The City of Victoria recently finished the last pieces of the Johnson Street Bridge. This included opening the southern pedestrian crossing and creating some dedicated public access to this walkway. It also included the beginnings of the City improvements to the large spaces that have been created by the removal of the old road access to and from the previous bridge.
There are a lot of things that I don’t like about the new bridge and the project in general, however, focusing specifically on the use of space here there are still multiple problems. Being completely transparent on my opinion here, I would have sold this land to a developer, both for the benefit of the additional intensive land use, while also recouping some of the expenses of the bridge. We’ve known that wasn’t going to happen since the City made the determination to turn this into a public park space well over a year ago. We are now seeing the beginnings of the implementation of the City’s plan for this as a park and so far it is not looking good.
I have said this before, but public space on its own is not an amenity. If you have spent anytime at public hearings for new buildings you will hear speaker after speaker tell council to reduce the foot print of a building to create a public park or even better don’t build the building at all and instead have the whole lot as a park. While it sounds good, it doesn’t actually make sense.
I love parks, you can make parks like Goldstream as big as you want and the benefit only increases as it gets bigger, however, that is because the benefit is not for us directly as individuals, but instead it is a benefit in its protection of a natural environment. Public spaces in cities do not work in the same way because there is no benefit in their existence without human use. A public space in a city should exist to provide a space for us to get away from the city and relax with other citizens and maybe have an experience. We are drawn to places that feel interesting, relaxing, engaging and safe. A public space by itself doesn’t provide this because it actually needs a certain amount of people to use it for it to be a draw for other people. I have used the analogy of public space being much the same as retail or restaurant space. You would never build a store in the middle of nowhere and you would never look around and see twenty half empty shoe stores and decide that you should build another shoe store. You need a large enough amount of people nearby to make one shoe store viable and if you have more than one than you are going to need that many more people. It is exactly the same way with public space and this is specifically why this space next to the bridge is a failure even as we have just finished it.
Let’s look at just how many spaces there already are nearby. On the positive side, there is the Westsong Way which is a popular walking route from Songhees out to Westbay Marina. It is one of my favourite walks around downtown actually. You have a great lookout view where the old water tower was, that sticks out into the Inner Harbour, however, that is where the public use declines. Near here is a beautiful urban beach that gets almost no use at all. Next to the beach is a huge public square at the base of the Ocean Pointe Hotel that is a virtual wasteland even in the height of summer. On the far side of the bridge is the new plaza at the base of the Janion which at this point is not being used, though if some positive commercial tenants come in perhaps that will change. Only about 50 metres from here is Reeson Park, which even after the recent refurbishment is a ghost town except for a few homeless people. With those vacuous spaces as bookends the city has added this new space and heralds it as a success. It isn’t and they need to be called on this. Creating space for no reason is a detriment to the public realm. Each space on its own can be as beautiful or compelling for views or whatever on its own, but with two many of them in one area they will almost always fail.
So is there any hope here? Well I doubt it. Especially in the depths of winter this will be an inhospitable place that will face the full force of the wind and rain. Certainly in the summer some people will transit the new square on their way to Songhees or Westsong Way, but few will linger. If the City had some money to burn I would suggest some sort of sculpture that could provide protection from the rain and wind to start, then I would build a kiosk that could be rented out to some enterprise like Red Fish Blue Fish or perhaps a coffee shop. Creating a reason for people to pause here and even sit down could make this place work, but even with all of that done I think it is unlikely given the vast amount of nearby spaces. Really until Old Town and Songhees have maybe tripled their current populations all of these places will stay as quiet as they are now.
Do you have any thoughts on what to do with this space to enliven it?
Last Minute Update
Just when you thought that the creation of public spaces in the area couldn’t get any worse it did. If you haven’t been following the never ending saga regarding the Northern Junk property, here is the very short version. There two small old warehouse buildings along the eastern shore of the Inner Harbour just to the south of the new bridge. They have sat vacant and falling apart for decades. Reliance Properties, which saved the nearby Janion Building, wants to restore the buildings and build a new residential commercial building next them. For whatever reason despite creating at least five completely different plans for the project, none has been able to proceed. This has been going on for years and the two old buildings keep falling further into disrepair and the surrounding land still looks terrible.
The latest version of the project was to go to Committee of the Whole last Thursday (October 4, 2018), yet at the last minute, the developer had to pull the project as the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) had sent a letter to the council asking them to turn the project down. The concern was, with the City of Victoria elections in full swing, that this would become a political focal point. While there numerous reasons I disagree with the letter (read it here), the ones to the point of this post are:
“Much needed usable public space for downtown, promised as part of the Johnson Street bridge approaches, has been all but eliminated through poor design and cynical manipulation of the public consultation process. The sale of public lands in this prime location when there is an obvious need for open usable public space is counterintuitive. Funds to purchase the lands needed in the near future for downtown open space will no doubt be unavailable and this prime opportunity to create needed usuable public space will be gone. If Council proceeds with this sale of public lands, 100% of the proceeds should be committed to the purchase of other public open space within downtown.”
“The rapid densification that the downtown is currently experiencing highlights the deficit of much needed public space in the area. The sale of public property on the Victoria Harbour front for private development in the form as proposed would appear to be not in the public interest.”
The DRA, on the point of public space alone, is completely wrong. First, there is no “obvious need” for public space in this area. There is too much already here. North of Discovery Street there will be a need in the future but it can be assumed that the redevelopment of the Rock Bay lands will include that. Currently this area has numerous vacant parcels of public space and the answer to making them better is having more people living nearby which this project would provide.
Secondly, while there is a significant amount of construction going on, it could hardly be called a “rapid densification”. Even if it were though, the DRA should be celebrating the increase in population as the beginning of the solution to the numerous vacant public spaces. People in our squares and parks are what is needed to create vitality not creating a public space for each new building.