Creating a New Giant Park in Victoria - S.J. Willis School and Topaz Park
Topaz Park is one of the largest parks in Victoria. For the most part, the park is used for sports, with three large playing fields. The City has been working on a complete redesign of Topaz and has recently provided some interesting designs which can be seen here. Still, I think that there is an opportunity to turn it into one of the biggest draws in the city and that opportunity lies just to the south across Topaz Avenue.
This property is home to S.J Willis School, which is a former high school and is still used for adult education. The property the school sits on is large and is contiguous from Topaz Avenue to Hillside Avenue. The land itself is quite beautiful with several very large mature Garry Oaks and gentle grassy slope down to where it meets Hillside. The school, while not in the best condition, is an architectural gem of international style modernism. Taken both parts of that space together and adding it on to Topaz Park could create a unique and varied parkland with the option of also creating a wonderful cultural destination.
There are three key parts to making this a success: joining the parks, creating a more natural transition between the spaces, and creating a new and vibrant use for the school.
Joining the parks could so easily be done. It is simply a matter of closing Topaz Avenue between Glasgow Street and the entrance to the parking lot off of Blanshard Street. The access to both the park and school would not be hindered and would really only impact those that are using Topaz as a thoroughfare. At the beginning it could be done as simply as was done when Rockland Avenue was closed at Quadra Street. Some street paint, bollards and benches. Access would still be easy for pedestrians and cyclists. With just a little work, the largest parcel of park outside of Beacon Hill Park would have been created.
Step two would be a little more difficult. With the two parts now joined together, there would be a need for people to feel like the transition between the parcels was more natural. While I am not entirely sure of the history, it would appear to me that the rock was blasted here to make way for Topaz Avenue. To make cohesive connections, the cliff would have to be softened along the south side of the street. Either some slope would need to be added or a few sets of stairs and ramps to help people want to go up the other side.
A second part that would need an improved transition, would be at the south end of the park, along Hillside Avenue. Here there would be need for something to draw people from Quadra Village and the residences nearby. Some hard surface plaza with benches and tables for relaxing in. Also the fence along Hillside would have to go, so people feel like they could just go into the space.
The final piece of creating this amazing space would be finding a new use for the school. I am well aware of the School District's short term plans to use S.J. Willis as transitory school while other schools get seismic upgrades, but I am really hoping that at the end of that use isn't a plan to close the building and tear it down. The school was built in 1950 and designed by renowned Victoria architecture firm Birley, Wade and Stockdil. According to UVic's page on mid-century modern architecture the design is strongly indicative of the Bauhaus School. Walking around the building you can still see some wonderful design elements. I personally love the overhangs on some of the exits as well as the cubist windows that are scattered on each side somewhere.
If I were going to go for the most amazing opportunity for the building, I would like to see a museum on modern architecture (perhaps combined with an architecture school for Camosun or Uvic); an art gallery or a science centre. Creating a destination in this location would help revitalise Quadra-Hillside and hopefully help solidify the creation of an urban hub at Hillside Avenue and Douglas Street. In the end, if we could see the building refurbished into its modernist glory, I would be happy.
What are your thoughts on potential uses for the S.J. Willis School?