June 30, 2020
The ideas embedded in our civic architecture say a lot about the state of our civic citizenship.
WITH INCREASING FREQUENCY THESE DAYS, I start watching a movie online or crack open a book only to be prodded, ten minutes or ten pages in, by the realization that it’s the second time around: I’ve seen it or read it before. “Huh, will you think of that!” I say to myself and then walk into the bathroom to make myself a sandwich.
But enough about you.
The occasional mutter from readers reaches me about how this column is so negative and pessimistic, and how I can’t seem to find anything to celebrate. Well, duh. Maybe that’s because we’re all gonna die by 2040, but hey, don’t let that take the shine off your weekend plans.
Academics and other finger-templers love to contend that civilization is in a “transition phase” when in fact culture, context, story and purpose have been subordinated in favour of the dehumanizing values and murky agendas of global finance, borderless corporations, and ever-more-invasive AI which itself is readying a post-human future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated and intensified, but is not itself the author of, widespread social dislocation. Why do you think so many countries are now led, or soon will be led, by the Donald Trumps of the world—merciless, narcissistic, empathy-devoid sociopaths who increasingly set global terms and mood, and make groundless national promises to a culturally rootless, economically insecure and reactive, frantic populace about the return of everything that’s been lost? How else do you explain the surfacing in more and more places of “the dark lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings, especially when we suffer from collective humiliation,” as journalist and theologian Chris Hedges puts it? (A bit more of Hedges later.)
In my view, Americans, confusing personality and presidency, selected the most conspicuously lonely, needy, empty man to lead them: Mr Please Look At Me, Mr Pay Attention To Me, Me, Me. This horribly indicts the man and the electorate in equal measure.
I have US friends and colleagues who anticipate some near-future civil war in their country. They notice the capacity to productively negotiate and operate within social bounds—to run a society, to see common cause, to honour the principle of mutual benefit—is steadily diminishing, drowning further in the cult of The Leader, the country’s purpose reduced to a game-show slogan.
Trouble’s on a boil everywhere and I worry with all my heart for this city, so la-la when it should be alert and responsive to history’s current and emergent risks. Instead, almost by reflex, when the going gets tough, Victoria holds a workshop.
When I go on, as I do in this column, about the importance of and need for beautiful and distinctive architecture and urban design, I’m not principally mounting an argument for beauty; though it is that, too. It’s really a plea about sustaining cultural identity and individuality, consciousness and selfhood…a kind of civic competence and character; the continuation of the Victoria story; and grounds for social connection instead of the sleepwalker’s inability to read nuance or form judgment.
In his recent book, America: The Farewell Tour, Hedges cites Natasha Dow Schüll’s book about casinos, Addicted By Design: “Pleasure. To get what you want. What you want is to escape into a flow, to be taken away. We see this in the political domain a lot—in the rallies, in the surging of feelings, the distraction; the same design logic of disorientation and trying to sweep people away from themselves, away from rationality, away from a position where they have clear lines of sight and can act as decision-making subjects. You see that on the floors of casinos. You see it in political rhetoric today.”
Canada to-date, and Victoria specifically, have resisted the more overt and destructive expressions of these trends (and their alarming political directions). But please, don’t for a moment imagine that such cultural sensibilities are absent here. Victoria’s “oh, we’re nothing like that” is no more than puffery, a dangerous conceit, a willing blindness to the fragility of the cultural story that supports this wonderful, remarkable place. Trends and their causes—how they develop, why they endure—must be understood, must (ideally) be part of the civic conversation, an intentional feature of citizenship. Citizen and resident are not the same thing. Citizen is your credentialed behaviour in a civic society; resident is your postal code; and the latter doesn’t ensure belonging, only taxpaying.
What do you imagine: that the “homeless problem” is the problem of the homeless? I could be wrong, but I doubt they’re troubled by sociological abstractions. The homeless problem is not a visibility problem or a cosmetic problem. It’s a social problem. Social, by the way, doesn’t mean “somebody should do something about it;” social means “us.”
Oh, you’re too busy for all that? Really? Doing what? Let’s acknowledge that we often fail at solving our own problems (not limited to Victoria) because culturally, like casino gamblers, we’re trapped in the Age of Distraction. We’re at risk of misplacing the story and the social syntax of community, this community. And if we lose that, guess what? There’s a heavy price to pay.
Some part of that price can be seen in the physical expression of the rapidly proliferating fortress towers rising throughout Downtown. Give yourself time for a thoughtful, open-eyed walk-around so you can feel the buildings, take in their existential message, as conveyed by their skin and materiality, the meaning of their shape, what their atmospheric and emotional contribution is to the adjacent public realm, and what all of that says about life, community, social connection, you.
