Urbanism

Open Letter to Council - Northern Junk Buildings

October 12, 2019

Dear Mayor and Council,

I am writing to you today regarding the Northern Junk buildings, also known as 1314-1324 Wharf Street. It is my understanding that the redevelopment proposal for these buildings is coming to the Committee of the Whole soon and Council will consider forwarding on the project to public hearing.

I am a long-time resident of Victoria and the author behind the blog, Sidewalking Victoria. If you have read my blog, you will know that I have an interest in the Northern Junk buildings, having published two articles on them. They can be found as follows:

1.       Northern Junk Buildings – Why are we still waiting?

2.       Northern Junk Redux Redux Redux

It will not be a surprise then, that I am writing you in support of the current application by Reliance Properties to save the two buildings and add additional housing above them.

I am the first to admit that what we have here is a compromise solution. I have seen all the iterations brought forward for these buildings and I honestly think that the original proposal was perhaps the best option though folks could not see how that proposal met the Heritage Guidelines, though it clearly did. We have now finally arrived at this compromise solution because the city has decided not to sell the property to the north of the two buildings. It is unclear what the city intends to do with this waterfront parcel, as there are limited uses for it apart from market residential. I just hope the city will neither leave the parcel farrow nor turn it into a park (This would be a further affront to downtown in this location).

So, the property owner now has a limited way to try and recoup their investment and protect the two buildings from falling down. They have presented us with a plan for a single but multi-faceted building giving it the appearance of two buildings. With this plan I think that the architect has both highlighted the heritage aspects of the original buildings while presenting a modern and distinct design for the upper floors. The plan will provide animation to the harbour frontage with waterfront commercial space and provide eyes on the neglected and seldom used, Reeson Park, with large windows from the residential foyer. The upper floors allow the industrial beauty of the original buildings to stand out while also being modern take on the heritage form of Old Town. I would be the first one to have concerns about a proposal like this if I hadn’t seen it first, but it is an elegant solution to a problem that saves the buildings and elevates the neighbourhood.

I did read the recent response to the proposal from the Hallmark Society in the Times Colonist and was sad to see them try and focus the blame for the possible collapse of the two decaying buildings on the developer. Even going so far as to allude to the possibility that the developer should have been aware that putting forward numerous significant design changes over a decade would not be enough and that they should have instead focused that money into a smaller scale redevelopment of the buildings. I truly hope that is not the type of message we are trying to put out to companies trying to invest their time and money into reinvigorating heritage buildings in Victoria. One needs only look across to the success of the Janion building (which received an award from the Hallmark Society) that was redeveloped by the same company, the animation of the plaza along Pandora gets better every time I go by there and they saved a building that seemed to be certain to collapse.

The proposal before you now is likely the last chance before we will simply be putting up a plaque over some jumbled pile of stone, to both save the buildings and have a place that contributes positively to the urban fabric of Victoria. I truly look forward to seeing your support in moving this project to public hearing and allowing the city at large to provide you comment on the current proposal.

Sincerely,

Thomas Guerrero

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Food Kiosks - Why we Need Them in our Cities and Parks

There are few things that say big city more to me than lots of street-side food options. And I mean big city in the best sense of the words. Street-side food options are meant for the pedestrian first and foremost and sometimes they can only be accessed by those on foot. The most common street-side food options you see are food carts, small sidewalk oriented cafes, food trucks and food kiosks. I could easily write an article on each of these types of establishments and maybe will in the future, but in this one I want to just focus on the last one, food kiosks.

I am not sure what you think of when you picture a food kiosk, but my mind instantly goes to New York. I see Bryant Park and its amazing sandwich and coffee kiosks surrounded by dozens of little tables all filled with with people on their breaks having a snack or playing with their phones. Or I might also see one of the many kebab mobile kiosks that sit on the sidewalks all over the city, their windows fogged up with the warmth of the food cooking inside. The thing that both of these things bring to New York beyond a food option is a sense of a dynamic place. I have those memories not just because I ate at them but because they added a new dimension to the pedestrian space. They made the place they were interesting and exciting.

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Taco Justice in North Park Village

Taco Justice in North Park Village

When it comes to street-side food options in Victoria, our choices are limited. We have a couple of hot dog stands, a single food kiosk downtown, a couple more if you include Uptown Mall and Fisherman’s Wharf and a few destination food truck places like behind the Royal BC Museum and Franklin Green in North Park Villages. We don’t have a single food kiosk downtown or in our parks. But the ones we do have show the demand is there for this type of establishment and again it is not just because it is a place to eat. Think about Fisherman’s Wharf, how many times have you gone down just to be a part of the crowd, walk along the docks and not eat anything? We want to do these things because that space is dynamic (Note to self, Fisherman’s Wharf would make a great post…) Seeing all of the things going on is what attracts us, now when we think back to where that space was before the expansion of the food kiosks we can see that it was not as popular as it is today. Another great example is the Red Fish Blue Fish Food Kiosk along the docks at the bottom of Fort Street. If you are doing the harbour walk seeing the massive line-up and people eating along the bar seating installed there, it really cements that sense of place. It is interesting that it is also located at the one spot that is not a parking lot in this stretch but that may be a coincidence. Of course the fact that the food is good here helps, but again it is the place created around the kiosk that really cements the image of it in our heads.

Looking at a couple more local focused options, the now two food trucks located in Franklin Green in North Park Village have truly created an amazing and unique space. Again the food is amazing, but with the large volume of customers and the very simple installation of tables and chairs has truly activated what was essentially a barren piece of parking lot. The bonus is that because it is so popular there is spillover of customers into the park space creating more use in what is a very underused green space. Walking through North Park Village has become much more vibrant with the addition of these two trucks. A likely more controversial example, but in my mind an excellent one are the two food kiosks located in Uptown Square at Uptown Mall. While this space would likely be busy with people walking through if they were not there, their addition along with the amazing water feature stops shoppers, gives them a place to sit even if they are not eating and creating a great opportunity to people watch. I do understand the cleansed aspect of the space as it is a private area dedicated to shopping but it has done an excellent job of creating a place that people want to be nonetheless.

