development

Why Don't Victorians Like Modernism?

It isn’t often that I have strong pangs of sadness when I hear about a building being considered for replacement, but that is exactly what I felt this week when I heard about the likely demise of Pluto’s on Cook Street. While we have a great heritage inventory from earlier periods, it seems that when it comes to various forms of modernist architecture, we don’t really care very much and I am not certain why.

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I know that during the the 1950’s and 60’s lots of buildings from the beginning of the 20th century were either re-skinned or torn down as they were no longer considered fashionable. Now, those decisions seem almost crazy and in some instances we do what we can to try and fix the damage caused during those times. I think that we often fall into that trap of thinking that we have somehow become a better type of human and that we don’t have the same biases and we are now not able to make bad decisions, specifically in this case about what should be preserved. Well, in my opinion, we haven’t gotten any better at this and those buildings that maybe we feel are tired or old or ugly, need to have a second look and make sure that we are not throwing some important away. This is what I think we are doing with the Pluto’s Diner.

Pluto’s of course wasn’t always a restaurant, it was built as a Pacific 66 gas station. Pacific 66 was part of Phillips 66, the American gas company. The exact station we have here was built all over North America. The station’s style fall into the Googie architecture school. The gas station was supposed to look space aged which is why Pluto’s fits so well into the building. While there remain examples of this iconic gas station elsewhere in North America, it is one of very few remaining pieces of Googie architecture in Victoria but we are willing to let it go because it is just an old gas station. We have said things like this quite a few times recently.

We have lost quite a few amazing examples of modernism in the last few years across the whole region. Some of the most predominant ones for me are Mayfair Lanes, the BC Tel Building and the Royal Bank Building.

One the key aspects of Googie architecture is that it came about just as the North American economy was in overdrive and there was broad movement of the middle class to the suburbs in the late fifties and early sixties. This means that much of the architecture is built around the automobile; Mayfair Lanes was a great example. Built in 1963, this bowling alley was meant to have a futuristic feel on the inside and outside. Unfortunately we lost this place in 2006 to make way for a grocery store that was never built. One of my friends, Rob Randall, took a great photo set just before it was torn down and he has given me permission to re-post them on here.

Another piece of the modernist thread that we have lost recently is the the BC Tel building that used to sit on the corner of Blanshard and Johnson where Superbaba is today. This building was actually built in the early 1900’s and was then re-skinned in the 1950s (I think… There is almost nothing on this building anywhere). While I am a huge fan of the Atrium building (as you might know if you have been a long time reader), I do think that it is unfortunate that we lost the entire facade of the BC Tel building. It had this great angular undulation of blue and white that looked like something out of a Charles Bronson movie. It appears to be impossible to find a decent picture of the entire facade and in fact the one below is the only one I have found at all that showed any of it to date.

Former BC Tel Building 1321 Blanshard Street - From Photobucket - Theoldvictorian https://i79.photobucket.com/albums/j142/Theoldvictorian/telus_jan08.jpg

Former BC Tel Building 1321 Blanshard Street - From Photobucket - Theoldvictorian https://i79.photobucket.com/albums/j142/Theoldvictorian/telus_jan08.jpg

A second piece of modernism lost to a Jawl development designed by Franc D’Ambrosio (I sincerely think it is just a coincidence) is the old Royal Bank building at the corner of Douglas and Pandora. This building was a small but classic example of the International Style of modernism. The best existing example in Victoria is likely the Toronto Dominion Bank building at Fort and Douglas. At the time of the demolition so much attention was focused on the glazed tiles at the old CIBC two buildings down that no one really cared that we were losing this amazing building. I went to a concert in the building a few weeks before it was torn down and was just so sad that this was being lost when it so clearly could have been re-purposed. But there was just not enough people around that felt the same way. And again I really like both buildings that replaced it but I am sure that another design could have kept it around longer.

Unlike other building styles in Victoria, there is a limited amount of good modernist stock left and unfortunately many of the buildings have a number of things going against them. First, due to when they were built, many have a suburban aspect to them with things like parking lots in front that makes them poor candidates for preservation over the longer term. Some of them like Pluto’s or the Royal Bank building simply can’t be economically justified, mostly due to their scale. The main reason is though that most of them are at an age that they look tired and unlike the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around the city, they have not been repainted and repaired to show off their beauty. I think this last point is what has created the biggest problem because it is hard to care about a tired old building.

