So if you have your “Victoria neighbourhoods should never change” hat on, you might want to take it off for this post. Okay, now imagine you are a tourist going on a once in lifetime cruise to Alaska, you don’t live near the ocean at all and you are looking forward to seeing Victoria because you had heard that it is a beautiful city. You are standing on the deck when Vancouver Island comes into view and you can see that the city is there, buildings are popping out above the trees. The pier is getting closer and finally you can see the entrance to the city, Ogden Point! I think most of what I said, besides the last thing are true for many of the thousands of cruise ship passengers that come into Victoria every year, but we immediately deflate that excitement with the bleakness of Ogden Point as it is now, and yet it is is this bleakness, this blank canvas, that actually offers us so much opportunity to create a whole new dimension to the city. This would mean a significant change and even though with time the change would be seen positively by tourists and locals alike, I know that many would rather preserve the terminal and the surrounding neighbourhood as is, even with its acres of dismal asphalt.
Each year we hear about the coming of the cruise ship season with both anticipation and disgust, either way you look at it though, it is an important part of the economy. I am aware that it is not certain that the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to actual passenger spending in the city, that said I do think that the advertising that the ships provide the city has a very long tail and that many of those that visit say positive things about Victoria or return again themselves. On the other hand as it is now, Ogden Point is almost completely devoted to tourists. Yet Victorians deserve to have access to these areas that at this time have been handed over to tourism so that they can enjoy the spaces themselves. One only needs to look at the amount of locals walking on the breakwater or getting something to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf to know that quality attractions are for everyone. Yet year after year we talk about the opportunity that Ogden Point presents and do nothing (Just like some other wasted waterfront in the city).
Ogden Point is managed by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA). I personally think that since they took over harbour operations that there have been vast improvements to the almost all of the harbour; the docks in the inner harbour look awesome; Fisherman’s Wharf is an amazing destination and cruise ship traffic is up significantly and is becoming competitive with larger centres; yet Ogden Point is still this vacant slab of dreariness. The GVHA has a grand vision for the area and this has developed through the Ogden Point Master Plan. This plan has been in development since 2008 and the final draft came out two years ago next month yet nothing has really changed. In usual Victorian fashion a great idea was watered down through consultation to a point where now, in my opinion, the economics of moving forward will be too costly to build and there is not enough commercial space to help shoulder the burden.
The biggest mistake in the plan was to try and appease the neighbourhood association and other special interest groups rather than looking at the site as an opportunity to create a completely new paradigm for the city that actual had the purpose to disrupt and change rather than blend in and disappear. We live in a beautiful place and somehow that sense of beauty has blinded us to the reality that our neighbourhoods are not perfect as they are now, that they can be better, more exciting and more beneficial both socially and economically.
So what are the pieces that I think could have been brought in? Well the plan does have part of it with the idea of taking advantage of the current uses of ship port, heli-port and marine industry. Looking first at industry, imagine a UVic Marine Engineering Facility with a start-up centre for new business just like they have at the main campus. I think that an incubator could actually result in some long term tenants that enhance the realm and relate to its original purpose. Leading on from there, a new enhanced heli-port that allows visitors to view the comings and goings, while passengers can relax in something a little fancier than a glorified ATCO trailer would be a tremendous addition.
Looking next at the economic enhancements, they would need to still put tourism at the forefront, but one only needs to look at the tremendous success of Fisherman’s Wharf to see that a tourist draw can also be a local favourite. I am down there at least a few times each summer having something to eat, listening to music and just enjoying the vibe. A real commercial node at Ogden Point could be one more draw for the area. Encourage places like the Maritime Museum, art galleries and restaurants to move into an attractive space here and the tourists and locals will come.
To solidify the space and ensure that it has some full-day activity, the addition of a hotel and some significant residential and office space would be critical. The GVHA is not going to be able to achieve the critical mass needed with the weak commercial buildings suggested in their plans, they will need significant density and I would suggest some significant height to create a sense of place and provide some cover over all that asphalt.
To connect this area that would now not just be for the tourists at one time of year the city could resurrect the plan from the late 1990’s to run a street car from Ogden Point to Chinatown. Certainly, with this new node plus the additional growth already being seen in James Bay and downtown it is going to be needed and this way car traffic does not have to increase.
While I know that even what I have suggested so far is an impossibility, I want to take it one step further and suggest changes to the area surrounding Ogden Point as well. When I look at the Surf Motel along Dallas Road I see such optimism in the future and in my opinion a huge missed opportunity. While I can’t be certain, I expect that the person that built that motel thought that at some point the waterfront by the port would be a tourist strip like is seen in many other cities along the waterfront. Strangely, they were completely wrong but why is it that Victoria is missing this quintessential coastal city experience? If there was a new dynamic Ogden Point then what would complement it better than a lively and bright seaside strip along Dallas Road at least for the block that the Surf Motel sits in, but perhaps further. The City has this in their power now to rezone the area along Dallas Road as commercial/residential/tourist and as properties change hands the new owners would have the ability to move the use towards that vision. Eventually imagine a one to two block strip of restaurants, bars and bookstores and galleries that gaze out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca next to a new dense urban multi-use node at Ogden Point. It would be a breath of fresh air for the city. What I am envisioning is a two block version of the Seattle boardwalk.
Unfortunately, we remain in this subservient realm, controlled by the what is rather than the what could be. Still I remain hopeful for a change!
Let me know your visions for a renewed Ogden Point in the comments below.