Rock Bay Lands - The Key to Expanding Our Downtown North
We have all seen it. It has been there so long that we really don't even notice it. The nothingness has become a piece of the Victoria fabric. I am talking about the BC Hydro Lands at Rock Bay. The sad thing is that like the empty lots of Wharf Street, the lack of activity here is holding our city back. In this case, until something starts to happen here, I don't think we are going to see much enthusiasm to begin building downtown to the north, and yet with the imminent build-out of Harris Green we are going to need the city to grow in this direction.
Of course, I am not the first person to figure this out. Gene Miller and Franc D'Ambrosio held a charrette on what could be done with the area. Not just the Rock Bay lands but the surrounding blocks as well. The outcome was an amazing report, unfortunately the charrette was held in 2011 and we really haven't seen anything of note happen in the area.
The site has not been without its opportunities in 2015 there was talk of Chris Lefevre working on a redevelopment of the main building, with its beautiful brick work I can imagine the draw. To date nothing has come of that discussion. Late in 2016, the majority of the site was transferred to the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations with hopes of them working with local developers and businesses to develop the land, though in the last many months there has not been any discussion of a plan.
As Harris Green begins to reach full capacity, which is imminent, high density projects will need to move north through this area but without a connection to the water here the area feels cut-off. Also given the current patchwork of land uses, developers will be hesitant to be the first ones to take the risk. This means that the Rock Bay site must be dealt with soon, as it is the key to making the neighbourhood take off. Looking back at the 2011 charrette you can see how even blocks from the water, the expectation is that the area around the bay will be the focus of the neighbourhood.
I have had visions of taking a page out of the Vancouver playbook and looking at the vacant site as an opportunity to hold an exposition. Maybe not on the scale of the Vancouver expo but the Bureau International des Expositions does also have smaller scale horticultural expos. I can't think of a city that would be better than Victoria to host one, we are after all the City of Gardens. Using something like this could create a real opportunity for world class placemaking on the Rock Bay site and also energise the city around it.
Whether it is an expo or a comprehensive development plan that is done for the site the two key features that must be included are a public space upon the water and a connection between Store Street and Bridge Street.
For those that have followed the site for awhile may know, I am not a fan of park space for the sake of park space. I honestly think that many areas of our city have too much park space and that can have significant negative consequences. That said downtown north of Chatham (Or the NotCh as I like to call it) is actually one area that as it develops will need new public space. A great space along the edge of as was envisioned in the 2011 charrette would be essential.
The second necessity, is a physical connection across Rock Bay between the end of Store Street and Bridge Street. This creates so many opportunities for changing how we think about downtown. As it is now, Store and Pembroke feel like a dead end corner of the city. A path north creates opportunity to speed up connection from Selkirk and Burnside Gorge into downtown and vice versa. The way that as a pedestrian or a cyclist you will think about the connections in the city will completely change. One could hope for a dramatic and bold bridge but considering the issues we have had with the Johnson Street Bridge perhaps we should keep it simple.
No matter what we need something to spark this area. If anyone is aware of plans that are forthcoming, I would love hear about it!