Ground Floor Offices in Harris Green and why they need to go!

The Mazda Building at 800 Johnson Street. One of the great opportunities
for improving the public realm

There is a common thought that I tend to subscribe to, that you can't have commercial space on the ground floor of every building. You often hear people say that the base of a new building should have a coffee shop no matter where it is located, because, well it will increase the vibrancy. This is simply bad planning.

The city needs to look at commercial areas across the city and determine where it wants to increase the density in store fronts and when new buildings are proposed elsewhere the city needs to encourage alternate uses for where the building meets the sidewalk, such as townhouses. Harris Green seems to have more of these and this is likely due to the transitional space that it has had in the city. 

Looking at the downtown core, having commercial space at the base of the Era building on Yates made sense, because the lot is surrounded by high density commercial space. When 834 Johnson was built a few years ago, I can remember David Chard, the developer, being adamant about not having commercial space along the street. Instead, he opted for a series of townhouses. This makes sense because the 800 block of Johnson is not a commercial strip. 

By creating a balance between the parts of the city where there are commercial strips and other blocks that are focused on residential it focuses the shopping experience in certain areas. One problem that the city faces comes from buildings that sit in the middle of a commercial strip or an emerging area such as much of Harris Green is that the ground floor of a building creates a gap or dead space. 

Changing the use can forever improve the street. The best example in Victoria of how a street can be improved by a change in use, is the former Ministry of Forests building on Government. For years it created a barrier for pedestrians walking north towards Chinatown. When the building was turned into condos and Mountain Equipment Co-op went into the ground floor, Government Street was forever changed. 

The city needs to look to the example of the Mountain Equipment Co-op building and find a way to encourage land owners to change the use of many buildings around Harris Green. Here are a few of the worst offenders or conversely, the buildings with the largest opportunity to dramatically shift the way we perceive this neighbourhood. 

800 Johnson Street

The former Mazda Building, is now home to an array of government offices. Many people are offended by its distinct 'PoMo' look, however I think that in the years to come it may be a valued asset in the city's architectural repository. When it was built, the intersection that it sits on was a dramatically different place. To the west was a very suburban restaurant with off-street parking on two sides and to its south was the dilapidated BC Tel building, which itself sat next to a vacant lot. Ground floor office made sense because nothing else would have worked there at the time. Now the intersection is full of life, with restaurant or cafe at three of the four corners. The mirrored glass offices now look sad and obtrusive. Some may blame the building, but a simple change of the use at the street level would turn this into one of the most vibrant spots in the city. There is even already space built at the corner of the building to have a small patio. 

851 Yates Street

Perhaps one of the saddest examples of office space at street level. This building was for years home to a video store and cafe. With the demise of video the building was leased to the Ministry of Forests, for their library. At some point government decided that they didn't need it and it now sits vacant. The building has been seismically upgraded and would be a perfect home for a restaurant. 

914 Yates Street

The 900 block of Yates Street has so much potential but also is laden with significant liabilities. On the positive side you have some large scale commercial centres, with The Market on Yates and London Drugs, both draw people from across the city. On the negative side you have the Manhattan building with its suburban entrance and Harris Green Village Centre is still car centric and not a nice place to experience as a pedestrian. Across the street from the Market is a two storey office building that has there for at least 40 years. When it was built. The gap created by 914 Yates and the Manhattan is huge and definitely impeding the growth of this commercial centre. Hopefully with the construction of the Legato condo project on the far side of the Manhattan, someone with some vision will see an opportunity for further retail space here. 
Imagine a selection of stores here to complement the ones across the street

826 Yates Street - Telus Building

When the Atrium was built it created a whole new vibrancy to this part of town. Unfortunately due to the Telus building, this stops at the property line. The ground floor of this very stange office building and the one next door could so easily be changed to retail to make the walk up Yates street a more enjoyable experience. David Chard is putting in a new rental building across the street with more commercial space and it won't take much to turn this into a colourful and interesting place for a some shopping and walking. 

If even two of these buildings were converted we would only know them
as great pieces of the pedestrian realm, in the same way that we cannot imagine a dead pedestrian zone along Government Street where MEC is now. 

Can you think of some other offenders?


  1. In the not too distant future the ground floor of the Jack Davis building will be an anachronism in the newly revived Hudson North district.

    1. It wasn't too long ago that there was a Cafe at the entrance to the Jack Davis. But I agree that particularly on Herald this will be an important issue to deal with.

  2. 800 Johnson is the former Mazda dealership site, but your wording makes it sound like the office block that's there now is the same building that the dealership had occupied. Please fix it ASAP before I reach through the internet and smack you.


    a concerned reader

    1. Thanks for that information. I was under the impression that the building was called the Mazda building when built. I may just pop down to Planning and see what they have on file.


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