to be built. When complete there will be a larger amount of potential users of the square. To really get the numbers up the City needs to consider redeveloping the buildings along the north side, including the parkade and the single story commercial strip along Douglas. The Fisgard parkade is old and feels unsafe. Leasing the land to a developer for a new project that has the rejuvenation of the square as its primary focus is perhaps the largest opportunity to create an amazing destination in the city. Included in the project would have to be a move to place an equal amount of parking to the current structure under ground. 

New commercial space would face the square and the potential for a civic amenity could really give people a reason to go there. There has been talk about the need to create a new library for the city and this has been given further impetus with the discussion regarding a new library in James Bay. Other opportunities for a destination amenity include a Children's Museum, a City of Victoria Museum or a contemporary art gallery. New office space on the square could be used to amalgamate some of the City departments that are currently spread around in other buildings near City Hall. This solution would require a lot of work both in planning and consulting. There are easier things to do before. 

Solution 2 - Update and remove the dead zones

The arcade that sits under the 1960's addition to City Hall is dark and unused. This space has so much potential and it would be easy thing to fix. 

Add glass here.

Imagine adding glass to each of the arches and enclosing the space. The City could create a small museum for the City. There is currently a plaque nearby that describes the old fire halls on the property. The Victoria Fire Department has a mini-museum at the fire hall in James Bay that sits un-visited. The space could easily be transformed into a Fire Department Museum for Victoria.

With the properties along the north end of the square removed and rebuilt with an inward focus and the archway area enclosed, some of the worst and scariest parts of the square would be gone. 

Solution 3 - Get rid of the tree

An open vista into the square would let those on Douglas Street, the busiest thoroughfare along the square, know that they could use the square or at least see an easy passage through to the west. 

No one will likely ever convince Victorians to cut down the tree and it would likely make national news if it was tried, so okay so lets keep the tree. 

With the tree there it could still be vastly improved. The City cut off some of the lower branches a few years ago to discourage camping underneath of it and allow people to be clearly seen on the lawn. This did not go far enough. The lawn beneath the tree is not flush with the sidewalk and you cannot cut across the lawn into the rest of the square.

If further branches up the tree were removed and the lawn removed and access made through to the rest of the square, it may just be enough to get people walking off of Douglas. 

These ideas are just a start and I am sure with a visioning process that brings in stakeholders such as local development companies, the Downtown Residents Association, the Chamber of Commerce and people that work in the area a new square could be created that is really used and loved. 

Let me know some of your ideas for Centennial Square!