I mean, you see or visit an Italian hill-town and your heart breaks. That’s the stuff I’m getting at here.
Are attractive buildings and public works by themselves the antidote to or protection against any of this? Of course not. But they are in some small way grounds for reversal, and also some daily visible reminder that distinctive civic identity—an us—is sustained only by continuous social re-investment and consciousness.
Happily, Victoria still has “good bones,” as they say, a fairly healthy inventory of such features; it’s just that there’s no such thing as too much of it. Here are a few buildings and public spaces—either new, new/old hybrids, or reinventions—that seem to me to be standouts, exemplary proof that we can renew our city and add to its quality (sorry about my crappy photography). All below—some modest, some grand—share originality and design thinking....
More, many more, please.
Victoria City staff are challenging Old Town planning principles and policies. Is that opening the door for more aggressive proposals like those submitted for the Northern Junk Properties?
ON JUNE 11th, 2020 Victoria City Council considered an application for the redevelopment of the 1860’s buildings, commonly known as the Northern Junk Properties, on Wharf Street, south of the Johnson Street Bridge. The proposal would see four storeys added to each of the one-storey heritage buildings. This is not an approach that is supported by the adopted standards for heritage restoration and rehabilitation where the goal is to showcase the authenticity of heritage buildings. Nor is this approach supported in the City’s 2019 “Old Town Design Guidelines.”
Artist's rendering of Reliance Properties proposal for the Northern Junk Properties, which City council recently declined to send to a public hearing
City staff, in supporting the application, stated that: “The current Official Community Plan moves away from taking an ‘archival’ approach to heritage within Old Town and sets out a vision to create a living and breathing Old Town, where buildings, old and new, are occupied, vibrant and are actively contributing to the liveability and well being of the community as a whole.’”
This statement suggests that prior to the current Official Community Plan being adopted in 2012, projects that had been developed in Old Town, over many decades, had not achieved these goals while, at the same time, respecting and responding to the principles related to heritage conservation and rehabilitation.
This is a very puzzling conclusion since Victoria’s Old Town is considered one of the most vibrant, desirable, diverse and attractive areas of the city where people are able to live, work and recreate. In addition, it enjoys an international reputation for the quality of its heritage buildings and their sensitive rehabilitation—all achieved while respecting and responding to the principles associated with heritage preservation, rehabilitation and adaptive reuse.
Over many years, often at times when few, if any, residential units were being built in downtown Victoria, housing projects were consistently being developed, through the conversion of heritage buildings, or infill developments, in Old Town. These units range from non-profit housing to seniors’ housing to apartments and condominiums. Not only do these buildings provide housing on their upper floors but their main floor spaces house retail, restaurant or entertainment venues, all contributing to the vitality and liveability of the neighbourhood. In addition, they were developed in compliance with City policies.
The fact that the Northern Junk buildings have sat in a derelict state for an unprecedented period of time was also used as an impetus to move the proposal forward. Factually this is not correct as prior to the City developing heritage policies, incentives, etc, dating back as far as the 1970s, there were many buildings in Old Town that had sat under-utilized for many decades. Supported and encouraged by the City’s commitment to its architectural heritage, one by one, we saw new life being brought to these buildings.
Reliance Properties drawings of the existing 1860 buildings on the site
The Northern Junk buildings, part of a long-held portfolio of properties owned by one family, would likely have been rehabilitated many years ago, if they had been made available for sale earlier. When the properties were made available for sale, circa 2008, the first site to be redeveloped was the Morley’s Soda Works building located in Waddington Alley. Purchased by Le Fevre and Company at the then market rate, it was in a state of serious dilapidation with its roof in a state of collapse and trees growing up through the building. It was in a more deteriorated condition than the Northern Junk buildings. Yet Morley’s was rehabilitated and redeveloped into housing by this for-profit developer, with a modest one-storey roof top addition added, barely visible from its land-locked location.
Jon Stovell, the president of Reliance Properties, the current owner of the Northern Junk properties, expressed surprise and frustration when Council referred the current application back to staff, rather than advancing it to a Public Hearing. The instruction from Council was to bring the proposal more in line with the “Design Guidelines for Old Town.” What are the factors that have led to this frustration? A lack of clarity on the part of City Council and the Planning Department? A lack of vision on the part of the developer in terms of what would constitute an appropriate and welcomed development of the site? A lack of clarity on whether, or not, the City-owned lands to the north of the site would be made available to the developer?
