placemaking

New Bike Lanes, Plazas, and Pedestrian Scrambles - Part 2 - Wharf Street

If you are here, I am really hoping that you read the first installment of this two part series on the new infrastructure along Wharf and Humboldt Streets. If you haven’t read the first one, I would highly recommend going back and looking at that one now and then coming back here.

Okay, so for those of you that are meant to be here, as you saw last time despite some of the negative press parts of the new infrastructure outside of the DoubleTree Hotel has received, I actually thought pretty highly of what the City has built in the first section I looked at. It was well put together and felt for the most part, complete and tightly integrated into the surroundings. I am not feeling quite the same about the other half of this project along Wharf Street, but it is not all bad either. For this second piece I think that the best way to look at it is to break it down into parts: the bike lanes, the pedestrian environment, and the Johnson Street Bridge intersection. Each one I think has its own impact on the user and certainly for me has its own merit or lack thereof. So lets get started looking at the bet part of the work.

Wharf Street Bike Lanes

I know that if you primarily use Wharf Street as a driver, you likely are not a fan of the new set-up. But really there are very limited reasons why a Victorian should ever be using Wharf Street for anything other than a Sunday drive. I realise that if you are driving north out of James Bay towards Vic West, then Wharf is the logical route due to the limited left hand turns on the other main north/south options, but that has to be a really small amount of people that would be doing that on a regular basis. So that means that the rest of the people that are using Wharf are either visitors, commercial traffic or people okay with a slower route. For those limited types of drivers the road can still work adequately, but slowly. But that is not what I am looking at, this is about the bike lanes.

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So the bike lanes are very similar to the ones put in along Pandora Avenue and Fort Street. One of the really nice parts of it from a cycling perspective is how it is starting to tie the pieces that have been built together. It is great to be able to ride down Pandora, then along Wharf and then back up Fort Street. As the new Humboldt and Vancouver Street parts are completed, depending on how they turn out, I expect it will be easy to create several little circuits as you ride for fun or if you are heading downtown to shop for a bit.

Another great part of the new bike lanes along Wharf is that it seems the City is starting to realise that when they put in bike lanes like this they need to include a lot bike racks. This part of the network has a good selection of spots to stop and park your bike which was very nice to see. I know that there has been some consternation among some cyclists that there are too many pedestrian crossings and that it makes Wharf a slow ride, but these bike lanes are not meant to be race tracks, they are meant to provide a safe place to ride downtown and that means having to stop for pedestrians at crossings. Overall from a cycling point of view I think that this new work is a great success.

Pedestrian Environment

So the bike lanes are pretty great and definitely a worthwhile addition of infrastructure in my opinion. While the work was ongoing the roads were dug up significantly and I would have thought that the City would have taken the opportunity to fix up the sidewalks. There are some improvements, especially to the street crossings at Bastion Square, Fort Street and Yates Street. At Yates Street there is even an additional light that is beneficial to pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers. What was not touched almost at all though, was the sidewalk along the west side of the street, the one right next to the bike lanes.

If you have walked along Wharf Street recently, especially on the harbour side, you will get to experience one of the worst pedestrian environments in the city. I keep hoping this is because there are plans to allow significant development on the three harbour parking lots and Wharf Street will not be the water side road anymore and instead be a regular downtown street one block removed. If that were the case, I would likely not be so concerned about the sidewalk here. Still as it is this is the second most important pedestrian route after Government Street for tourists and it should look that way. In actual fact though, the way it looks is terrible. First, the length between Bastion Square and Fort Street has always been a bad sidewalk. It has a nasty looking railing and is very narrow strip of sidewalk. It doesn’t help that the view here is stunning so people are stopping all the time, making it near impossible to get through. One would have thought with the effort that was going into the bike lanes they would have planned to build something to extend the sidewalk over the parking lot or have removed more parking to give a bit more space. Perhaps the City should have bitten the bullet and turned Wharf into just a single travel lane going south so that the width could have been really opened up but they didn’t which is unfortunate.

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The sidewalk in the next block south, while not narrow (actually it is a good size), is barely a sidewalk and certainly an embarrassment for a city that is focused on tourism. Looking specifically at the sidewalk between Fort Street and the Homecoming statue you will find almost any material besides a properly poured sidewalk. There is cracked cement, lumpy asphalt, haphazard grates and ill-defined driveways. It must have felt awkward for the City Workers to be building a beautiful new bike lane next to this mess. I am unaware of any current plans to fix this section up either but I am certain that the answer the City would give is that with the plans for the Ship Point parking lot that the sidewalks will get dealt with at the same time. I am also aware of just how unlikely that project is ever to come to fruition. So from a pedestrian perspective, I will say that things have marginally improved at the crossings but that the sidewalks themselves along Wharf remain cramped and in need of significant work. So it couldn’t get worse right?