There maybe some hope though. A new development proposal being brought forward by Cox Developments, for the old McCall Brothers Funeral home at Johnson and Vancouver Street actually has designed the original chapel into the building. For whatever reason John di Castri is one of local modernist architects that has crept into the preservationists’ lists, as has John Wade. The new proposal intends to save the chapel portion of the building and actually have the new building lean over top. I personally am a huge fan of this project but to date we have not seen much movement on it.

Still, overall I am worried because our total stock, especially downtown of the various modernist styles is quite small, we need to pay attention to what is being removed. With the potential loss of Pluto’s that means that we could be down to only one or two examples of Googie architecture in the city, the Denny’s building at Finlayson and Douglas and maybe The Ruby a little bit further north... And yes I think they should be preserved! If you can think of another one in the region, please let me know in the comments. I would also love to hear about your favourite modernist buildings in the city.

Goodbye Westholme Hotel (or Why we need to care more about Old Town...)

In the early morning of Monday, May 6th 2019, the vacant Victoria Plaza Hotel started to burn and continued to until there was almost nothing left. As of a week later, there is still no sign of the caretaker for the building and the growing assumption is that he died in the fire. Over the next many weeks we will assuredly find out the cause of the fire but there is a greater question here and that is why was this building sitting vacant for so long?

The are likely a good number of Victorians that only know of this building as the Victoria Plaza Hotel, many new arrivals may only know it as the vacant building it had become, but this building, despite its somewhat tawdry decline had some pretty amazing previous lives. Some might not even know its original and proper name, The Westholme Hotel.

The main hotel portion of the building was completed in 1911. There is a great chapter in Glen Mofford’s book Aqua Vitae, on the origins of the Westholme Hotel. In what now seems like a sad twist of fate, the birth of the hotel was from a fire as well, when in 1910 the Driard hotel burned down, the liquor license was sold to the Westholme Lumber Company who used it for their planned new hotel.

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When the Westholme Hotel opened in 1911 it was one of the best hotels in the city and was home to the popular Songhees Grill. This must have been one of the largest restaurants in the city with seating for six hundred. The next big event for the Westholme was it became one of the first few places in the City of Victoria where you could get beer in 1954 when the city began to relax its strict liquor laws.

The Westholme continued on until 1965. The now tired building was seeming out of place next to the just remodelled and modernised Centennial Square, so it was completely renovated and a new lobby added on to the northern side to create the Century Inn. In what would be considered highly inappropriate in today’s age, the entire hotel was done up in a Persian theme, including the hotel staff uniforms. The hotel was again the place to be on the city.

The Century Inn stayed in business until the mid 1980’s when it was bought and turned into the Victoria Plaza Hotel. This is the hotel that I knew it as and more importantly as the hotel that housed the Monty’s Showroom Pub, which was one of two strip clubs still in business downtown when I moved here in the mid-1990’s. And it was due to this more seedy side of the hotel that Victorians stopped caring about the building.

Despite where it sat in our imagination, the Westholme Hotel was still considered important, indeed it is listed on the Federal Historical Registry here (at least for now). As the strip club closed, there began a process to rebuild the hotel.

Courtesy of  HistoricPlaces.ca

Courtesy of HistoricPlaces.ca

It was bad luck then that the property was bought by League Assets. At the time in 2011 this seemed like a great opportunity as this was the same folks that were building the Capital City Centre out in Colwood. In 2013 many people, including myself, were excited that the building had been saved when council passed a plan to keep the original building and add a new portion to the north and east. But the problems with the business plan that were the foundation of League, would spell disaster for the Westholme. With the collapse of League Assets so did the potential for the redevelopment of the Westholme. So it sat, now empty, waiting for another angel to take a chance on it. That potential angel came in 2016 from Pacific Gate Investments who bought the hotel and the proposal that had been developed four years before but there were problems with making the financials of that original plan work so they went back to the drawing board.