One only has to leaf through some of the proposals brought forward by Reliance to come to the conclusion that a vision is lacking. A proposal that included the City-owned land resulted in a development comprised of 126,000 square feet. The current proposal, excluding the City lands, amounts to 44,434 square feet. Another concept saw a 12-storey tower (where 5 storeys is the maximum permitted ) constructed on the City lands. All of this begs the question, how much is enough to make the project economically viable?
The question that is also being asked is why are we seeing the Old Town planning principles and policies challenged in such dramatic ways recently. Other than the controversial 1989 development of the Eaton Centre projects in Old Town, both new construction and rehabilitation, have moved forward successfully over many decades. Some have attributed these new challenges to Victoria being identified as ripe for development for non-local companies. Could it be that the more aggressive approach brought to land use issues in Vancouver, for example, has made its way across the water? Could it be that the confrontational, and challenging, style that has seen success in Vancouver is being tested here? Could it be that City Council and the Planning Department have not provided clear guidance, supported existing planning principles and pointed out that Victoria has a successful formula, and an enviable track record, in supporting developments that “enhance the city and create a living and breathing Old Town where buildings, old and new, are occupied, vibrant and are actively contributing to the liveability and well being of the community as a whole.”
As a community activist, Pam Madoff was elected to Victoria City Council in 1993. She served for 25 years, advocating for quality architecture and urban planning, arts and culture and heritage restoration and rehabilitation. She continues to do all of these things—without having to sit through Council meetings.
May 28, 2020
View Towers illustrates how civic inattention can lead to unintended consequences.
VIEW TOWERS. It sat there, like a spaceship in a cow pasture, between Quadra and Vancouver, Fort and View Streets, a 19-storey heartbreaker silently announcing to everyone who walked or drove by: “Beauty is tricksome and fleeting, and Death awaits thee.”
A description in the Islandist states: “The building, completed in 1968, has been locally notorious for much of its 50 year existence, having been the site of several murders, suicides, fatal overdoses, destructive fires, countless violent assaults and several hundred 9-11 calls besides. Its unflattering nickname of ‘Crack Towers’ has persisted since the 1990s.”
(Crack’s so passé, don’t you think?)
The building radiates that history out through its mercy-free concrete skin. If buildings convey messages and operate as narratives about human worth and destiny, View Towers is our Statue of Misery.
The property owner/developer, George Mulek, had intentions, as I understand it, to put up a second, presumably twin or similar building, along the Fort Street frontage of his property, but was prohibited by a shocked and rueful city that curtailed his property development entitlements after the first building went up. Mulek, anecdote has it, left Victoria angry and frustrated and built nothing more here. Mulek is dead (I wish I could report that, in an attempt to restore moral equilibrium, he jumped; but no) and Edmonton-based family members now own View Towers, Orchard House (in James Bay) and numerous residential towers in Vancouver.
I don’t know how the property acquired its original development entitlements; that is, why anyone thought twin 19-storey buildings in that location would enhance or benefit Victoria. Clearly, there are few enlightening lessons to be taken from the hard mind of the developer, but many from the effort to understand why people in the City of Victoria’s political and administrative circles thought such land use entitlements were a good idea in the first place.
Progress? Need? Someone’s careless idea? Stupid season?
Remember: Everything bearing on land use expression is someone’s idea, conceived to respond to an apparent need or exploit some opportunity or produce some beneficial social outcome. Of course, what often happens in the process is best described by a single word: “Oops.”
Each individual land use outcome can be labelled a microscopic event in the city’s overall life, and we all want to believe the city is large and elastic enough to forgive and endure its mis-calls, but it doesn’t take too many ill-considered choices before a place becomes this instead of remaining or becoming that. All of which has special relevance now as Victoria slowly but surely, building by building, at Victoria scale, turns, either by design or accident, into this (both images Vancouver):
So, what’s so bad about that, you ask? After all, you go to Vancouver and it’s people just like us, not zombies or faceless automatons, right? And Vancouver’s dynamic, exciting, important!
And this is the point at which you and I need to take a two-directional excursion into the recent past and near future, developing some ideas about current social evolution and how Victoria fits with all of that.
ACROSS THE WORLD, politics and political structure as a system of social management, as a social vocabulary, as a way of apportioning individual and social power, as a way of getting at human aspiration, is either failing or waning. It lacks the tools to respond to the complexities of a global civilization anaged electronically—something that never existed before in human history—a civilization rendered geographically global by economic interactivity and the abstractions of finance and digital technology. We are, if I can resort to cliché, being ruled by money, by financial flows. Rulership, leadership, governance is passing from the various historical arrangements of political power to the power of capital and those who run its systems. People everywhere, in every nation and culture, are feeling a growing bewilderment and powerlessness, losing social meaning; and this may conceivably presage the dissolution of the nation-state, the national ‘tribe’—the current retreat from globalism, assertive nervous boundary conditions and national drum-beating attitudes notwithstanding.
