Northern Junk Buildings - Why Are We Still Waiting?

When it comes to properties that should be redeveloped in Victoria, the Northern Junk property just south of the Johnson Street bridge, is likely near the top of the list. Maybe even more urgently than our harbour-side parking lots, because as we wait, we risk losing two of the oldest buildings in city. Unfortunately, even more important than heritage buildings in Victoria is our preponderance to hesitate, to study, to reconsider. When it comes to the Northern Junk Buildings though, they can no longer wait for endless consideration.

From Wharf Street, the two buildings that combined are known as the Northern Junk property, don’t look like much. But get a little closer to them and start looking at the stonework, these are not your everyday little crumbling shops. Named after the last store that occupied them, the buildings are registered with Canada’s Historic Places and there it estimates them as having been built in the 1860’s. There would have been docks attached at the back of the buildings that would have had boats unloading their wares for storage and sale in the buildings. While I am not sure if it has ever been proven, it is said that the outer walls are made out of the ballast stone from sailing ships as they arrived and loaded their holds with lumber. One is certain though, these two buildings are among the oldest colonial buildings in Victoria.

The current setting for the buildings has them sitting off alone, orphaned from the rest of the city, which is perhaps why it has been so easy to ignore them. To the south is the small and underused Reeson Park; to the north is a sad little parking lot. Curving from the north and along the eastern edge of the site is the original Wharf Street that used to come off the old Johnson Street Bridge and a small green space that is more a traffic island than park. To be honest, the whole area around the end of the Johnson Street Bridge is far too open, with extensive roadways, parking and strange cut off pieces of public land. One of the hopes that I have around the redevelopment of the Northern Junk buildings is that some of this current abundance of wasted empty space in the centre of old town will be re-urbanised and turned back to a part of Old Town. Traffic island patches of grass, parking lots and dead-end roadways are not positive aspects or rich urban environment, nor part of our colonial history.

You may have noticed that I said “turned back” because this area used to be a cohesive part of the urban fabric of the city. If you look at this photo, from Vintage Air Photos, even as late as 1947 there are whole city blocks that got mowed down to create the space we see today. If you go back further, some of the vacant lots in that photo had buildings on them. Here next to the harbour has always been the heart of the city and that is why we have these wonderful old buildings along this stretch of Wharf street. Unfortunately, as the city thought about the need for having freeways connect the various parts of the city, it was assumed that at some point you would need a proper outlet for all the cars and so the area was levelled, think the downtown Vancouver portions of the Cambie or Granville Street bridges, that was what would be needed here too.

Much like the nearby Janion building, I have always assumed that these two buildings would collapse before anything good could happen at all. The Janion project was recently completed by Reliance Properties and surprisingly almost a decade ago the same company began to look at opportunities for the Northern Junk buildings. Unfortunately, for what I can only assume are some unclear perceptions as to what Old Town was and should be, certain groups have opposed proposal after proposal that Reliance has brought forward. Some seem to attempt to defend Old Town by saying that building on this location would block views of the harbour. Of course, views and open space like that which currently exists is the antithesis of what Old Town is. The Downtown Residents Association, in what was a suspiciously timed letter just days before the last city election, (despite sitting on the response for almost 10 months!) states, “The sale of public lands in this prime location when there is an obvious need for open usable public space is counter-intuitive.” The problem is that there isn’t an area in the city more bestowed with empty public space. This letter was in reference to the latest iteration. (I think there have been eight). This lack of understanding of place is not limited though.

The original proposal, back in 2012, faced an unimaginable back lash against it by the heritage community. I can remember sitting at the public hearing as the developer went through every single heritage guideline and demonstrated how they met it and yet it did not get through. Here is a comment from a letter to the editor in the Times Colonist at the time, “…But they ignore the unimaginative architecture, the disastrous placing of the proposed towers (blocking the end of Old Town), the sale of city parkland and road allowance to the developer and the fact that the proposal flouts the guidelines in the city’s official community plan and the downtown core plan, particularly requiring protection of viewscapes.” Again, the statement only argues for the protection of the status quo and despite wrapping it up in preservationist language, completely pushes back on the true nature of Victoria as a colonial city in the late 1800’s. (Found through this blog post)

For those interested in the original proposal, Bernard von Schulmann did a wonderful write up of that project back in 2012. Read his blog post here and enjoy some of the amazing renders that he has of how it could have looked.

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The latest version of the project which has tried to build on objection after objection creates more open space (which actually makes me prefer the original version) but I think the current option is still amazing. I just fear, as we now sit almost six months since the developer pulled the latest version from council, that we are going to see this get disassembled again.

The city needs to make sure that the buildings get saved and that the space created when those buildings were bulldozed so long ago, gets built back into part of the urban fabric and taken away from this suburban, car focused, spaghetti mess we see now. I remain hopeful.

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