Finally, in 2018 we saw the updated designs for the Westholme, they would keep the Government Street facade of the hotel, but the rest would be new build. The design was underwhelming at least in my opinion, and it made its last pass through a city committee at March’s Advisory Design Panel, which it did not make it through. One can assume that the developer was attempting to make changes to the design when the fire broke out.

Looking back at the thread on Vibrant Victoria it makes you pretty sad when you see that there have been discussions about redeveloping the property since 2007. (A lot of the info I used for this post came from that thread). Now that it is gone, I am hoping that we will see a radically new design rather than a replication as that would be an insult to the old hotel and Old Town in general. We will see once the site has been fully investigated and the owners have decided on what to do with the property.

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The last twelve years of dithering on the building does show you that things can go wrong. If you read my recent post on the Northern Junk Buildings you will remember that they have been moving through a similar process with the city. There have been voices of opposition against some of the designs that have even said that we shouldn’t worry, someone else will come along and build something that will be less (in their mind) imposing. If the city is serious about its preservation of Old Town then it is about more than just making sure that you stop new development outside of a set of guidelines, it is also about nurturing the existing urban fabric, making sure the it is healthy so that buildings are kept up and not allowed to sit vacant. I think that on that front we still have a lot we can do.

I want to acknowledge that a great deal of the info in this post came from a blog post on LiveVictoria written by Glen Mofford and can be read in its entirety here.

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Do We Need Green Space or People Space?

If you have ever attended a public hearing for a new development, you will know that a common concern is the lack of green space planned in and around the proposal. I have touched on this before and my frustration with it. This concern has been bouncing around the city lately in response to the proposal by Jawl Residential for the Mazda lot in Harris Green. Apparently at the public meeting with the developer and the Downtown Residents Association someone made the comment about the lack of green space in Harris Green to a large round of applause. This moment is alluded to in their letter to city council on the project as well. So there is a feeling amongst at least those that attended the meeting that there is something missing in their community and that the answer to fix it is “green space”.

What I want to do is pick this apart a little in the context of this project and Harris Green, but also discuss what I think often gets conflated, and that is green space when what is actually wanted is people space.

So first, if you want to be completely technical about the boundaries of Harris Green, it’s true, there are absolutely no parks within it. This sounds terrible unless you consider that the entire area is just twelve city blocks and that if you further consider that the area around it does have significant green space. The neighbourhood is actually named for a park that runs along the border between Harris Green, North Park and Fernwood, with the largest portion sitting fully within the borders of Fernwood (If you are a long time reader you are aware of my feelings about the current borders of our neighbourhoods and this is yet another great example). Still it is there and it runs for three blocks. To the east along Yates street, at the top of the hill by the current fire hall is Central Middle School with its very large playing field. Just a block south of the border of Harris Green sits Pioneer Square Park. And just to the north of Pandora Avenue sits Franklin Green Park. So when it comes to publicly owned green space there is a lot around Harris Green.

It isn’t just the publicly owned green spaces either, there are also a number of privately owned spaces that are open to the public. As part of the agreement with the city when the Regent Park towers were built at Yates and Vancouver, there was a requirement for a publicly accessible mid-block walkway and also some green space. There are at least two stretches of very nice seating areas in this development. Across Yates from here is also the relatively new community garden that sits on privately owned land. Given all this space it makes you wonder what the concern that is being raised is all about? I mean all this space must be overloaded with people and therefore there is a need for more right? Unfortunately this is not the case, you can walk by any of the places I just mentioned now and go by on the nicest day you can imagine in the city and with the exception of Pioneer Square at lunchtime, you will find them deserted. Just today I walked through each of them and yes, it is January, but it was also a Sunday with 10c weather with the sun shining. I had each one to myself again except Pioneer Square which had a few homeless people sleeping in it. So the current green spaces are plentiful and relatively empty, so what is the concern?

When you walk around Harris Green one of the biggest problems that the area has is the large one-way streets that funnel cars relatively quickly past it. One of the largest benefits of the bike lanes along Pandora and Fort Street has been the slowing down of this traffic that has made both of those streets a little more pleasant to walk along. I still think the city should have taken the opportunity to take those changes to the next level and returned all of the streets in Harris Green to two-way traffic. The second issue is that until recently, with the exception of Fort Street, Harris Green has been covered with surface parking lots. It was an all round people hostile place. There hasn’t been, and still really aren’t places that you can go and just be in public with people. I would say that the closest place that you can go to simply be with people is the Harris Green Village Centre, that houses London Drugs, Market on Yates and a number of other businesses. You will often find people sitting on benches here; buskers playing music and people sitting outside of the grocery store having a coffee. This raises a couple of questions. Why is the area around a parking lot and some larger stores so busy with even people sitting down to enjoy the place, while the large expanse of Harris Green is empty? The answer is that we don’t really need more green space; we need people places!