We have some good examples around town, so why don’t we have more of them. One of the reasons is that over the years there has been an active move to prevent the addition of street-side food vendors in the downtown core because there is a perception that they will take away business from the other restaurants located there. I don’t think that this is likely, if they were going to impact a food retailer they are more likely to impact a fast food place or a convenience store. If you are wanting to eat at a restaurant, you are wanting a very different experience than sitting on a sidewalk having a taco or hot dog. I would bet that most are either bringing their own lunch or going without and the addition of the kiosk would only add money to the downtown economy rather than take it from somewhere else. We also don’t need a hundred of them right away. I would argue that the city could put in four right now and have them in some key locations to make them successful.

  1. Centennial Square - This is the most obvious one to me. And the good news is that there is some current consideration at City Hall to putting one in. A small coffee kiosk here could do some amazing things in activating this space through a larger part of the year beyond the summer.

  2. Johnson Street Bridge - The City created a complete waste of space at the western end of the bridge. One thing the city could do with this space is add a food kiosk here. If it was strategically located it could easily act as a partial wind break for those wintry winds blowing along the harbour. This would have a dedicated customer base for those walking downtown from Vic West throughout the day.

  3. Library Square - This space can already be fairly dynamic when the library is open and you have someone busking in the centre. If there was also a coffee kiosk and some cafe seating, this would be one of the premiere destinations downtown, especially because it is one of the only all weather public spaces in the city.

  4. Beacon Hill Park - I do realise that this is completely impossible under the current commercial restrictions for the park, but those restrictions that date back well over one hundred years are out of date and it is time we turned Beacon Hill Park into the big city park that it is. If there was a coffee kiosk near the centre playground parents could have a coffee while they watch their kids and tourists could sit at some cafe style seating while enjoying the majestic scenery.

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If we could get some of these initial ones built and look at the positive benefit that they would provide to the city, I think that we would quickly want to add more in a variety of different places. We need only look at how much North Park Village or Fisherman’s Wharf has been changed into the dynamic people places that they are now by the additions of some dedicated food kiosks to see the potential there is for other barren spaces. Where would you like to add a food kiosk downtown or in a nearby park?

Red Fish Blue Fish on the Victoria Harbour

Red Fish Blue Fish on the Victoria Harbour

Downtown Density - Why we Need More People in our Cities

I have a pretty long list of things that I think are important to our cities: good sidewalks and parks, strong retail and office demand, great restaurants and well thought out urban design, and likely one hundred other things. But there is something that is both key to a lot of those items and is also more important than all of them in certain ways, especially now, and that is density.

How to Measure Density

When I speak about density, what I am talking about is the density of land use per parcel of land. This does not mean I think we need to squeeze hundreds of thirty storey buildings into any city and certainly not Victoria, but we might want a couple of them here. When density is being discussed in the urban context you will most often hear Floor Area Ratio (FAR) or Floor Space Ratio (FSR). I most often will be using FSR though the two terms are used interchangeably. For a visual view of FSR I highly recommend looking at Page 2 of this City of Vancouver document as it presents it very clearly. FSR is always shown as a ratio, 1:1, 3:1, 5:1 and so on. Essentially if you have a 10’ by 10’ parcel a 1:1 FSR would mean that the building would have the floor space of 100 square feet. As you see in the linked document though you can build a higher building and it may not cover the whole lot but still maintain a 1:1 FSR. When you see a 10 storey building downtown, it would almost never have a 10:1 FSR. Usually taller buildings have setbacks from the lot lines to varying degrees at different levels, so more than likely that 10 storey building will be closer to a 3:1 FSR which might be surprising. Okay so that is how FSR works. I should add that your average family home is likely 0.5:1 FSR or even less.

So why does density matter for the downtown areas of our cities? As you may have noticed in the news or at a City Council meeting, there is almost a knee-jerk reaction to most new developments, especially larger apartment buildings. They are too big, block out the sun, create wind tunnels, cause traffic jams and of course are just a way for greedy developers to make money. There may be some hint of truth to some of these things (though mostly there isn’t), instead building large apartment buildings in a downtown area is actually one of the best ways we can mitigate climate change and that trumps all of those other concerns for me. I know some of you are already saying that building new concrete buildings for people creates a net increase of carbon emissions and that is true, but people are moving into homes no matter what and we can either create new centrally located dense places to live or we can continue to clear cut forests and build highways for new suburban developments. If you picture a new 18 storey apartment building with about 100 homes in it on that single parcel of land, while it may be tall, the piece of land it takes up is quite small. Now try to imagine 100 single family homes and the amount of space they take up. Now picture the roads that have to link those 100 houses, and the wires, and the pipes, and if you are lucky sidewalks. That is a lot of stuff to build, but it gets even worse.

The link between increased urban density and lower carbon emissions is well established, thanks in part to the substantial reduction in the number of car trips that urban living allows.
— https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/yes-to-upzoning-density-can-make-an-impact-on-climate-change/

When you build 100 houses, the sheer size of the parcel of land means that you are going to need to travel a fair distance (because in a city there isn’t just one set of 100 homes) to get to your work or to the grocery store. While I know that in Victoria there is an increasing amount of people that live in houses using bikes, this is not the norm, for most people they are going to drive to one or all of these destinations. With the 100 homes in the apartment building on the other hand, it will make sense, especially if there is more than one building, to have lots of commercial space near by or offices to work and those residents are definitely more apt to walk or bike and if the option exists, take transit.