Johnson/Pandora and Wharf Intersection

It gets worse. I know that some people will say that that this really isn’t part of the new project as it is kind of a piece of the Johnson Street Bridge project, well the new bridge has been open for over a year and so I think we can safely move the work in this area into the latest project to touch it, which would be the Wharf Street upgrade project. I just don’t know where to start with this mess. I know that some people will focus on the new bike lanes, multi-use path, pedestrian path and the plaza at the north end next to the Janion and say that there are so many improvements here that you can’t possibly find anything wrong with it. For me the real achievement here is that the space is now uncomfortable for those on bikes, in cars and on foot all at the same time. I think that the city took what was a basically a 1950’s motordom design and just tuned it down by a couple of notches rather than taking advantage of both the bridge project and the bike-lanes project and seeing if something new could have been done.

While I know that there are a lot of cyclists that would not be fans, however, I think that the best thing that we could put into this space and give it the gravitas that it should have as main gateway into downtown, would be to have a roundabout here. There are a few designs that are used in places around the world that do incorporate dedicated bike lanes and it would allow all of the various mode users to have a more freedom to move through the space smoothly. It also might give a little more purpose to the empty gravel island that is there now, if it was a proper old world traffic circle. That said there may be other options that would work just as well. What are your thoughts for what would work in this space?

I would also love to know what you think of the whole project along both Wharf Street and Humboldt Street!

New Bike Lanes, Plazas, and Pedestrian Scrambles - Part 1 - Humboldt Street

I know it has taken me a bit of time to get back and look at the new project along Humboldt and Wharf since I wrote the pedestrian scramble article last year. Most of the improvements have now been open for at least a month. Well I have now spent some time along both the bike lanes on Wharf Street and the changes along Humboldt Street from the new crosswalk to the very controversial new plaza at Douglas Street. Despite it being theoretically, one linear project, I have quite few varying thoughts that change as you move along its kilometre stretch. Due to these varying perspectives, I am going to break my review into two separate articles, the first one on the space along Humboldt Street from the Government Street pedestrian scramble to the new plaza at the DoubleTree Hotel; and a second article on the pedestrian and bike environment along Wharf Street from Government to the Spaghetti interchange at the new bridge.

So in this first post, I am focusing on the main downtown stretch of this project from Government Street to Douglas. From a pedestrian’s view, this is perhaps the most exciting change we see in the whole project. I am going to start with the scramble and work my way east to the DoubleTree Hotel.

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The Pedestrian Scramble

When it was first announced and I wrote my previous article, I wasn’t sure whether this was going to work, but I was really focused on the scramble itself and not the surrounding space. I came down and had a look while the construction was still underway and it still wasn’t clear. Now that the whole space is essentially complete and I finally saw it in-person the amount of things that changed right up to the end is amazing. It is not perfect, but overall the work is clean, clear, warm and friendly. As you will find out in the next instalment, not every part of this project can be seen in the same way.

The traffic island on the south west corner of the scramble has been set-up with benches and a large digital information board with bike lane usage numbers. Despite being in the middle of the intersection, this space looks like it could be the best place to hang out and street-watch in the whole city. With the bikes whizzing by, throngs of tourists walking up the causeway and the much reduced car traffic slowly passing through the new intersection, you could likely spend hours sitting here on a nice day watching all the action. Everything about the intersection looks complete and precise. My only thought on design is that the scramble itself ended up a little squished, which gives what should be a square, a more trapezoid shape. I also wonder weather the way the lines are painted could have been more interesting than the stripe lane ways that have been put down but that is easily changed in the future. It is also a little confusing to have to have buttons on the standards that are only for the visually impaired so signs have been placed there to clarify but those signs themselves are also a little confusing. Still if their addition makes this crosswalk more usable for those with visibility challenges than that is great.

Leaving the scramble and heading east, the main change here is the bike lanes which are nice and straight and again provide a nice separation between the traffic and the sidewalk. As you move towards Douglas, the second completely reworked intersection comes into view and again it is well done.

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Humboldt Plaza

One of the biggest changes that you see along this whole project is the change to car traffic flow. At Government Street, eastbound traffic can now continue along Humboldt to Douglas rather than being forced south along Government Street as it used to be. When eastbound traffic reaches Douglas at what used to be a five way intersection, cars are now blocked from travelling down Humboldt in front of the Marriott Hotel. Instead, eastbound traffic goes up Burdett towards Fairfield. Bike traffic can still continue on Humboldt and the bike lanes pass through the now blocked off roadway.

In addition to bike lanes continuing on the closed road the rest of this now superfluous roadway has been turned into a brand new mini plaza. The edge of the plaza along Douglas has a very finished feel to it, but the space right in front of the patio for Bart’s Pub feels a little sterile and unfinished. I am aware that the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, which has had a hand in the design of the uses for this space, has more plans to both activate the space and brighten it up, to give it a more complete feel. Unfortunately, the majority of the press regarding this space has been dedicated to a discussion about a very nice (but apparently expensive) ping pong table. This is too bad because this space is a true benefit to the city that will likely not truly be recognised for a decade or two. I know that I have gone on my public space versus green space before, but it is these little people places that are needed to give downtown residents and visitors have a space for themselves to spend time in for a large part of the year. The benefit of this mini plaza and the new traffic island at Humboldt and Government is that these are already active places for people. They are both on natural pathways across downtown, that means that they are not ever going to be empty, even in the depths of winter or the latest hours at night. It will be interesting to contrast this new plaza outside the DoubleTree to the larger one that is just a block away to the east with the large water feature. My prediction is that this little one will crush the larger one with use because there will simply be more people to watch.