The potential people place on the Mazda lot

The potential people place on the Mazda lot

Strangely enough, the proposal for the Mazda lot completely lacks any indications of pure green space, but it does have what I think might turn out to be an amazing piece of people space if it is designed correctly. Just at the corner of Yates and Cook there is a large piece of the corner that indents into the project and given the right additional people ingredients, could be a new nexus in the city. In fact, my main concern with this proposed public space as it is shown, is the large amount of grass which takes away from the ability to use it year round. This square has the potential to be an amazing people place.

I am not really sure why there is so much push for green space when what we actually need is people space. As I was walking between the various green spaces in preparation for this article, I paused to take some pictures in Pioneer Square. I was admiring the cathedral and noting the quiet of the square, but I could hear kids screaming and laughing, which reminded me that there was a new public space across the street so I walked over and despite it being January the playground was packed with kids and parents. The interesting thing about the new park space at the courthouse is that it is mostly hard surface and only is about a third turned over to grass and trees. It is definitely a people place first.

I think that we need to be thinking about creating great places that attract people rather than simply creating additional green space that will sit empty, we can’t afford to let land downtown go to waste like that.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any favourite people spaces in Harris Green that I may have overlooked?

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Ogden Point - Victoria's Dismal Point of Entry

So if you have your “Victoria neighbourhoods should never change” hat on, you might want to take it off for this post. Okay, now imagine you are a tourist going on a once in lifetime cruise to Alaska, you don’t live near the ocean at all and you are looking forward to seeing Victoria because you had heard that it is a beautiful city. You are standing on the deck when Vancouver Island comes into view and you can see that the city is there, buildings are popping out above the trees. The pier is getting closer and finally you can see the entrance to the city, Ogden Point! I think most of what I said, besides the last thing are true for many of the thousands of cruise ship passengers that come into Victoria every year, but we immediately deflate that excitement with the bleakness of Ogden Point as it is now, and yet it is is this bleakness, this blank canvas, that actually offers us so much opportunity to create a whole new dimension to the city. This would mean a significant change and even though with time the change would be seen positively by tourists and locals alike, I know that many would rather preserve the terminal and the surrounding neighbourhood as is, even with its acres of dismal asphalt.

Each year we hear about the coming of the cruise ship season with both anticipation and disgust, either way you look at it though, it is an important part of the economy. I am aware that it is not certain that the benefits outweigh the costs when it comes to actual passenger spending in the city, that said I do think that the advertising that the ships provide the city has a very long tail and that many of those that visit say positive things about Victoria or return again themselves. On the other hand as it is now, Ogden Point is almost completely devoted to tourists. Yet Victorians deserve to have access to these areas that at this time have been handed over to tourism so that they can enjoy the spaces themselves. One only needs to look at the amount of locals walking on the breakwater or getting something to eat at Fisherman’s Wharf to know that quality attractions are for everyone. Yet year after year we talk about the opportunity that Ogden Point presents and do nothing (Just like some other wasted waterfront in the city).

Work happening on Pier B at Ogden Point

Work happening on Pier B at Ogden Point

Ogden Point is managed by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA). I personally think that since they took over harbour operations that there have been vast improvements to the almost all of the harbour; the docks in the inner harbour look awesome; Fisherman’s Wharf is an amazing destination and cruise ship traffic is up significantly and is becoming competitive with larger centres; yet Ogden Point is still this vacant slab of dreariness. The GVHA has a grand vision for the area and this has developed through the Ogden Point Master Plan. This plan has been in development since 2008 and the final draft came out two years ago next month yet nothing has really changed. In usual Victorian fashion a great idea was watered down through consultation to a point where now, in my opinion, the economics of moving forward will be too costly to build and there is not enough commercial space to help shoulder the burden.