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So what does all this have to do with ratios and density? Well, when it comes to growing downtown areas we have a couple of problems. First, like I said, people have a knee-jerk reaction to new big buildings downtown, especially if they are replacing a smaller building or even a vacant lot. Some of this reaction to change I can understand, though there are a couple reactions that I find more challenging. First, those that think that downtown apartment buildings somehow are not better a better way to live than a single family house. This is a large group at least in Victoria. Greer Rasmussen, a great blogger in New Zealand wrote:

“Manhattan is one of the most carbon friendly cities per capita in the developed world. This seems counterintuitive because all the concrete, glass, large buildings and heavy traffic look like an environmental disaster - but this is far from the case. The small average area of its housing, a transport system that favours walking, cycling and public modes of transport, and its highly concentrated land use mean residents generate significantly less carbon than those living in smaller suburban cities and towns.”

The case for housing density in the face of climate change 2017

Yes, definitely counter-intuitive I know, but learning to live in a small urban space isn’t just about the size of your home, it means having to make choices about how you move about the city and what you can actually consume because you don’t have a giant basement to hide things away. This means that your carbon footprint is going to likely be much smaller than your average suburban dweller.

A second group I see that can often put up road blocks to the densification of downtown and nearby regions are those that decry the “gentrification” of neighbourhoods that new construction apparently represents. To be fair, there is a real challenge that can be experienced by those living in a neighbourhood if a large amount of market housing comes in and at he same time there is a loss of older market rentals, but in our Victoria context at least, we have put in some mitigation strategies. We also have provincially mandated rent control and as has been seen so far locally we have not had a huge loss of residential stock to build new buildings. For the most part, the projects that have been added are going up on top of older commercial spaces or on vacant lots. In any event, there are tools for cities to prevent “gentrification” through bylaws, development cost charges and high quality urban planning. The City of Seattle also has a good strategy which is detailed in this Seattle Times article. Plus, not building new residences when you have an influx of new people will lead to gentrification a lot faster as we have actually seen in Victoria. One of the key reasons we have such tiny vacancy rate for both rentals and condominiums is precisely because we have not built enough new buildings to keep up with our growing population and that has directly resulted in higher prices for everyone.

I think that the Seattle model actually has some great benefits over what we are doing here in Victoria. While there are positive points to the new policy we have enacted, I think it is overly political and goes in with that previously mentioned mentality of developers just being greedy. They are in a business though and it should generate a profit, but there are ways to do it so that it is mutually beneficial for the city as well.

The top things I think we need to be doing are:

  1. Lift downtown and nearby FSRs to a reasonable level and in addition to having maximum FSRs, actually zone in minimum FSRs because those prime downtown lots don’t get turned over too often. Build too small and we pay a price for generations.

  2. Start looking for new areas to add density well in advance so that people can be prepared for the eventual start of the buildings coming in. In the Victoria context, I am looking at the NotCh!

  3. Have more nimble policies than blanket affordable housing quotas, we need high quality projects downtown too and quality materials cost money. Keep in mind that it is the City’s fault through years of forcing developers to chop floors off buildings and lower their FSRs that we ended up with an under-built downtown.

  4. Start coming up with benefits for large home sizes in downtown buildings rather than just for affordable housing. The current average unit size is still way to small for families and it is families that are moving to Langford. The Capital had a recent story on the demographics of Langford and can be read here.

That list is just a start, there are a lot of things that need to be done to make the downtown areas of our cities into the large urban communities that they are supposed to be, but having people live in them is the first step. No matter what, it is clear that densification is perhaps the easiest way for us to mitigate our impact on the planet. There are added bonuses though. Adding a large amount of housing in excess of population growth will also increase housing affordability. And having all those people downtown means that businesses will have ready customers. Another thing, those downtown residents might have a little more money because they are unlikely to be paying for multiple cars or a snow blower, that is a boon for a downtown restaurant!

What are some ideas that you have for increasing density downtown? How can we show people the benefit?

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PS And totally off-topic, there has been a little addition to the Sidewalking household which means that you might not see quite as many posts going up as I have been doing recently, but don’t worry they will keep coming :)

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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.

How to Make a Bad Sidewalk

If you have been reading the blog for awhile you will know that I like a messy sidewalk and that I know to look out for some of those sidewalk traps, but one thing I truly can’t stand is when we purposely put in bad sidewalks and yet it seems like we are continually doing it.

I was surprised to read about a freshly laid sidewalk on Vibrant Victoria. A brand new development in one of the highest density parts of the city and for some reason the sidewalk is barely over a metre wide and the city saw fit to have the developer put in a massive grass boulevard. The development is the 989 on Johnson and Vancouver Street that is getting pretty close to being done. I highly encourage reading through some of the comments on VV and looking at some of the pictures on there. I have said before that I have concerns about the amount green space we put into areas that are meant for pedestrians. It is nice to look at and sure having boulevards with a little bit of grass can be fine. But if you use grass in a hostile way to cramp the pedestrian it is likely to result in two things: the destruction of the boulevard with desire paths; and in winter a lot of grumpy people with muddy shoes and really there is just no reason for it.

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In this specific example, it also just doesn’t make any sense. Looking south along Vancouver Street you see a broad spacious, and in my opinion, perfect sidewalk next to Atlas which then for some reason as you go north is taken away and the pedestrian is funnelled into this tiny little path and there is no reason for it. Why?