Today’s terrifying lurch to the right and the rise of the autocratic, authoritarian personality—the US under Trump, Brazil with Bolsanaro, Hungary with Orban and so on—itself implies a near-future bereft of citizenship as we currently understand it.
Remember: the modern administrative state as a social model and a guarantor of rights and freedoms didn’t always exist or come with assurances. It’s a relatively new and still-evolving experimental tool for social management. Consider that a mere dozen generations ago, society was a largely familial proposition run by kings and queens.
Politicians no longer dream of changing (improving) the world, daunted by the sheer chaos of its contemporary design. All political leaders can do is cosmetically manage the thinly veiled control that financial services, tech, and energy companies exert over all of us, while offering narratives of good and evil, or of limitless possibility, that seem increasingly vapid and hollow. All of these forces and trends are producing a mounting, spreading state of unreality in social life and significantly weakening the foundations beneath a number of social institutions. Privacy, for example, has practically evaporated and given way to surveillance and commodifiable transparency; and with that, a certain kind of selfhood or autonomy is vanishing. (You can tell privacy is going when you receive so many assurances that your privacy is being respected.)
We are facing the central question of how to (and who or what intellectual regime should) manage a post-political future, and what is the shape, what are the goals, of human culture in such a future. (Structuralists might add that the arrival speed of such a future will determine if humanity can even endure such change.)
This is human and social evolution—not progress necessarily, but change. Our protocols and culture, structures and institutions are still based in political sensibility, in ideology, and the rhetoric of social improvement. But all of this, argue contemporary thinkers including sociologist and social theorist Ulrich Beck, is a remnant condition simply caught in a final moment of poise, and steadily hollowing out in favour of economic management—management by finance—and the information flows such management requires.
Ideological ideas about social management decreasingly define this emergent human condition. It’s all being washed aside, like the Age of Royalty before it. Ironic and telling, isn’t it, the accumulating social commentary about our new “financial aristocracy.”
All of this connects to a local point, if I may circle back to built form, by which I really mean the scope and degree of consciousness that a community brings to built-form decisions. The point is that there really is a connection between physical form and social empowerment, that feeling of being a stakeholder in a community, of being a citizen. Yes, this stuff is abstract and resists measurement, but it isn’t imaginary. (This, by the way, is something Victoria’s regional amalgamation, bigger-is-cheaper advocates seem not to get. Bigger isn’t cheaper; it’s just bigger and it generates other less quantifiable costs.)
NIMBY, for its part, gets half, but only half—the “I want to protect and preserve what I have”—of the social equation right. What it gets wrong is that you can’t simply say “No!” Active citizenship requires that you conceive and implement affirmative (and inevitably compromissory) ways to say, “Yes!” You have to build and reinforce and re-strengthen democratic civic practice every day. You have to solve problems and produce outcomes through your own direct engagement, and not with a taxpayer’s delegation sensibility: “we have people who look after that.” You have, in other words, to re-engage and re-earn your rights every day. The current culture trap makes active citizenship of this kind seems antiquated and almost silly, a waste of mental and physical time in the face of other social priorities. But I will tell you with certainty that social passivity is spreading, and that it is increasingly reinforced by electronic infrastructure and online culture that between them mediate ever more reality for us; and that our doom lies in that direction: a likely combination of the evaporation of authentic democratic protocols, ecological ruin and AI domination.
Set within such concerns is an explanation of Victoria’s appeal. Our urban character and traditional architecture—the planning and land use principles they express—convey the social message that Victoria is a place in which traditional, comprehensible human arrangements are still alive and well, where community and its social transactions and political opportunities are still valid. Visitors ooh! and ahh! when they come here, and use words like “charming” and “cute,” but they are actually conveying their own deep yearning and a deep loss, or fear of loss, elsewhere. With every ooh! they mean “your city is a rock in a world adrift.”
Imagine yourself a visitor to Victoria: say, a walk along Dallas Road; a walk through Beacon Hill Park; then funky, relaxed, still sort-of heritage-y Downtown and intriguing, memory-rich LoJo and Fisgard/Chinatown; other reasonably well-ordered, mixed-form neighbourhoods. The nature/culture balance, the proportion, success and human safety of it all…the containment!
Visitors may never articulate this to their hosts or even themselves, but don’t imagine for a second that they aren’t aware of it, taking it in through their skin and senses.
The world is not a relaxed place. It is terrifying; and order, safety, are—well, not illusions, exactly, so much as a set of islanded conditions exposed to the roil of history.
