Selkirk Waterfront - The Failure of the Perfect Development

The Selkirk Waterfront off of Gorge Road has an amazing amount of things going for it, but yet, it is perhaps the largest planned community failure in Victoria unless you include Dockside Green which has not even gotten half way to existing. 

I can clearly remember being excited about the beginnings of the Selkirk Waterfront. I moved to Victoria in 1995, the project had begun just two years before. Only two buildings had been completed at that point and I recall showing up at one of them for an open house about the project. It was so exciting to see what was essentially an industrial wasteland being turned into a real part of the city. Even more exciting to me was the promise of an instant urban neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city and only about two kilometres from the central downtown core. I had visions of a spark that would pull that urban feel from downtown right to Selkirk. 

At the open house, the project seemed to show it was doing all the things that you would want to see. A great mix of residential and office space with lots of planned ground level commercial. On top of that the location was amazing. The recently refurbished trestle stretched across the Gorge. The new Galloping Goose Trail ran right along the northern edge of the site and the development company, the Jawl Development Corporation, had brought Frank d'Ambrosio on board as the architect. I had recently returned from my second trip to Europe and seeing plans that incorporated tight low-rise urban architecture seemed like the perfect recipe for vibrancy and city life. 

Here we are, twenty-one years since I went to that open house and twenty-three years since the beginnings of Selkirk. Last year, the final building in the original plan was completed and we should be seeing the culmination of the vision all that time ago. 

First of all, I don't want to take away from all the good that there is at Selkirk, the great water playground, the amazing architecture and that enveloping feeling you get once you are through the gates. Yet despite all that, when I walk around Selkirk, I feel sad, like someone that thought that they were voting for a politician that would change the world and they end up like all the rest. There was so much promise and when you walk around it feels like empty failure. What went wrong?
This plaza should be brimming with life. 

Density  - The single biggest problem with Selkirk Waterfront is that there are simply not enough people living right in the project. On paper it seemed so rational. Slightly more residential buildings than commercial, between the two types there would be people there both night and day. For me, this was the first real in my face example of just how many people you need to make a place vibrant. Walking through Selkirk on any given evening or weekend the streets are deserted, quiet, almost suburban quiet. You can't just make a place look nice, mix up the style of buildings and call it a day. Cook Street Village has people walking through it all the time and this is because it is surrounded by the densest neighbourhood in the city. Without all those people, there would be no Cook Street Village. 
There is actually a wall between the Gateway Building
and Gorge Road that clearly says that this is the border.

Insular - So what if there is not enough people living in the development itself, there are tonnes of people living nearby! I am not sure if this is a common issue with planned communities, particularly those that are built inside an existing urban fabric, but the way that the Selkirk project was designed and implemented, it excluded those that live just outside its borders. The feeling is very clear and distinct. A wall was built to say this area is Selkirk and this area isn't. The building at the main entrance to the community is even named the Gateway Building. This difference of place continues to have a dramatic impact on the greater area. An apartment for rent on Gorge Road would likely go for a significant amount less than one in Selkirk and yet they may be only 100 metres from each other. While you want new developments to improve an area, Selkirk turned its back on the neighbourhood. A more thoughtful and cohesive design, especially at the fringes could have allowed for some transition, a malleable edge. Selkirk could have been Cook Street Village for the Gorge, but instead both neighbourhoods look elsewhere for what they need, one for people to make it vibrant and the other for an urban centre to call its own.  

Ground floor office - I have said this before, ground floor office is perhaps the worst land
Imagine if this was a row of storefronts.
use that you can have in any city. It creates a sidewalk wasteland both day and night. Residential has the opportunity of people coming in and out, of meeting neighbours and friends. It gives the sidewalk a feeling of warmth and ownership. Commercial space gives us the opportunity to interact with the other people nearby, to talk with staff and create experiences and destinations. Ground floor office does nothing except create a sterile pedestrian environment. No potential for chance encounters just drab windows. 

I still have hope for Selkirk, for one thing, the architecture is amazing, each building is unique, interesting and will likely still look good in twenty more years. Also there remains opportunity to still improve the feel. Hopefully, at some point, the government offices will move out of the ground floors of the office buildings, allowing new active commercial spaces. There are also still opportunities for new buildings as well. At some point the legion building across from the Gateway will present a development opportunity. I truly hope that when it is designed it faces out to Gorge Road and becomes the piece that pulls people in. Other vacant areas in the project, such as the parking and storage areas behind the office buildings on Jutland could have more residential space put in. I would hope that if this happens, they are built as a slightly higher density than the rest of the project and have more people calling this space home. 
The space behind this building could be home to a nice
in-fill tower

What are your favourite and not so favourite parts of the Selkirk Waterfront?

Here are a few bonus pictures that show that while the project has its serious problems, the attention to detail in its creation was amazing. 


  1. If they put that large parking lot underground and build some residential density above it and also allow some density on some of the other properties on Gorge Road when they eventually come up for redevelopment then I think the Selkirk could end up realizing its potential. Considering how physically isolated it is and how low the population is I think it could even be argued that it works better than we should really expect it to.

  2. I agree that they should be looking at adding more density on the parking lots and nearby. That said, while the population of Selkirk itself is very small but I think that if you look in an 800 metre radius around Selkirk you would see that there are a lot of people living nearby. Just on the north side of the Galloping Goose there are a couple of dozen apartment buildings alone. If all those people saw Selkirk as their neighbourhood I think that they would use it more.

  3. Selkirk suffers from American downtown syndrome. Come 5 o'clock the hoards flee for other parts of the city. I would guesstimate that the ratio of residents to office workers is 1:4, meaning 3/4's of the daytime population leaves in the afternoon. Couple that with virtually no commercial activity past 5PM save for the pub and you've got yourself a dead zone. If there was a market or a late-night coffee shop like a Starbucks that would change the atmosphere overnight.

    The good news is there still remains heaps of surface parking that will eventually be transformed, but whether that'll mean more office or more residential remains to be seen.

    1. I would certainly welcome some more residential in the area and I think making it link to the outside neighbourhood would be key to getting more casual visitors as well.

  4. For someone who doesn't live in the area, what reason do I have to go there? Glo Restaurant. That's about it. And when I do go there, the "streets" are a ghost town and parking is hard to find. Honestly, if it wasn't for Glo I probably would never go there. They need some more commercial sidewalk stores/restaurants to bring people in.

  5. I live there and enjoy it every day walking my dog. The unspoken issue is probably the number of older, retired people living in Selkirk. They don't go walking out after dark, and wouldn't support the sidewalk stores and restaurants. When the Montessori kids are out in the afternoon and everybody is there for lunch, it's pretty busy.

    1. Thanks Gary - I can only ever visit the area during non-work hours so don't get to see the bustle during the day.


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