Well one reason why you see this sort of thing done is that the city plans its space out through the Official Community Planning process joined with the local or neighbourhood plans. Sidewalks are laid out in the plans based on the best case scenario for the entire neighbourhood and then the plan is implemented by the city as a sidewalk requires replacement or a development occurs. Problem with this is that it is rare for an entire block, let alone a whole neighbourhood to get redeveloped at the same time so that means that only pieces of the plan are implemented.

There are of course exceptions, with large projects like the Douglas Street and Yates Street boulevard and sidewalk projects of early in the century, but as the folly of the Yates Street implementation shows, even when a whole street is put into place at once there are issues if you think about form over function.

Getting back to this specific instance, it is funny that the city planners never looked across the street as to what happens when you do a bad job of putting in a new sidewalk. The eastern side of the 1300 block of Vancouver Street has been problematic for years and even with a recent new sidewalk pour, because it doesn’t line up with the sidewalk there is a very defined desire path that allows you to continue to walk in a straight line (this is what pedestrians want to do).

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The city really needs to sometimes get outside of its long term planning box and instead focus on the individual stretch of sidewalk. One more example that is truly atrocious is in the 900 block of Caledonia Street. Again the city has some notion that eventually there will be boulevards up and down the northern side of this street. Here the city actually has the ability to implement this boulevard all the way to Vancouver Street as they own the lot east of the one that they forced a developer to put in but even when they have the full control to implement it they haven’t and instead thought it would be fun to inconvenience pedestrians.

I truly hope that the city looks at the new space outside of the 989 on Johnson as it is brand new and the work on the building is ongoing so the walking traffic is still somewhat light.

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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?

The Adelphi Conundrum - Two Buildings, One Name

With the closing of the long lived Field’s Shoe store at the corner of Government and Yates there has been a lot of talk about what will come of the the building around town. The Times Colonist had a recent story about the family that owned the store and the developer that has bought up a number of the buildings including 1300 Government Street. In referencing the building you continue to hear its name, the Adelphi Building. I have heard it maybe three times now and just kept thinking that people were just confused, but now I am thinking that I am confused. Because there was another Adelphi building in Victoria…

I know what you are thinking, that it isn’t weird for there to be more than one building with the same name. I mean there are two buildings named “The Chelsea”, just a few blocks from each other. But the two Adelphis are different because they would have been across the street from each other. Then Aastra on Vibrant Victoria brought up this duopoly again and now I have not been able to get it out of my head.

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The “other” Adelphi building sat at the south west corner of Yates and Government, where the P. Leonard James Post Office building is today. I am certain that the building that was torn down was called the Adelphi building because they were clever enough to put the name on it and there are still photos of it at the BC Archives. Zoom in on the photo below and you will see its name at the top left.

So then I read this article, which said that the Adelphi name on the Field’s Store building came from a nearby pub. The City of Victoria archives has this picture of the Adelphi Saloon. This building was replaced by the Adelphi building shown above.

Put “Adelphi Building Victoria” in Google and you will see that HistoricPlaces.ca website, The City of Victoria Heritage Inventory (page 13) and even Wikipedia all call the building that has Field’s Shoes in it the Adelphi Building and apart from Wikipedia, you would think that they would know. So maybe they both had that name… I mean the other Adelphi building (with its name on it) has been gone a really long time, right?! This is true, but from what I can tell, when the building with Field’s in it was built the Adelphi Saloon was across the street still. The other Adelphi building was built in 1907 and so that would mean for forty years, until the more southern Adelphi building was torn down in the 1940’s to build the post office, there would have been two buildings across the street from each other with the same name. One building with its name actually written on it and the other without that, but apparently called Adelphi. This, of course, seems like it would have been truly confusing if you had wanted to meet a friend at the Adelphi building, I mean which one? Even Aquae Vitae, the wonderful book by Glen Mofford has a chapter on the Adelphi Saloon and mentions the Adelphi block being torn down in 1941. I can find no other reason for the northern Adelphi building to be called this except to the proximity to the two previous buildings that were across the street.

Anyways I don’t actually have answer to this conundrum. It has just been bothering me and so I thought that if I did up a post, I could get someone that actually knows the answer to this one name, two building conundrum to let me know. If you can provide it to me I will definitely update this post with the information and a proper congratulatory credit! Hopefully then this post can live on with the information so that others will not get as confused as me about two buildings with the same name. So please leave a comment, tweet at me, send me an FB message or an email and let me know the truth!

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Rooftop City - Could Victoria be Making Better Use of Our Building Tops?

Open up the satellite view of Victoria on Google Maps and the rooftops all look pretty black. Sure there is the odd green roof here and there but the vast majority of the city looks to be covered with tar paper or gravel. Across just the downtown area there must be acres of roofs and in my opinion they are being significantly underused, especially when you consider some of the things that these wide open spaces can be used for.

So what are we doing now? In Victoria we do have a few places where the roof of a building may be one of its most interesting parts. Most of us are aware of the Sticky Wicket Rooftop. This has been a magnet for summer fun downtown for decades. Despite the popularity, apart from the relatively new arrival of Splash Bar & Grill, there are no other roofs being used for public entertainment. Further on the fun side, a number of newer condo buildings in the city have recreation areas for residents on the roof. Almost every building built by Chard Development in the city, as well as the first of the Hudson District buildings have roof top gardens, BBQ areas or some even a rooftop movie area. These areas are usually small and have limited use from what I have heard, but it is still better than nothing.

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Some building tops are being made to work for the building or the people living there. The Wade building being built on Cook Street between Johnson and Pandora will actually have roof top garden boxes for residents and growing food on the roof is not a new thing to Victoria. Topsoil, an urban farming company, used to have a roof top farm above Fort Street Common before moving to their larger space across the Point Ellice Bridge. Other buildings are also having their roofs work for them in different ways. There are at least two downtown daycare centres that feature rooftop play areas for the kids. Another building near Crystal Pool has covered their roof in solar panels in the hopes of defraying the heating costs of the building over the longer term. These are all exceptions though.

