The Opportunity of the Johnson Yates Block in Harris Green

Some of the longest standing anachronisms in the downtown area have been the large collection of auto dealerships at the eastern edge of Harris Green. Here we are in a city that purports to be progressive; that has a high and escalating cost of housing; and yet some of the most valuable and centrally located land is being used to sell and store cars. From a visual perspective, this land use has always stood out to me as odd. It is especially noticeable as you walk towards Yates street from the north or south when all of sudden what had been a dense urban fabric (though low-rise) suddenly shifts to a flat auto oriented wasteland, then just as quickly shifts to the urban density we see as you move west towards downtown. I am not certain why this land use actually occurred though I will see if I can find out. From what I can see, it mostly seemed to happen in the 1950s and 60s, as before then the area was a mix of single family housing workshops and vacant land or at least that is what it appears to be in the 1947 pictures you can look at on Vintage Air Photos.

I have always found this area to be a sad use of land so close to downtown, so I was pretty excited to hear that there is finally a proposal to remove one of the largest parcels. Jawl Residential is proposing a multi-building project that would replace the entirety of the Mazda dealership and also a parking lot at the western edge of the property. From the proposal I have read on the City of Victoria Development Tracker (A great tool!) this project will truly continue the transformation of the eastern edge of downtown Victoria into its proper form of a dense urban centre. Despite what in my mind is a clear improvement to the property, there are some familiar concerns being raised, with the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) leading the charge.

The DRA wrote a letter in opposition to this project to the city in November and it is available to read here. I don’t agree with the letter, here are my three main thoughts on why, as well as my three main reasons I am hoping to see this project proceed.

1. Density and Height Concerns

The DRA spends the bulk of their letter to the city trying to show some sort of sleight of hand on the part of both the City and the developer in how to transfer density from the western portion of the project to the eastern portion of the project. Also included in this concern is that the height exceeds the Official Community Plan (OCP). They are mostly correct here in that the developer is trying to transfer density from one portion of the land parcel to another and that the height does exceed (BARELY) the allowances in the OCP, but I am certain that the subtext of how this is an underhanded trick is completely false. What this portion of the letter completely fails to look at is the project on its merits alone. Does it fit within the context of nearby buildings? Will the project move the neighbourhood towards the vision of what Harris Green should be; will the project be beneficial to those nearby and the future residents of the project? I think the answer to all of these questions is yes. Harris Green has been the intended bedroom to downtown Victoria for a long time. Due to fact that much of downtown is made up of commercial, office and heritage buildings there are limited places to put large numbers of residents. A healthy city needs a large number of people living in a small area. Honestly, while there is likely a tipping point where you can have too many people living in a given area, Victoria is so far away from that point that we will need to keep increasing the amount of residents for many years to come. A growing population makes a city safer, more vibrant, richer and more exciting both for those that live there and those that visit. What I am trying to say is that when it comes down to it, this is a modest development both in height and in density and if completed as suggested it will be a marked improvement to the area for everyone over the car parking lots that exist now.

2. The Problem of the Fire hall

So another issue that is raised in the letter from the DRA is the plan to build a new main fire hall in the first building to go up on the lot on Johnson Street. The central concerns raised are the noise and disruption, as well as the size of the building floor plates to accommodate the fire hall below. The DRA state that this location is unsuitable as it has the highest population density in the city, this is not true. The highest population density remains just to the west and north of Cook Street Village. This area actually has quite a low population density, mostly due to the large parking lots in the area. That said, of course a fire station is going to cause a disruption, but it will cause no more disruption than it is already causing just 500 metres to the east of the current site. The fire hall needs to be replaced and entering into a deal with a private developer gives the city an opportunity to sell or redevelop the fire hall’s current site once it has moved. There are of course fire halls in much denser areas than Victoria, so why that would be a consideration is a bit odd in any event. Fire Stations No. 7 and No. 8 in Vancouver are both in much more high density neighbourhoods and a bonus is that all those nearby condo owners will have lower insurance costs! The floor plate size seems to be an odd concern, though I think that the suggestion is that in mirroring the fire hall floor size that the building gets an excuse in pushing beyond the accepted floor space ratio in the OCP.

3. Mid-block Walkways as a Concern

Now I might be biased, (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4) but I think mid-block walkways can be pretty amazing when they are done well. While the walkways are not well defined yet in this plan, one between Johnson and Yates connecting with the one through the Regent Park project will be a nice addition. The DRA letter is correct that a poorly planned walkway could be a dangerous place, but of all of the both recent and older mid-block walkways there are only a couple of small segments that I think of as not well lit enough and possibly unsafe. The majority of them are full of light have good sight lines and feel safe especially those located in newer developments. I can see no benefit to the developer wanting to create an unsafe portion of the project, and indeed it would seem that they would have the incentive to make them nice. From the initial drawings of the grounds around the buildings they look spacious and considered. If there was a move against mid-block walkways as a component of projects in general, I think that would be problematic (but as I said I am biased).

I am, of course reacting to the letter from the DRA because after looking at the project on the Dev. Tracker I really like it. I want to have this project be a part of my city. Here are my main reasons for wanting to see this go ahead.

1. Land Use

It seems obvious to me that converting a large space from car storage into homes and businesses for hundreds of people would be a benefit to the city. The challenge with the current OCP is that, like many city documents, it is a compromise document. Mostly a compromise between those that don’t want to see any more growth or change in the city and the development community that want to build on underused land. The problem is that there is a sizeable group of people that are not really well considered in the OCP and those people are the ones that are not here yet. Victoria is a growing city, without enough development to allow those people to move here and easily find a home, the price of housing continues to increase. So we need to actually build more housing, and Harris Green is the best place for residential close to downtown.

I should also say that this land use will bring it into alignment with the positive changes we have seen to the north and west of this lot in recent years and will be continuing to see with the Wade project, as well as the new Chard project across Cook Street.

2. Design

While I am sure there will be a need to keep some close eyes on this project, from the preliminary drawings on the dev tracker these buildings are trying to be as bold as they can be given the constraints put on them by the density and height limitations. In particular, I like the the cantilevered elements, as well as the broad public space. I am somewhat concerned that the public square component on Yates and Cook Street appears to have grass which I would think would make it unusable for most of the year. I do think that having a real urban public space like the one indicated, has the potential to re-frame the area in the public mind, particularly after we see move development in the area complete. The square here with stores and residences around it will create a new hub for the downtown.

3. City Vibrancy

Finally, one of the key benefits of this project won’t just be realised here, but actually across the entire downtown core, that benefit is, as I said before, the additional residents that the project will bring with them. Each of the new residents here, will want to go shopping at local stores, eat at local restaurants and take in local cultural happenings. At the same time, with a new focal area in the downtown core, there will be new places to visit and explore in this space. While it is hard to imagine this shift now, when the new buildings are there, it will make all the difference. Consider how hard it is now to imagine a time when the corner of Johnson and Blanshard was a run down Romeo’s restaurant and not the Juliet building (yes, that is why that building has that name) with its Macchiato Cafe, Tim Hortons and Travel Agency. This new Jawl Residential project will bring that kind of change, but on a much much larger scale.

While I can understand the feeling of wanting things to stay the same, a healthy urban environment is dynamic and continuously renewing itself, and this is even true here in Victoria, where the city is continuously changing and in my opinion, for the most part improving. Let’s continue to let the city grow and change.