Downtown has 1000s of new units, yet it feels unwelcoming to many.
MCDONALD'S, OPEN 24/7 at the corner of Douglas and View Streets, is an overnight hellhole and theatre of the absurd. If you can put the prefix dys in front of almost any hapless adjective, or un as in -hinged, -housed, -healthy, -happy, it describes the street-side atmosphere around the place. Really, you should visit some Friday or Saturday around 3am. It screams “major tourist attraction.”
It struck me, south-bound on Douglas after a suburban mall run (the Devil never runs out of seductions), into the increasingly compressive maw of the City centre, that Downtown overall feels…well, hard, unsmiling. I had imagined that, as all of those newly sprouted high-rises filled up with new-minted citizens, the social tone on the streets would become happier, life more public and at least quietly, appropriately joyful. It hasn’t happened yet, to my senses, unless there’s a vast, conspiratorial joke being played on me: “Attention, 700-block Fort Street, Doomer Miller approaching. Everybody frown and look miserable, alienated and a bit psychotic.”
What's not to like about all those new units of progress?
Maybe I picked the wrong season. The storm clouds this December morning are looming about 40 feet off the ground, and even the peacocks in Beacon Hill Park (I’m now parked within sight of the petting zoo, nursing a large, two creams, two sugars) are clumsily attempting suicide by jumping out of trees.
I initiated and organized the Downtown 2020 conference several years ago to study and attempt to plan for the rosy and singular future of this place. The confected vision, you won’t be surprised to learn, was of thousands of residential newcomers, walking arm-in-arm on gorgeous boulevards, admiring the clever and provocative public art and beautiful, generous landscaping; shopping, and leaving the friendly and appreciative merchants successful and happy; they’d be sitting at tables outside their favourite konditorei, the very picture and essence of gemütlichkeit, animatedly discussing (in, say, a Prague-inflected English—think Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca) the Victoria Art Gallery’s massive Klimt retrospective, the just-released new Don deLillo novel, trip-planning to Spain, and other choice pickings from that conversational buffet.
The thesis was so simple, logical, commonsense: lots of new Downtown buildings filled with lots of new Downtowners conducting their lives in Downtown’s public realm, making everything safe, socially fizzy, successful—essentially, the theoretically sound (but never actually materializing) 2+2=4 of Downtown land use planning and social design (and swooning romantic idealism).
Instead, we witness a work-in-progress of isolation, alienation, fortification; a streetscape of by-and-large desultory urban dormitories, hard and unwelcoming monuments to risk management, when what we need is buoyant, arms-open architectural expressions of the ever-perfecting human project. If we decorated our birthday cakes the way we decorate our buildings, all of us would blow our brains, not the candles, out.
So, wha hoppen?
Oh, a little thing known as the near-total shift of human values, social meanings and practices, consciousness, sensibilities, behaviours. The 21st century, that’s wha hoppen. Times have changed, to put it witlessly.
“But, but, this is Vienn—I mean, Victoria,” you sputter, “the Land that Time Forgot!” Not a chance, sonny or honey. I mean, you must have some idea of what’s going on. Two little words: civilizational tectonics.
Look, we steer, or try to steer, by icons, symbols, social signals, corner points (real or seeming) in our restless progress: home, family, opportunity, future, job, faith, politics, and a clutch of others. What made them valid doesn’t necessarily sustain their validity in this time of shortening forevers. Often as not, this produces cultural dislocation leading to hollow language, words that may still have some symbolic heft, but that no longer manage the emotional traffic, no longer truly tell us who we are, or how to behave, or how to order our values or shape and manage experience. In some circles, this is called cultural relativism; in others, the end of the effing world.
