When you walk around your neighbourhood, do your neighbours sometimes seem just a little bit too normal and maybe just a little bit dull? Well then it might be time for you to take a walk around another place in Victoria and get back a little of that wacky west coast vibe. The oldest urban centre outside of downtown Victoria (and even the oldest neighbourhood as a whole) is James Bay Village which sits mostly along Menzies Street from Superior Street in the north to Niagara Street in the south. James Bay Village is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities we have in the city and hopefully as things continue to densify we will see more of the benefits of that density come to James Bay Village.
I lived in James Bay for a few years in the early 2000’s and it is truly an amazing neighbourhood. There are great parks; you are close to Dallas Road and the shore and James Bay Village has most of the things you need out of a village. That said, James Bay is also has its unique parts to it. It is surrounded on three sides by water and on one side by Beacon Hill Park ,which sounds great unless you need to get somewhere on the same day as the marathon. James Bay also has the cruise ship terminal, Fisherman’s Wharf, most of the hotels for the tourists, the Coho and Clipper Terminal and the BC Legislature and the Royal BC Museum. So you really have to appreciate all of those wonderful tourists we get in the summer. With water on three sides, James Bay is also at least five degrees colder than the rest of the city at most times. I honestly think that it is mixing of all these unique qualities that give James Bay residents their slightly more quirky demeanour.
Shortly after the town of Victoria began spilling beyond the walls of the fort, James Bay became a popular spot to live. It was close to the town centre but also that little bit removed, with body of water known as James Bay between the neighbourhood and the town. That body of water no longer exists as it was filled in to build the Empress hotel, though at one time it extended back to almost where St. Ann’s Academy is today. James Bay was home to the original legislative buildings known colloquially as the Birdcages which were built in the early 1860’s. This meant that many of those that wanted to live close to these offices chose to make James Bay their home as well.
It is not exactly clear to me when the village became the commercial focus of James Bay but the Windsor Grocery Building, now home to a flower shop and eye glasses shop was built in the 1870’s. The commercial area became solidified with the addition of the Number 3 Street Car line that went right along Menzies from downtown (and Fernwood).
When I moved to Victoria in the 1990’s, James Bay Village was a little bit sleepy and James Bay as a whole, was just beginning to come out of a slump that had existed since the late 1960’s. All of sudden the quirky mix of both houses from the 1880’s next to modernist high-rises seemed intriguing. I would say that before the upswing of Fairfield and Cook Street Village in the early 2000’s, there was a moment when James Bay was the hippest part of town. What stopped it from taking the place of Cook Street Village, was likely the lack of enough commercial space along the sidewalk to give it the village feel that is only just starting to come together now, twenty years later.
When it comes to urban villages, if you want them to be more of a destination rather than just a place to run to and grab some milk or a coffee, they need to have a depth of shopping options. They also need to have some length. When you look at the linear shopping experiences of Cook Street Village or Oak Bay Village you can begin to get a sense of what I mean. Until recently, James Bay Village did’t really have that linear feel. It also still suffers from a couple overly car oriented commercial spaces that really hurt the pedestrian environment. (Mac’s, Pharmasave plaza, Discovery Coffee and of course the Thrifty’s plaza). With the recent completion of the eastern Capital Park building this has really started to shift. It is clear now that the James Bay Village begins at Superior and Menzies with the library and Floyd’s diner as the gateway. One would hope that at some point we see a redevelopment of the gas station to further entrench the walk-ability of the commercial area as well as some of those more car oriented spaces. That said, I would hope that we will always keep the James Bay Square Mall building. According to the James Bay Beacon, this amazing modern brutalist building(it used to be, it was painted in the last 10 years I believe…) was built in 1976. It has to be one of the most unique apartment buildings in the city. I have been up to one of the apartments with the west facing decks and they are actually quite amazing. The decks themselves are almost bigger than the apartment inside. Hopefully at some point the grocery store portion of the building can be rebuilt in a different way (perhaps over top of the parking lot while leaving this building as is.
One thing that James Bay Village has that sets it apart from some of the other urban villages in Victoria is that it has a park right along the street. Irving Park can has its challenges sometimes but for the most part it is a great place to stop and relax. There is a washroom, a playground and even a labyrinth at the back. I think that if the north east corner were opened up more and made into a little plaza it could really changes things for the park.
James Bay Village is also home to some really wonderful businesses that I shouldn’t forget to mention. For food, I have enjoyed my visits in the past to the Heron Rock Bistro. I also love the vibe at the Bent Mast, though the food sometimes hit or miss; and of course Discovery Coffee is always great despite the less than stellar building it resides in here. For eclectic shopping, if you are in James Bay, you should not miss the chance to visit James Bay Coffee and Books. This combo food and literature shop is amazing and some of the little nooks for eating in while surrounded by books are completely unique. Also make sure you do a walk through of Super Chance, the little thrift store in the very small mall next to Thrifty’s. This is a very well maintained and fun thrift store with some real interesting items that match with the quirky nature of James Bay itself. There is also the chance that you will find that one amazing piece here.
In the last ten years we have seen the addition of the building with Serious Coffee in it and now Capital Park, both of these buildings have enhanced the pedestrian commercial aspect of James Bay Village. Hopefully over the next many years we will see that further enhanced with the redevelopment of the gas station, the discovery coffee building and the Mac’s building. The biggest coup would be the redevelopment of Thrifty’s itself, removing the parking lot that currently sits right at the centre of the village.
As it is now, the village has become a destination. No matter where in the city you are coming from a visit to James Bay and its village is always worthwhile and you might just get to meet a few of those quirky locals.