The biggest mistake in the plan was to try and appease the neighbourhood association and other special interest groups rather than looking at the site as an opportunity to create a completely new paradigm for the city that actual had the purpose to disrupt and change rather than blend in and disappear. We live in a beautiful place and somehow that sense of beauty has blinded us to the reality that our neighbourhoods are not perfect as they are now, that they can be better, more exciting and more beneficial both socially and economically.

So what are the pieces that I think could have been brought in? Well the plan does have part of it with the idea of taking advantage of the current uses of ship port, heli-port and marine industry. Looking first at industry, imagine a UVic Marine Engineering Facility with a start-up centre for new business just like they have at the main campus. I think that an incubator could actually result in some long term tenants that enhance the realm and relate to its original purpose. Leading on from there, a new enhanced heli-port that allows visitors to view the comings and goings, while passengers can relax in something a little fancier than a glorified ATCO trailer would be a tremendous addition.

Looking next at the economic enhancements, they would need to still put tourism at the forefront, but one only needs to look at the tremendous success of Fisherman’s Wharf to see that a tourist draw can also be a local favourite. I am down there at least a few times each summer having something to eat, listening to music and just enjoying the vibe. A real commercial node at Ogden Point could be one more draw for the area. Encourage places like the Maritime Museum, art galleries and restaurants to move into an attractive space here and the tourists and locals will come.

To solidify the space and ensure that it has some full-day activity, the addition of a hotel and some significant residential and office space would be critical. The GVHA is not going to be able to achieve the critical mass needed with the weak commercial buildings suggested in their plans, they will need significant density and I would suggest some significant height to create a sense of place and provide some cover over all that asphalt.

To connect this area that would now not just be for the tourists at one time of year the city could resurrect the plan from the late 1990’s to run a street car from Ogden Point to Chinatown. Certainly, with this new node plus the additional growth already being seen in James Bay and downtown it is going to be needed and this way car traffic does not have to increase.

Imagine a vibrant waterfront district here

Imagine a vibrant waterfront district here

Seattle Waterfront

Seattle Waterfront

While I know that even what I have suggested so far is an impossibility, I want to take it one step further and suggest changes to the area surrounding Ogden Point as well. When I look at the Surf Motel along Dallas Road I see such optimism in the future and in my opinion a huge missed opportunity. While I can’t be certain, I expect that the person that built that motel thought that at some point the waterfront by the port would be a tourist strip like is seen in many other cities along the waterfront. Strangely, they were completely wrong but why is it that Victoria is missing this quintessential coastal city experience? If there was a new dynamic Ogden Point then what would complement it better than a lively and bright seaside strip along Dallas Road at least for the block that the Surf Motel sits in, but perhaps further. The City has this in their power now to rezone the area along Dallas Road as commercial/residential/tourist and as properties change hands the new owners would have the ability to move the use towards that vision. Eventually imagine a one to two block strip of restaurants, bars and bookstores and galleries that gaze out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca next to a new dense urban multi-use node at Ogden Point. It would be a breath of fresh air for the city. What I am envisioning is a two block version of the Seattle boardwalk.

Unfortunately, we remain in this subservient realm, controlled by the what is rather than the what could be. Still I remain hopeful for a change!

Let me know your visions for a renewed Ogden Point in the comments below.

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Adaptive Reuse in Victoria

Adaptive reuse is an architectural term that refers to taking a building that was purpose built for one activity and altering it so that it can have a second life with another use. Generally, the most well known projects take a building with a very distinct first use and convert it into something completely different, such as an industrial age factory converted into loft housing. Victoria does have a couple of dramatic examples, however with most of them it would never be imagined that the building had previous life with a different use.

The City Lights Building

The City Lights Building

When you are walking around Old Town Victoria you are surrounded by adaptive reuse in its most literal definition. Many of the old buildings, especially those closer to the harbour, were built as warehousing for holding the merchandise to be shipped overseas. Other buildings now used as condos and apartments were originally built as hotels or office buildings. These conversions in many cases happened decades ago and have had most of their existence with a use other than the one they were originally built for. What I want to look at today are a couple of my favourite examples of adaptive reuse and a couple of upcoming or potential sites that could really catalyse an area.