If you add together all of the brand-new, recently or just-completed Downtown and shoulder-area residential projects, and those under various stages of construction, plus all of the development rumours, where property is being quietly offered for sale, or has been acquired, plans being drawn up, and where approvals will soon be given and ground broken—roughly, north to Capital Iron (whose entire property is currently for sale), south to the Empress (including that hollow yesteryear hulk of a Customs House building beside the Causeway, its memorable shell now held in place by a girder system), northeast a few blocks past Wellburn’s at Cook and Pandora (also sold, I believe), east of Cook a block or two up the Fort/Yates/ Johnson/Pandora shoulder—we are talking about at least 40 projects with a guesstimated average unit count of 100, and perhaps 1.5 residents average per dwelling.
That’s a likely 6,000 newcomers calling Downtown home, now and soon…and Downtown physically, commercially, socially transformed. In three to four years—no time at all, in terms of Downtown’s evolution—you will barely recognize Downtown, barely be able to reconcile your earlier mental picture of Downtown’s quaint and pokey feel and ground-hugging scale with the quickly emerging physical reality. The memory-to-modernity balance will have shifted, making what remains of the old Downtown feel more I-remember-when, more museological, and less the defining qualitative centrepiece of the Victoria identity.
Downtown will be vastly more populous, but how will the streets feel? Will Downtown present a more compelling case for frequent visits by all of us out-of-Downtowners, or will it seem unrecognizable to a lot of us, a candidate for the kind of dismissal directed at most North American Downtowns (including Vancouver’s): “I don’t go down there unless I have to”?
Perhaps you recall a short letter, an omnibus complaint, from a Jim Gibson in the November 4, 2018 Times Colonist titled “Council leads the way into the abyss.” Here is a worried and slightly phrumphy excerpt from Gibson’s Scripture-toned note, which lacks only for a “yea” and an “unto”:
“To those working in unison with Mayor Lisa Helps: Which one of you has the courage to allow the merchants on Fort Street to exhale by taking down the barriers to entry you have built? Who among you has the courage to fix the bike-lane fiasco? Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery? Who among you has the courage to stand up for a city you have already put on the precipice for decline by fast-tracking anti-business, anti-commuting and anti-tourist policies with the arrogant self-entitlement bias you continue to display? Will you let Victoria breathe again, or will you point fingers at those of us who want civilized progress?”
I’m particularly taken with the florid, almost Shakespearean “Who among you will allow Fort Street its rightful place as a three-lane artery?”
Alas, poor Fort Street, I knew it well. (I note Fort Street is still a three-lane artery, it’s just that one of the lanes is a bike lane.) Be patient, Mr Gibson. Downtown’s a work-in-progress. I fantasize some kind of social epiphany, thousands of Downtowners, arms linked—a glorious amalgam of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and Paul Goodman-esque post-war 1950s/60s egalitarian optimism, housing the homeless, uptrodding the downtrodden, restoring human dignity, advancing social possibility. Said Goodman (author of Growing Up Absurd and many more): “I might seem to have a number of divergent interests—community planning, psychotherapy, education, politics—but they are all one concern: how to make it possible to grow up as a human being into a culture without losing nature. I simply refuse to acknowledge that a sensible and honorable community does not exist.”
Our City could do worse at this moment than to embrace Goodman’s dogged and hopeful vision (a vision that runs so counter to present social practice) and string conspicuous but tasteful banners across all of the City’s key entry points: “Victoria waives the rules. Welcome to Paradise.” (God forgive me.)
How to get there from here? How to break the dismal pattern of reticence and strangerhood and turn the public realm into an outdoor living room, something socially and visually operatic, a beautiful, generous, richly furnished, hopeful arrival-point from dormitory isolation and privacy to the public warmth and comfort of the human family?
It’s time for a series of urban design charrettes: critical, analytical study sessions structured (and strictured) to force coitus on “extra” and “ordinary.” Oh, and a vast amount of funding. I’m sorry City councillors didn’t impose a development cost charge of $5,000 per new Downtown door four years ago. They, we, would now have a Downtown public realm amenity kitty approaching $20,000,000.
“Civilized progress,” letter-writer Gibson requested. I don’t share his anxieties about Fort Street, but civilized progress sounds just peachy.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.