Do such places, like our city, come with a forever, a guarantee? You know the answer. Everyone knows the answer. While in the short term they may appear to be the gifts that keep on giving, their perpetuity should never be taken for granted, but met with humility and citizenly reinvestment. There, quite bluntly, is the case for engaged citizenship.
However understandable and forgiveable, our failure to eradicate homelessness and associated social risk and outsider-ness; our failue to conceive innovative built forms and the appropriate policies to deliver urban density without social damage; or to achieve high (or higher) levels of urban and architectural design in public and private settings; to serve as a model and a beacon of ecological practice; and to invent new public ritual around all such achievements (“Ritual,” states social critic Richard Sennett, “is an emotional unity achieved through drama.”)—in summary, to engage and innovate—are the challenges that confront our civic community. They never go away.
View Towers still stands to remind us of the costs of inattention; and high above it is this message written in the ether: stick with the hard work of citizenship because disregard carries the greater cost.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
May 13, 2020
The Jawls provide us with examples of how buildings can reflect and build a rational, respectful social vision.
I HAVE THIS WAKING FANTASY…Mayor Lisa Helps, just after the start of her first term, back in 2014, is invited by UDI, the property developers’ organization, to be the luncheon speaker. Understandably, the membership wants to get a sense of the priorities, policy directions and “body English” of this new mayor.
There are about a 140 attendees, seated at round tables, munching rubber chicken. Finally, lunch eaten and announcements announced, it’s showtime. The mayor is introduced, steps to the rostrum to warm applause, utters the usual pleased to’s and thank you’s, then says:
With niceties out of the way, let’s get to the meat: If you have any intention of undertaking development in or near Downtown, and especially if you are considering a high-rise, do not—I repeat, do not—show up at the planning counter with anything less than a beautiful building design.
You want to do a Vancouver building? Go to Vancouver.
You want to put up some soulless piece of crap that’s going to reduce the special and unique character, the true value, of Downtown and the city? You want to do cold and inelegant, when Victoria needs warm, appealing, detailed? Uh-uh. Not here. Goodbye.
You now have a mayor who will do everything possible to stymie such buildings and frustrate their approval at least until Oblivion.
You don’t know what beautiful and graceful and distinguished and character-filled means? You don’t understand those words? “Like, what does she mean, beautiful and graceful?” Maybe you should choose another profession. Or maybe you’re professionally under-educated.
Margins are thin and the market won’t support what I’m asking for? You can’t make money if you do a beautiful building? Please, before you utter those words, warn me and give me time to step away, so I don’t get hit by lightning when God strikes you dead for lying. Guys, I know how to read a development pro forma, I know market conditions, and I know you’re doing just fine.
Your responsibility is to your bottom line, your lender, your investors? My responsibility is to the character, history, singular identity, destiny—the social, cultural and even spiritual future—of this city.
You think your proposal really is beautiful and maybe I just can’t see it because our ideas of beautiful are different? Are you that debased? Look, this is Victoria, named for a powerful queen, not Dystopia, named for the end of the world.
But I tell you what: you bring us a beautiful building, and the City will process your application at light speed.
Any questions? Well, thank you so much for this speaking opportunity!
Now, back to the real Downtown, overtaken, mid-makeover, by an increasing number of ice-cold towers. The city is about to wake up from this Downtown “facial,” when the building boom ends in five or so years, take one look in the mirror, and start screaming. It is being ruined by developers who operate in a moral vacuum that excludes any interest in, or awareness or understanding of, Victoria’s singularity, and by a City that doesn’t have the courage to announce: “We will only survive this hard age if we keep our soul intact.” History, in case you hadn’t noticed, is manufacturing great risks to social order and is producing everywhere a collapsing public realm.
Victoria’s mission to redeem the future has never faced challenges like those now materializing.
The problem is either caused or aggravated (maybe both) by ever-spreading cultural bankruptcy: a loss of civic story. If Mayor Helps told developers that their real project client was the city’s soul and future, they would think she was out on a day-pass.
In a potent December, 2019 essay, “The 2010’s Were the End of Normal,” former NY Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote: “Apocalypse is not yet upon our world as the 2010s draw to an end, but there are portents of disorder. The hopes nourished during the opening years of the decade—hopes that [the world] was on a progressive path toward growing equality and freedom, hopes that technology held answers to some of our most pressing problems—have given way, with what feels like head-swiveling speed, to a dark and divisive new era.”
If any of this mood-painting carries meaning for you and stirs your own worries, I urge you, for reasons of counterpoint and the restoration of emotional equilibrium, to journey out to Selkirk Waterfront Project, the Jawl family-owned and managed development on the Gorge.
