Victoria's Saddest Public Space

A somewhat shorter post today, but one that speaks a lot about public space and how we use it. I had to drop my car off at the repair shop this week and then walk into work, which necessitates a walk through Rock Bay. I truly enjoy this walk to work, because it is just so different than the walk that I am used to that cuts across North Park. Like all areas in our city, Rock Bay has its oddities. On what I consider the border between Rock Bay and the Notch is perhaps one of the saddest, most forlorn and most neglected public spaces in the city. Seeing this space makes you think a few things… Why is it there? What was the hope for it? And could a public space like this survive in an urban environment like the one that surrounds it?

The place I am talking about is the Bay and Government Parkette, which sits on the southwest corner of Bay St and Government Street. You may not have even have noticed this little park before. It is a very small piece of land that is surrounded on two sides by Ocean Cement and on the other two, by heavy traffic arterials. I am not certain why this space exists. I had always assumed that the land belonged to Ocean Cement and they had done it up in a park-ish way to make people feel good, but according to VicMap at least, this is public property that has been dedicated as park space. Looking at Vintage Air Photos you can see that at least as late as the 1951, there was a two storey building there that went right out to the corner. In any event at some point the City came into this property and likely had no idea what to do with it.

I do have faint memories of when I first lived in Victoria of this being a more open space and that at some point in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s the space was improved and turned more into a park like space. When that happened it actually had some benches included in it but those have since been removed.

So now it sits with its very nice brick work, some brightly painted walls and some interesting landscaping. So with my first question of why is it there, I don’t know the answer. My only guess based on its size, shape and location is that during the time around when the current Point Ellice Bridge (Bay Street Bridge) was built and Bay Street was widened, a right-hand slip lane was put in with a pedestrian island at Government Street, the City may have needed to purchase the whole lot that used to house the two storey building that was there in the old aerial maps and this little pocket of land was leftover. If you know why the park exists, please let me know!!

If it was just a left over piece of land, that was apparent in how it was treated when I first moved to Victoria. Yet some point some city planner had some hope or vision that this could be turned around. The work that was put into this piece of park is significant, there is extensive brickwork, art work along the cement walls on two sides and some quite original planters. There must have been a hope that people would pause here and take in all of this, but of course this did not work out. This is even more evidenced by more recent removal of the benches, as they were likely encouraging drug use to concentrate in the space. Now no one is there ever, or at least not any time I have walked through the park in the last few years, but it is still there and that means there must be some hope for it.

This brings me to my last question, could a space like this, given its negative starting place, ever be successful as a public space? This area already has a low population density, there are also few stores nearby so the pedestrian population is low. As you may know I have some hopes for this area to turn into a vibrant mixed use area and as was shown with the work that the city did on the Rock Bay Lands as well as the upcoming redevelopment of the Times Colonist building, others see this area as an emerging neighbourhood for the city too. This neighbourhood is going to need some public space as there is little currently. As it is now with the speed the traffic moves past, I am not sure that the parkette will ever see much use. Traffic planning has changed over the last twenty years however, and one thought is reducing the vehicle lanes. Traffic that needs to go north after the bridge can easily drive up Rock Bay and get to the Douglas / Hillside intersection. If the left-turn lane was dropped you could now have it as a through lane and you could remove the right-turn lane. Slip lanes with pedestrian islands like this are just not as safe for pedestrians as a more traditional corner. With the right slip lane now turned back over, the park could be enlarged by about 40% (rough eyeballing on Google Maps). The removal of the slip lane combined with some other potential intersection improvements such as traffic bulbs, improved bike lanes along government, and bolder bollard and light standard infrastructure would slow down down traffic significantly on both sides of the park. The reduction in vehicle speed would make it quieter, as would the additional space allotted to the park, which would make it a more pleasant place to be.

It isn’t only the surrounding space that would make this a better public park. We would need to also look at what it is used for. In Victoria we seem to have some blinders on about what public space can be used for. There are about three types of use that we allow: playgrounds, public performance space (though rarely), and by far the most common, quiet contemplation. Now I think that all three of those are great but there is so much more that can be done with public space that could make the city a more rich place. I have said before that the City should build some kiosks in public spaces to lease out or provide as a work placements and sell coffee. Another option that I am not sure would work here, yet but that I like, is to build some sales stalls and allow for a kind of spontaneous market that anyone can sell wares at (Books, art, knitting etc). What I think would likely work best in a space like this would be a significant art piece that could be a focal point for the area. With a larger footprint a thirty to fifty foot piece of art that could dominate the space and would by itself slow traffic down. This could be a potential tourist draw if done well. If not large scale public art, perhaps a historical display that could tell a history of the area. No matter what, I think this neglected piece of park that almost no knows about could actually be something.

If you could do whatever you wanted with this space to draw people to it, what would you do?