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Perhaps the most famous and identifiable example of adaptive reuse in Victoria is the Canoe Brewpub. Originally built as the City Lights building in 1894. This was a coal power plant to generate power for about 100 street lamps (obviously efficiency has improved in the last 120 years). You can actually still see a lot of the City Light manhole covers around downtown too. In the 1990’s when there was very little construction activity going on in the city, some brave person decided to convert a then dilapidated building into a brand new brewpub and restaurant and spend millions of dollars doing it. In the intervening twenty years since it was completed, the Canoe Brewpub has become a Victoria staple for food, beer and music. Going in the building now there is little evidence of the industrial history of the building, but it certainly is a beautiful space.

Another well known example is a less dramatic transition in some ways. The Mosaic building on Fort Street started off its life in 1963 as the Royal Trust Building. It was designed by John Di Castri, one of the more prolific mid-century architects in the city. The front facade has huge mosaics by Andreas Salgo. When I first moved to Victoria in the mid-1990’s the building was mostly vacant and considered by many to be a tacky old office building. Luckily, developer Don Charity came along and saw that the building could be re-imagined. In 1999, the completed and renamed Mosaic building welcomed its new residents and Victorians now saw what was a tired old office building in a new funky light.

The Mosaic Building

The Mosaic Building

Near the Mosaic is Pluto’s Diner which may be an example of what may be the most common adaptive reuse in North America, the transition of a gas station into a restaurant. Pluto’s is perhaps most notable in that they took a fantastic example of Googie architecture and emphasised the kitschy-space theme to create a great little diner. There are very few examples in Victoria of this architectural genre with perhaps the biggest loss being Mayfair Lanes which was torn down a few years ago to make way for a store that never materialised. I am a huge fan of this style so I hope that we get to see Pluto’s for many decades to come.

Moving from the current examples to hopeful new ones, the three I am most looking forward to are: the Roundhouse project, the Northern Junk buildings and the re-imagining of the Times Colonist building.

The Roundhouse redevelopment is part of the Bayview project in Vic West. With most of the buildings up on the hill above Songhees almost complete, the developer is moving to the next phase which will be in and around the rail yard and roundhouse buildings down near Spinnakers Pub. While the use has not been entirely lined up yet, there has been discussion of a supermarket, museum or community centre. No doubt whatever ends up going in here will be imbued by the very distinct space of the roundhouse.

Another hoped for example of adaptive reuse are the Northern Junk buildings. This project has been in its infant stages for the better part of seven years at this point. These two buildings sit just to the south of the Johnson Street bridge and while they are not the most glamorous old buildings, they are very unique. First off the buildings are some of the oldest remaining warehouse buildings in Victoria and second it is thought that the buildings’ chaotic rock walls are composed from the remnants of ballast brought over on ships that were loading their holds in the early days of the city. Reliance Properties, the developer behind the project, would like to turn them into harbour side restaurants.

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In the last couple of months the Times Colonist building went quiet as its printers were turned off for the last time. The newspaper had outsourced its printing and the building itself had been sold with the goal of redevelopment. The plan is to keep the main building and lease some of the office space back to the newspaper, while turning the balance of the property into a mix of commercial and residential space. Some of the renderings I have seen for the commercial spaces look amazing with a large bar imagined for the former print room. A quality project in this location could actually be the spark that could start a new urban node for the city.

There are many other buildings around the city that could certainly use the re-invigoration of adaptive reuse and perhaps the one that most people will bring up is the old BC Hydro building at the end of Pembroke and Store streets. This massive old building has been at the heart of a decades long clean up of the property, but to date no plans have come forward for it. Whatever it ends up being, the original building is already quite dramatic and I can imagine that a new use could emphasise the brick and the size in a similar way to the City Lights building has with Canoe. No matter what else is built on the old hydro lands, the original building will be the centre piece and depending on how well it is done will either be a catalyst or an anchor for the area.

What are some of your favourite examples of adaptive reuse in Victoria? Even better do you have a building that you think could be so much better re-imagined with a new use?

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Another Useless Public Space in Victoria

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.

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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.”

and

“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.

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A New Life for Old Rental Buildings

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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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). 

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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?

These shops used to be ground floor parking. 

These shops used to be ground floor parking.