Other Jawl projects—Mattick’s Farm, Sayward Hill, the emerging Capital Park in James Bay, 1515 Douglas/750 Pandora, across the street from city hall, the Atrium at Yates and Blanshard—all share with the 25-acre Selkirk Waterfront Project a “signature,” a subtle but recognizable message about proportion and “enough-ness”; and none presents a sociopathic, chin-first challenge to destiny. Given the emergent crop of Trump Towers in Downtown Victoria, this is saying something.
The Selkirk Waterfront Project as seen from the trestle across Selkirk Water (click to enlarge)
Your mind registers the nomenclature: waterfront, farm, hill, park, atrium—the suggestion that by intention, where possible, buildings and projects are named as objects in a familiar experiential landscape and, even in their naming, take on responsibility to promote connection and continuity. (Interestingly, “1515 Douglas” is their least successful essay.)
Walk, bike or drive around the Selkirk Project’s curving boulevards, study its buildings, their architectural variety, range and intermix of purpose, their respect for each other as objects or sites of human endeavour, their restraint and rationality. It’s this rationality, the elusive presence of design thinking, that I wish most to consider.
I want you to imagine the Jawl family, to flow in and occupy and study the Jawl mind, a mind that seems by intention to promote composure about land use planning and architecture and, by extension, a framework of composed thought about how the world-at-large should be ordered, at least in the ways that land use speaks to human arrangements and possibilities.
Remember: every idea and decision about form and architectural character, about shape, massing and height, colour and texture, building proximity, juxtaposition of uses and location/choice of external amenities, adjacencies—building citizenship, in other words—is informed by a social vision. Sure, by economics, but more essentially by a vision of how the human project should be shaped and should unfold, what consequences it should produce.
In many developments around town you can read self-absorption, a trivial love of trend or novelty, synthetic drama, risk-taking, and the not-so-hidden violence of opportunity capture—fragile, adolescent ego, children playing grownups, in other words. And in many other projects it’s easy to detect a passionless actuarial sensibility in which physical results express only an economic calculus and communicate complete aesthetic, moral and cultural abdication.
However, you can read in the Jawl property portfolio a rare and important calm, a long or at least longer view, a rationality and patience, an investment in something—some outcome—beyond the real estate.
I’m suggesting that Jawl Properties somehow projects, through a set of architectural behaviours and choices, or design problem resolutions, a profound belief in rational human governance and social equilibrium.
Jawl's various projects, in an almost mystical process, embody and advance the purpose and essential social promise of Victoria itself: Safety.
You understand, of course, Victoria was conceived to be Heaven on Earth. Can’t you read that in its DNA, in its various parts and pieces? Did you think “a little bit of Old England” was just or only a joke? Victoria ever strives to meet its promise. You must have some sense of the stakes, the risks, facing any transcendental social experiment, especially in crippled human chapters like our own: the challenge of keeping chaos from ruining what we have built.
This is why every architectural miscall, every bad building, diminishes the place, reduces its value. There is some quality of human blueprint, of a larger, longer purpose, still (if waningly) evident in our current Victoria—a sense of mission, and clear proof that cities are ideas about, and expressions of, human intention.
In a world now catching fire this is a calm place, “fixt like a beacon-tower above the waves of Tempest,” as Tennyson wrote. Victoria’s job was to project the message, and its art form remains to deepen the protocols, of successful social collaboration in a world of fraying partnerships.
Darran Anderson, in his remarkable Imaginary Cities, notes that the Egyptian hieroglyph for city also means “mother.” He considers this a rare and significant historical admission “that cities were founded according to nurturing and social environs and not the heroism of mythic individuals, often enshrined to justify dynastic rulers.” Safety, not danger.
As civilization readies the terms of some next vast spasm, consider the contribution the Jawls, as social artists, have made to defining Victoria as a world capital of safety.
It’s a big job and they can’t have too much company.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
Scenes of homelessness challenge any illusion that our city is well-ordered—and call for a new blueprint for community.
I DON’T WANT TO BREAK A SWEAT attempting to conflate hope and home, but it’s hard not to notice that they share three-quarters of their architecture.
I know: you’re sorely tempted to note, so do hole, hone, hose and hove.
Remember when you had that stupid idea to create dinner-flavoured ice cream (I recall you said pork chops and Brussels sprouts would “go monster”)? I kept my mouth clamped shut, even when everybody suggested you might, for a change, want to start receiving your mail on Planet Earth.
So, like, work with me now, okay? Hope, home.
Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog made the news down here this past December suggesting that for some of the street population—the mentally ill and the thoroughly (I won’t write “hopelessly”) addicted—housing was less the appropriate response than institutionalization and some updated package of professional health management.