What more could we be doing? The city could be providing tax holidays like they do with heritage buildings that are refurbished to anyone that adds a rooftop amenity. Of course there would have to be criteria for what sort of amenity could be added. A roof top movie theatre for residents would not be okay. They would have to be confined to specific uses such as public access, farming or solar, but still may start having people think outside the confines of what a roof is and look and see what other cities are doing.

There are some pretty great thoughts of what we could be doing. Even KOA is envisaging the possibility of using urban rooftops as a campground. While a campground may be far fetched in Victoria there are some cutting edge ideas that could be considered for new buildings as they are built. In Japan, there is a roof top soccer field, while in China a suburban street sits atop a mall. And many many other things are happening around the world!

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I know that I often hear that Victoria is either too windy or too rainy (Victoria is not a rainy city BTW) for this, but what are your thoughts? What else could we be putting on the rooftops of Victoria?

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Circulator Buses - The Best Transit for Downtown Victoria (right now…)

I would truly love to see proper rapid transit in Victoria, but I have also come to accept that it is not going to happen any time soon. It is too expensive and our population remains too small to really support it adequately. We could have had something close and I am still sad about not having proper Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) down Douglas Street. Somehow that plan was killed off by a few car focused businesses near Mayfair Mall with the Pantry leading the charge (If you are wondering where the Pantry is, they went out of business shortly after stopping the BRT from being put in). What I loved about that plan is that it truly put buses in their own lane for almost the entire length of the trip from Belleville Street to Langford. This separation would have allowed for easy upgrading to rail if the numbers had been warranted. If you want to read more about what we missed out on, here is a contemporaneous article from the Times Colonist.

There is a lot of focus on the benefits that rapid transit provides to the larger region, with a particular focus on the commuting population from the West Shore. One area that gets less focus or sometimes none at all, are the benefits that a rapid transit service provides in a much smaller area. If you have ever visited New York and used its amazing subway system, you may know that you can often save time and your feet by hopping on the subway even if you are just moving between two relatively close places. This creates a huge amount of benefit both the the transit user and the city.

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For the user, you can accomplish a larger amount of sightseeing as a tourist or errands as a local in a shorter amount of time. I would bet that it would be faster than using a car in most instances as well, especially if you include the time to find a parking spot. It is also much more relaxing than trying to drive around a city going from store and parking spot to store and parking spot. As you might have guessed from this blog, I like to walk places and usually, even in places like New York, choose walking over the Subway, but I am not most people and really even I might choose the subway at the end of a long day when my feet are giving out so I can get to that one last place I want to see.

It is that last point that really creates the benefit for the city. If you can maximise the ability of people to move around downtown in a variety of ways, you are going to increase the amount of opportunities they will have to spend their money, while also increasing their experiences and connection with places in a smaller area.

Thinking of a specific scenario, imagine a person that lives in Quadra-Hillside or Jubilee and they are planning on a haircut downtown so they take the bus down to as close to their hair stylist as possible on Johnson. They have some other things that they could do, like go to a deli, pharmacy, grocery store and maybe even visit a book store, but they don’t want to walk too far and there is no easy way to get to all those places on transit. So instead after their haircut they head home and take their car to the mall later on or spread their spending over the next few days. There is an easy solution that is not rapid transit and I think could have a significant positive impact on downtown - Circulator buses!

I have envisioned this type of bus service for years and it could be one of the few times where Victoria’s weird road network could actually be used to a benefit to others besides those driving cars by themselves. The idea would be to start small on two short routes. The buses would be brightly painted to indicate that they were part of the circulator network and could denote which route they worked on. They would be high frequency so five minute or less intervals between them and they would simply go back and fourth along a relatively short straight route. This would allow people to hop on and off them easily. It would be important that riders not have a need to think about a schedule and could have the route easily mapped in their mind.

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The first of the two routes that I think would work perfectly, would be west along Yates Street and east along Johnson Street. The buses would go as far west as Wharf Street and east to the Oak Bay Junction. This routing would connect Jubilee, Rockland, Fernwood and Harris Green with downtown and specifically the shopping areas of Lower Yates and Johnson.

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The second route would run south along Douglas Street and north along Government Street and travel between Superior Street in the South and Hillside Avenue in the north. In a perfect world I would actually prefer this route to run north and south on Government. Perhaps if there is a plan to move private vehicles off of Government, the road could be turned back into a two-way street for transit only. This was actually part of the plan for rapid transit in the city when it was being looked at in the 1990’s which often envisioned a first leg between Ogden Point and Chinatown to service the tourist trade and those moving between downtown and James Bay. Anyways, back to this plan, having the routes suggested aligned like this would ensure that both routes crossed each other and would allow easy transferring between them. For those spending time downtown ,these two routes would offer considerable benefit in moving around and provide a strong motivator to keep their car out of the downtown core.

I know that some will remember that a sad attempt at this sort of transit was made during the early part of this decade, but it really was focused on moving around the western part of downtown in one of those Langford rubber wheel trolleys. The biggest problem with it apart from how hokey those look, was that the frequency was not significant enough and the advertising around it was atrocious. For this idea to work you need proper low floor buses at a very high frequency. I really think something like the service I am proposing would have a larger impact on transit ridership then handing out free passes to kids (or anyone really). What gets people to use transit is service level and quality, not cost.

So let me know what you think? Would you use something like this in downtown Victoria? Is there a better routing that would be more useful? Tell me in the comments below.