While we can wait and see what the finishing touches of the mini plaza look like, overall this section of this project is great in my opinion and really changes the feel of this area of downtown from a desolate tourist zone, to a dynamic people place for Victorians. We will have to see how it goes over the longer term and I will check back in. So next time I will look at the rest of this new project From Government Street to the Johnson Street Bridge, will it turn out to be as good as this section? Check in soon and find out. Meanwhile, if you get a chance go down and take a look at the space.

North Park's First Real Mid-Block Walkway

There are a lot of mid-block walkways in Victoria. Some of them are just a parking lot you can cut across and some of them purpose built walkways. For the most part the official walkways that I have documented in past blog posts (Here, here, here, here and here) have been mostly the purpose built ones with some of the unofficial ones mixed.

When it comes to North Park there have not been any purpose built walkways that are open to the public, at least until now that I can think of unless you count Central Park. With the completion of the new 1008 Pandora building there is a real mid-block walkway that goes from Mason Street to Pandora Avenue.

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Mid-block walkways are such a great part of the urban experience in Victoria. From a pure efficiency perspective, the walkways provide you options in how you can cut across the city. If you want to access businesses that are only part way along a block, a walkway can save you a lot of time. Another great benefit of the walkways is that as you get to know Victoria (or any city that has them) is that you can make up lots of alternate ways of moving around the city. They might not always be faster but they just give you options. As you learn about these different ways of moving around the city it actually changes your mental map of the city. If there is a way for city planners to work more walkways into the future plans for the city they should, because they are such an amazing treat for pedestrians.

This latest walkway in North Park is not perfect, but it is the first one in North Park that has been purpose-built for people to use to cut across a block. The new project has built a series of townhouses along the western edge of Franklin Green. In front of those town homes the developer has out in a very narrow brick pathway. I think that the pathway should be at least twice the width, but unfortunately either the developer or the city has decided to leave in some sad looking cedar trees here which should have been removed. Hopefully at some put this is realised and the walkway can be expanded. But it is at least here, and that is a plus. From the back corner of the project there is a narrow fenced walkway that does an L-jag to cut through to Pandora. As it is currently set-up this is a pretty dreary utilitarian walk through. I can guarantee I will use it, as it is the perfect direction from me as I move through North Park on my way to work but it isn’t exactly inviting. I think that if the building owner wants to make sure the area doesn’t end up being used for negative purposes, they are going to need to enliven the walls and pathway if it is possible.

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The City has a role has in making this work as well. Franklin Green has a wonderful pathway that works its way around the back of the park. With the addition of the new walkway you would have thought that the city would have built a spur that would have connected them, but as of now they haven’t yet. Hopefully this is on the plans for the next few months.

As we see further density come to North Park I am hoping that we are going to see some other dedicated walkways. I already have my unofficial cut-throughs that I use all the time but I am always excited to see a new mid-block walkway. So where else do we need a purpose-built walkway in North Park?

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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Sidewalking Victoria is Three!

Well, okay, the birthday was a couple of days ago, but I still wanted to recognise it. Three years ago I wasn't really sure what Sidewalking Victoria would fully be, but I started out anyways, in some ways it i am still figuring it out. 

For this short post I thought I would highlight where this all started and one of my favourite posts from each year since then. I also want to take this opportunity to thank you and all of the other readers of Sidewalking Victoria. I am still so surprised how many people pop in and read every month. I sincerely hope that you keep coming back over the next three years.

The First Post

This post was the quiet start to my blog. Looking back now, what I said there still holds for what I try and write about. I still try to tell you about places that you may not know about and if you do, then something about them that may not obvious.

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My Favourite Post from the First Year

Looking back at the first twelve months, I think that my favourite post was The Birth of the Notch. Perhaps because that post talks about the potential of an area that I still hold out a lot of hope for. Also, because I do truly love the name "The Notch", which was originally coined by a friend of mine on Vibrant Victoria.

Year Two

I was able to double my writing in the second year, completing 26 posts, which makes it that much harder to choose one, but if I have to I would choose Rockland Avenue or Fight! This post focused on Victoria's bizarre neighbourhood boundaries. It is a topic I have come back to quite a few times as I think that something like this, that seems innocuous, actually has a significant negative impact on the city. 

Year Three

Somehow in the last year I have put up almost 40 posts. Also in that time I was able to open the Sidewalk Store, where you can get some Sidewalking merch (I am sure there will be more to come here). Of all of the posts that I finished in the last year, perhaps my favourite was about my thoughts on What Makes a Great Urban Village. This little post speaks to a lot of what is important in the little places all over our city and what makes them work.

Do you have a favourite Sidewalking post? Let me know! And once again thank you for reading!

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.