Predictably, he caught shit for this from the handwringer contingent that, in its opposition, invoked horrific, Dickensian images of turreted insane asylums and the baying of the hounds.
Me? I dunno. I’ve been around too long to have much faith that the rhetoric of perfect solutions bears any relationship to our (diminishing) ability to successfully manage social outcomes. The reasons for my doubts follow later in this column. But, despite those doubts, I cannot heap enough praise on everyone associated with Our Place and other places of protection who, daily, practice hope/home in every way possible.
I recall a recent 5am coffee run to McDonalds at Pandora and Vancouver. En route, I spotted a lump—a garbage or duffel bag—on the far sidewalk, across Pandora from the restaurant. As I made the turn, the image resolved in my headlights: a man, hunched over into the smallest possible volume, his bare toes, knees and forehead in contact with the cold pavement, a crutch or cane beside him. He remained there, still as sculpture. He might have been lost in the intensities of Islamic prayer; he could have been dead.
Homeless man on Pandora Avenue
Victoria, we are producing—not allowing or enabling, but authoring—a new normal: the every night/overnight tent city in front of Our Place on Pandora, the ever-proliferating camperati in Beacon Hill and other city parks, the Downtown doorway crashers, the cardboard real estate everywhere, the tarp-covered shopping cart third-world-ification of the city’s sidewalks. I’m less interested in individual whats and whys than I am concerned about the social messaging and emotional impacts on the community-at-large, whose failure to more constructively manage this entire human tragedy is reinforced daily, as we disappear ever further into our individual electronic privacies. If you hit the right street at the worst time, the scene effortlessly conveys the atmospherics of one of sci-fi author William Gibson’s terrifying and apocalyptic futurologies.
Welcome to Downtown Victoria 2020—real scenes that challenge any illusion that our community is well-ordered, socially coherent, or a place of practiced comfort and safety. When you have a public that effectively says “they’re homeless, so fuck ’em,” you court—no, you may count on—overall “fuck it” city life; and, owing to some strange social alchemy, all of us rendered separate human atoms, outsiders.
Headlines gathered from the December 30, 2019 Times Colonist front page: “Police release video of stabbing attack;” “Man being sought by Victoria police after attempted kidnapping;” “Police look for men who broke into Oak Bay liquor store;” “Security guard stabbed after confronting suspected shoplifter.” And with bright promise for the new year, the January 3rd paper added, “One man arrested after fight with weapons in Centennial Square.”
Just what brought and keeps you here, yes?
Community, to the extent the word speaks to public life, realm, and assets, is not an afterthought and it cannot, beyond a certain point, be offloaded to City departments. Community begins with co: together, shared, us, everybody, mutuality, reciprocity. And big shock: community takes work, time, purpose and structure. Community has to be behaviour, about something; otherwise, it’s not community, only a cultural conceit, social lipstick, starry-eyed blab, an artifact.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof and colleague Sheryl WuDunn recently penned a painful-to-read New York Times piece entitled “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” It chronicles five adult Knapp siblings, born and raised in rural Yamhill, southwest of Portland, Oregon, all but one of whom died from drugs, alcohol and similar misadventures and excesses (the surviving fifth served a long jail term). As Kristof and WuDunn make all too clear, the Knapps were victims of social and economic despair. Yamhill, the writers assert, is everywhere now—a condition incorporating addiction, lack of work, lack of a social safety net, lack of purpose, lack of exit. Suicides, note the authors, “are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids.”
“We have deep structural problems half a century in the making,” they finish.
Build the wall, Justin!—but no, too late: the same conditions that increasingly colour the American social and political landscape easily penetrate the Canadian membrane. While we do social management better here (health care, notably), we still have our own fish to fry, and our own talent for us-and-them identity politics.
Don Evans, recently retired CEO of Our Place, has written of his own shock at the scale of the homeless. He cites poverty and its consequences as an obvious factor, but worriedly notes other constituencies that “we never imagined would end up on the street: neglected youth, injured workers, abused women, and people suffering from brain injuries and mental health issues that can strike anyone, at any income level, at any time.”
We’re living in bad-dream times, a spreading hallucinatory condition that intrudes on the everyday, the customary, with ever-greater presence, a revolution not just of perception, but meaning and connection.
With surprising suddenness, it’s a challenge to stand firm, to identify fixed points, to know exactly where the solid ground and the corners are. Take away even some of the “common”—shared experience, practice, sense of purpose and reinforcing protocols—and you no longer have community, just people shuffling around the same postal code.
Look, “resilient” was only ever “fragile-with-prayer.” Things are breaking— conventional social behaviour, the terms of safety and security. Various economic and cultural certainties are diminishing, wobbling, and life is soon to be more…well, different. And when AI /robotics take all the jobs…?