Royal Athletic Park - The Often Overlooked City Jewel

When you visit cities around North America, you may see some massive sports complexes in a downtown like those in Vancouver. For the most part though, large sports fields sit outside of downtown cores with people driving to them. Even more rare than the downtown stadium is one that has been well woven into the urban fabric of the city. In Victoria, I think that we are halfway there, we have a sports field in the right location, but it needs some love to make it shine as the amazing city asset it is, and it needs some changes to make it more cohesive with the surrounding neighbourhood.

The perfect setting!

The perfect setting!

Royal Athletic Park has been in its current location since at least 1908, though its current set-up was completed in 1967 following a 1964 fire that destroyed the previous grandstands. For a time it was the home of the Victoria Athletics which for at least a couple of years after World War Two were an official affiliate team for the New York Yankees. Now most people think of Royal Athletic Park (RAP) as the home to our West Coast League Victoria HarbourCats. If you want to go to an intimate stadium to watch great baseball you really can’t do better than a visit to a HarbourCats game at RAP. There are two huge problems with the park and they are intimately related to each other. First, the stadium is only in use for a limited amount of the year and the whole place needs a massive redevelopment to make it an attractive place for people to go to watch a game and feel like it is more a part of the community.

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As it is right now there are only two real things that I can think of that happen at RAP, the HarbourCats and the Great Canadian Beer Festival. Last year there was also the Rifflandia concert but that has been cancelled going forward. In previous years the stadium was home to the Victoria United Soccer team and the Victoria Rebels Football team. Both of those teams have been gone from the stadium for many years at this point.

To be clear, I think that the HarbourCats are a great tenant. They have done more to turn RAP around and improve upon it than any other team has in at least the last 25 years, but when it comes down to it they have about 30 home games a year from June to August. For the other nine months of the year the park sits empty. One of the best things about having a team like the HarbourCats is that they add colour to the community and strengthen social ties. Compared to a lot of things, the cost of going to a baseball game like this is cheap and it is great entertainment. So how do we make more of that happen throughout the year?

Compared to a lot of stadiums RAP has the benefit of being able to hold more then one kind of team. The place can be set-up to accommodate baseball, soccer, football, field hockey and pretty much any other field sport. But still, the stadium is now only home to one team that plays for just a few weeks in the summer. I think that a major reason for this is the state that the city has let the stadium get to. While the design may have been iconic at the time, the concrete is cracked, the seating is terrible, though some of the improvements that the HarbourCats have made have made it better for baseball. Despite its modernist look, I actually think that we should be planning a complete redo of the entire place. Any change this big should hopefully be done in conjunction with a new team making the stadium home. I also think that there is a unique opportunity to create some stunning urban spaces and make RAP actually a cohesive part of the North Park Village. So how would we do that?

As you know, I was recently down in San Diego which is home to the Petco Field, home of the Padres. Now just before everyone loses it, I am not suggesting anything at that scale, but one of the most amazing things about this park, especially as you approach it from the north through the Gaslamp Quarter is that the built form is cohesive pretty much right up to the field. One evening we went into a brewpub that felt like it was still part of the city, but at the same time you could clearly see the field. Imagine replacing the current large grandstand with a building that had grandstand seating on the side facing the field while incorporating ground floor commercial and potentially some community space along Caledonia or Cook. The great thing is that you could do this and not lose out on much seating for a baseball season. If you staged each part as a separate building, once the first one was done you could start on the second building and replace the baseball grandstand. As required you could add more buildings as the demand increased and of course for the games you would have seats actually pleasant to sit in.

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I think that what we want to avoid is having any more sports teams setting down roots in the Westshore. I may be in the minority but while I would love to see the very new Pacific FC play, I will never drive out to Langford to do so. We need to ensure that teams like this choose to be where the largest population can easily access the game and not necessarily rely on driving to the game.

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I think that there is an opportunity to have a fall football team or a spring soccer team play at RAP and this could really make this space work for everyone in the city. I also would really like to see some more community sports using the space on days that it would otherwise be vacant. What do you think? Would you like a new and improved RAP or would you rather see it moved elsewhere?

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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.

Northern Junk Redux Redux Redux

It was just on March 30th that I published my previous post on the Northern Junk Buildings. In six short weeks a lot has happened with this project. If you want to get caught up on the history of this project, go back and have a quick read of the last post. The key piece of information is that we have been here before… So many times… A new proposal to save these heritage buildings. We get see the hopeful future, with translucent people sitting on a patio enjoying the completed buildings and cyclists riding by waving to their friends. So will it be any different this time? I really hope so.

Maybe it is the recent loss of the Westholme Hotel that has me feeling a little bit more nervous than I was before about the Northern Junk Buildings. If you have walked by them recently you will know that between the extensive graffiti and the ferns growing out of the cracks in the masonry, that they are in an ever increasingly fragile state. It will only take a small earthquake or a badly driven truck and we will lose another treasure. But desperation is not a reason by itself to jump on a development proposal, it has to still be solid vision for the buildings.

So What Is New?

I was able to pop by the open house they had in the Fairfield Building (another treasure) on May 22nd. It is almost easier to say what is not new and that is that the Northern Junk Buildings remain at the centre of the project, but beyond that everything else has changed.

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Likely pushed by some of the more radical thinking that has enveloped our city council, Reliance Properties has removed the city owned property from the project. I could go into why I think this a terrible idea, but it really has nothing to do with the project or the developer anymore. So the project is now just the two buildings and the property to the west along the water behind them.

In the past projects, there was a plan to retain the buildings as stand alone entities, but without the rest of the property to use as a source of financing this proposal adds the density above the two buildings.

Finally, the plan has moved from a condo project with underground parking to a rental project with a significant amount of bike parking but no car parking at all. It will be up to the public and the city to decide whether the trade offs are worth it, but I have my opinions about it.

