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.  
The new bus stop and bike lanes
being put in

In the not too distant future, Lower Pandora will be seeing a 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!