One of the biggest challenges that faces Victoria currently is housing affordability, in particular inexpensive rental housing close to downtown. People will tell you that in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in new rental stock downtown and on top of that, most new condo buildings in the core have provisions to ensure that they can be rented out. These new places are great, but they are not affordable and nor should they be. I fully support new stock coming in so that those that can afford them vacate their older apartment for someone else. What we need to ensure though, is that the existing older buildings stay in place.
So if those old buildings are not going anywhere, there still remains a significant challenge. While these buildings have been sitting there providing housing, the city around them has changed in a couple of different ways.
A Growing Core...
Fifty years ago the commercial core of the city was much smaller than it is now. Much of the affordable rental stock around Victoria was built at this time. In line with the times and the smaller commercial core, most of these buildings intentionally didn't engage well with the pedestrian environment. Instead, many of these buildings have a ground floor set below grade and significant landscaping that creates the illusion of a suburban yard, but they are not ever used as such. Now, many of these buildings are sitting in a much more urban context and because of the varied ground floors, they stand out.
It is this clear difference in building context that is making these rental apartments vulnerable to development pressures. Based on building age; how well it has been maintained over the years; and where it sits in the city; these buildings can stand out like sore thumbs, while also creating a significant gap in the urban fabric.
Cheap Land for Cars!!!
Another problem you will see a lot with older buildings is that rather than landscaping the grounds, the area was used for car storage. This car storage can be an enclosed space or it may be actual surface parking. In either situation, the building is cut off from the sidewalk and in some cases has created an intimidating space for people. While many will say that the parking space is still needed, as most people still want to have a car, a growing proportion of young people, those that will be most likely to be living in rental housing, are moving away from vehicle ownership. With more and more services being available downtown and the increase in car shares there is less reason for an urban youth to own their own car in Victoria. It may take another twenty years, but there will be a time when are trying to figure out what to do with all that underground parking.
Changing while Retaining
So we are now in some ways faced with the dilemma of either demolishing affordable rentals for new buildings or being stuck with buildings that are not well integrated into their surroundings. I think that there is another option that can solve both problems in a similar way.
For the first challenge, those buildings with their suburban front yards, it wouldn't take much to add a little bit of commercial space to the front. While you would be losing a few of the rental spaces they would be the least desirable and the roof of the commercial could be converted into large decks for those on the second floor. This new commercial space would improve the urban fabric in front and let the buildings serve as affordable housing for many years to come. The example I have used is the Villa Mistral in North Park Village.
Looking at buildings that have a car oriented ground floor, the treatment could be similar. If it is simply surface parking, an addition to the one above could still work. I thought I would take on a more controversial one though with View Towers and its ground floor parkade. A relatively simple change here to commercial frontage, done well, could give people something to look at other than the terrible cinder blocks that make up the current parking area. Personally, I think that if View Street had shops and cafes along it to look at, almost no one would bother to look up at the building (that said, I kind of like View Towers).
One of the few properties that I am aware of that has been adapted from a car-centric ground floor to one with commercial is just across Quadra Street at the Chelsea.
Are there buildings that have been adapted in this way that you know about in Victoria? What would be your first choice for fixing up a building like this?