I have included some of the picture-boards from the presentation here for you to make your own decisions about this but if you are okay with the compromises here, I think that this project has a lot of potential.

Like I said there is a compromise here and that is that this project is going to fundamentally change the Northern Junk buildings, but there are only three other options: sell the city land so that there is enough money to fix them up; have someone come along and rehab the buildings at a significant financial loss; or let them fall down. I personally think that this compromise is worth it and even more than that, this project saves the Northern Junk buildings and gives them another 150 years of life and that will be a life where they will be admired both for their heritage, but also their beauty.

So What is Great?

Despite being disappointed that we won’t see the neighbouring city land developed at the same time, I do really like this proposal. You just have to un-see the last ten years of proposals for the site. Taken as a small redevelopment of two waterfront heritage buildings, I think that this project is very elegant.

My favourite parts are how, despite being a single building above the street level, the modern part is differentiated and looks like two buildings. Further on the new portion, I think that the decision to not try to replicate the heritage buildings and instead take a modern look at heritage elements, while also having them stand back to let the original portion shine through is right on.

The south face of the building with the glass lobby facing on to a new edge of Reeson Park is exactly what needs to be done to activate the park and deter negative uses. The new residents may even see this park as their back yard! Further on the public space, the extension to the harbour walkway (Remember not to call it the other name!) is vibrant and really lets you get up close to the original facades in a way that shows them off.

What is Going to be Tricky?

Overall, I don’t have any substantial issues with the proposal for the buildings, but I do know two places where we will hear concerns and the developer will need to be ready to discuss them.

First is the dreaded term “Facadism”. Now I am not certain it completely applies in this case, but we are certain to hear it. If you were to walk into the Northern Junk buildings now, they really are just those outside walls that you see. So yes the new portions of the buildings will be built on an internal skeleton rather than on the walls, but there really is not an interior to preserve. Furthermore, from what I understand, wherever possible the masonry will be visible on the interior as well and this will be for all four walls. For me, facadism is demonstrated more in something like the Era building on Yates Street where it is really just the exterior facade that has been preserved and in some ways looks tacked on the new building.

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The second area where I think the there could be some concern is with the decision to glass in the southern building’s facade on its southern and western faces. This was done to increase the foot print of the building so it would align with the floors above. I am sure that some people will be unhappy with this. In my opinion though it actually gives the building a sense of importance to have it behind glass walls and I think that the image at the beginning of the article demonstrates that well.

I am interested to see what the Downtown Residents Association thinks of this project as there main objection to the previous version was about the sale of public land and that is now off the table. I am also really interested to hear what your thoughts are on this proposal. Please let me know in the comments!

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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Urban Oases of Victoria - Franklin Green

One of the least known parks in the city is only a couple of blocks from the its very centre. When I hear people complaining about how there is a lack of green space in Victoria, one of the best examples to raise is Franklin Green. Here within view of many of the city’s new high-rises is a magical little park that sits empty most of the time but this is likely to be about to change.

I have a soft spot for Franklin Green. When I was a member of the North Park Neighbourhood Association (NPNA), I got to participate in the redesign of the park. Back then, in the middle of the first decade of the century, the park was even more neglected then it is today, with old playground equipment and some poorly planted bushes that made a perfect hiding spot for drug use. It was a scary place to be during the day and even more alarming at night.

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The park is named (I assume…) for the second mayor of Victoria, Lumley Franklin. This assumption comes from the fact that the strip of park a block away called Harris Green is named for the first mayor of Victoria, Thomas Harris. Franklin Green is a bit of an odd shape and I am not aware of how it came to be a park space at all. Looking at the one photo that captures the area on Vintage Air Photos, it appears to be still a vacant piece of land in 1947. If anyone knows more of the history to how it came into the City’s possession, I would love to know.

When the NPNA did the redesign of the park, we were adamant that there needed to be a replacement of the playground equipment. At the time the City was wanting to remove it. The City was also considering removing what I think is one of the most important pieces in the park and that is the bench swing. It may be the only one of its kind in a park in Greater Victoria. In my opinion it adds a whimsical aspect to the park that would not be easy to replace with it gone.

The redesign added some key pieces too. One of the most prominent pieces that was added was the pickle ball court. Pickle ball, for those that don’t know, is sort of like ping-pong if you were standing on a rather large table. If you want to play you can rent rackets and balls at the squash club, at least you used to be able to. A second addition that was my suggestion, was the winding path that makes its may around the entire park. I thought this would encourage people to walk around the park more even if it was during the winter months and the grass was soggy. Taking a short slow walk around Franklin Green can be quite the mini-meditation if you need one. The final addition that we asked for, you can’t even see, on the light standards that were added to the park near the top are power plugs. At the time the NPNA was using Franklin Green for the annual neighbourhood festival and these plugs allowed us to have electricity for the music and other things. There were plans to do a music series in the park, but unfortunately in the last ten years Franklin Green had slipped out of the spotlight again.

Despite its rejuvenation in 2008/09, the park’s proximity to one of the largest street shelters has meant that the park can be a quiet hideaway for those homeless that want to camp outside yet remain close to Our Place. It has also been a daytime hangout for the street population due to again its quieter location. There have been some challenges with the sometimes conflicting user groups. Still for the most part it actually is usually not being used by anyone at all, but this has begun to change and will likely soon never be the quiet little park again.

The first recent positive change that occurred was the addition of the Taco Justice food truck at the corner of Mason and Cook. While Taco Justice does have seating right outside, it really is best to get your Belly-to-Belly Taco and sit down at the picnic table in Franklin Green. Just in the last couple of weeks a second food truck has come along to join Taco Justice, which will definitely bring even more diners to the park. The biggest change coming to the park is the development of the rental apartment building that has replaced the old St. Andrew’s School on the property to the west. While having a school next door was a positive neighbour, the school field next to the park was only occupied part of the day. The new building has put townhouses with stairs that come right down to the edge of the park. These new North Parkers are going to have Franklin Green as their front yard and that means that is will be a place that they want to feel safe. Another new addition coming to Franklin Green is a new mid-block walkway that will work its way from the southwest corner to just outside the new Save On Foods store along Pandora Avenue.

Just to the east of Franklin Green is the parking lot for Wellburn’s Grocery Store. In the last couple of months a new building has been proposed to replace it. While it is far too early to guess if that building comes to fruition, it can be assumed that at some point over the next decade or so, another set of residents will have Franklin Green as a yard.

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When I went for my walk on Sunday, it was nice to see the new native plant garden that has been added by the NPNA to the eastern edge of the park. For such a small park, there are a lot of layers to it. Next time you are nearby make sure you stop in and have a walk around Franklin Green.

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Gating up the Walkways!

Longtime readers will know that some of my favourite things downtown are the numerous mid-block shortcuts that you can take across the city. You can read about some of those here, here, here, and here.

Mid-block walkways give you the ability to avoid walking all the way around a block and also can be a great way to access stores that are just halfway along a street. I enjoy them because they are primarily for pedestrians and there are not too many transportation routes through the city that are. There is also a sense of being in on a secret when you can make your way across the city in ways that others aren’t necessarily aware of.

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In the last few years we have seen many mid-block ways enhanced and made truly part of the public realm. When you walk between Pandora Avenue and Cormorant Street next to 750 Pandora, you don’t have a sense that you are on private property. It is open, well designed and interwoven with the public aspects at either end. The Hudson projects north of Fisgard have also made the walkways an integral part of their project. Giving priority to the pedestrian encourages walking and actually makes the city safer as more people use some of these less trodden parts of the city. Unfortunately there is another trend that will have the exact opposite trend.

In just a short few months pedestrian walkways between Johnson and View off of Yates Street have been gated. The first one was to be expected. When the parking lot behind the Capitol 6 theatre was developed into the Yello project, it was known that there would be a mid-block walkway and that it would be gated. It just wasn’t clear how unfriendly it would look. Just across the street from the Yello project is what is now called Yates Centre, an office building. The front facade of this building is actually the former Coronet Movie Theatre. It is a pretty cool looking facade if you can look past the po-mo-ization. Just to the east of the Yates Centre is a mid-block walkway. Some people may not have noticed it before as it was just next to a big parking lot for many years. Like many of the parking lots in the city this is being turned into new homes, with two twenty storey towers rising here. The irony is that with the loss of the parking lot there is more need than ever for the mid-block walkway, but the owners of the Yates Centre have now built what has to be the ugliest fence in the city to stop anyone except those working in the building from going through.

The former Famous Players Coronet Theatre - Home to the newly gated mid-block walkway.

The former Famous Players Coronet Theatre - Home to the newly gated mid-block walkway.

I do understand the closing from a safety and risk mitigation perspective ,especially with the very challenging housing project just across from the walkway entrance on Johnson Street, but I think from a good urbanism perspective it is the wrong direction to take. We are all well aware that creating tight quiet and invisible spaces will lead to negative uses by people, whether that is open drug use or a college student creating a new urinal, but the answer should not be just to fence off those spots.

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Part of the problem comes from the simple perspective of property ownership. The owner says it is their land and they will do what they want. This happens even when the city puts an encumbrance on the title like they did with the Victoria Bay Centre when it was built. As part of the deal in providing the developer with the part of Broad Street that was eaten up by the new structure, there was a requirement that public access would be maintained from the early morning until the late evening, but as you can imagine the mall operator did not like some of the challenges this caused over the years and the City has been less willing to force the point, so just try to walk through the mall from Broad to Broad at 7pm on Sunday evening. The same almost happened with perhaps the saddest mid-block walkway in the city that goes through the Falls development. I am not even certain why the city decided that this project required a mid-block walkway but they did. It is still there, about 10 metres from Douglas Street, which again kind of negates its purpose. Nevertheless, the city put it on the buildings title and shortly after the completion of the construction the strata of the building tried to close it off. This time some push back by some local citizens made sure the walkway stayed open.

Coming back to the pathways on Yates Street, both the Yello one that remains open and the Yates Centre one that is now closed, they have another option rather than making them either hostile of completely sealed off. If you want to minimise negative uses, rather than limit access or build a hostile environment you can do the opposite.

Lighting in the mid-block walkway at the Telus Gardens in Vancouver.

Lighting in the mid-block walkway at the Telus Gardens in Vancouver.

The opposite is of course to make the space as welcoming as possible. Make it the choice option for walking between Yates and either View or Johnson because this actually makes it a destination of choice. A welcoming public space is going to encourage use and that will mean higher volumes of pedestrian traffic. With higher traffic volumes moving through, those individuals that are looking for a place to pee or use drugs are going to go elsewhere.

I think in both of these two mid-block walkways what could work well is some artistic lighting and perhaps with the Yates Centre in particular actually make it a bit of a destination. The Telus Gardens building has a seriously sketchy alley running through part of it yet some amazing lighting and art makes you actually feel safe. With these two walkways in Victoria, you can still close them off at night as there comes a point where there just isn’t enough people out in the city to make it work, they should still be open for the majority of the day. Put in some art, benches; encourage staff in the building to use it for lunch. The key is making people care about it. For now though both of these walkways remain with their hostile fences and just the hope that the City will step in.

What do you think could be done with mid-block walkways to encourage pedestrian use while discouraging negative uses?

The Yello walkway…

The Yello walkway…