Imagine, however novelistically, a spooky, not-too-distant future Downtown filled with half-empty apartment towers and long stretches of shuttered shops, victims of online commerce, unsupportable costs, and vanished shopper appetite; the streets witness to an increasing Calcutta of shopping-cart homeless, bolstered by untold numbers living in their parked cars—not because the wife threw them out, but because life threw them out. Lots of car-campers here now, by the way, if you know where to look besides Dallas Road.
History—our two- maybe three-generation experience of comfort and certainty—is rolling up, suicidally jumping into some dark void, trailingly calling bye-bye. Terrifying! You don’t like that idea? You don’t like any of this? What are you going to do about it? Not a taunt, but an honest question: what are you going to do about it?
You want to understand Victoria’s continuing and remaining appeal—so precious, so rare, and so at risk? It’s not that the city is still “cute” or “charming” (the recent and continuing rash of tombstone high-rises has put paid to that), but that the social messaging conveyed by still-orderly residential streets in the close-in neighbourhoods, and a few isolated islands Downtown (LoJo for example) suggest Victoria still offers social redemption and is not (yet) a zombie stage set like many other overtaken places. There are in Victoria still places of beauty, proportion and memory, places of comprehensible social narrative—streets, blocks, neighbourhoods—that calm the soul and that promise protection and continuity.
These places are community’s physical expression: they project connection, and silently rebuke us for the wider social inheritance we’ve squandered or misplaced.
The message—hell, it’s a shout—to our still-reasonably-healthy, still-promising city society, better equipped than most to survive (the worst of) the future, is that these are times for the hard work of community renewal. Indifference and passivity have revealed their limits and generated predictable consequences, including the tragic streetscape of the homeless. Now it’s time for a movement, a new activist programme, a new blueprint for community, to reconnect the city to—to re-express the city as—the all of us.
The hopeful news? Again, social alchemy. Merely convening to restore community creates new community.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push.
“ONE DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores.
The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities.
New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space.
A new development in south Langford
Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland.
“They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner.
The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development.
“Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said.
Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today.
Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable.
According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas.
Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.”
Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Danbrook One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council.
“Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain.
Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said.
However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development.
Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said.
There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway.
The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel.
The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias.
A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition.
The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted.
“The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan.
Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said.
J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said.
Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest.
The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member.
With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building.
Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic.
Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors.
“With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith
This story has been edited to reflect the correct name of Danbrook One, the development in Langford which had its occupancy permit revoked. An earlier version had referred to the development as Donwood One.
To satisfy the Millennials’ need for housing, Victoria’s mayor aims to permit fourplexes “as of right”on single-family lots.
DOWNTOWN HAD SEEN MANY BIG PROJECTS over the past decade, but nothing like this. On December 3, Starlight Developments revealed its plans for a block and a half of Harris Green — replacing the existing Market on Yates, London Drugs and other businesses with 100,000 square feet of new retail space, topped by five towers up to 25 storeys tall and containing some 1,500 rental apartments.
The unveiling took place at a land-use meeting run by the Downtown Residents’ Association, and the members had questions. What will happen to the businesses there now? Starlight said it would phase the construction so they could move to other parts of the development with minimal disruption. Who will police the proposed half-acre of green space? Starlight said it would create a “governance model” with the City of Victoria. With all the parking underground and entrances only on View Street, how will it handle the traffic? Starlight said it would conduct traffic-demand studies and adjust its plans accordingly.
Starlight Developments proposes to build 1,500 rental units in Harris Green
The audience sounded generally favourable toward the project, if exhausted by the prospect of more blasting and beeping trucks, and their questions sounded reasonable to my aging ears. But then I went home, and on the Vibrant Victoria internet forum, I encountered a very different impression of the evening.
“The room was 90 percent senior citizens who blathered on and on about how there is too much construction in Victoria and new towers block their views from the condo they bought last year,” fumed a forum poster nicknamed “victorian.” As far as they were concerned, the meeting was “mostly just boomer complaints about how terrible it is that Victoria is not in the 1960s anymore.”
I posted my own account of the event, and asked victorian to meet to discuss our differences of perception, but they declined. The “boomers” simply didn’t care about “a failing housing market, lack of rental homes, or [having] a vibrant and economically successful city,” victorian replied. “Unfortunately, the size of the post-war generation and the long lives they are expected to live will continue to hold our city, province, and country hostage for quite some time into the future, and it’s time for those of us who have more future ahead of us than behind us to fight back.”
ONE MIGHT DISMISS SUCH AGEIST HOSTILITY as the gripe of a solitary crank, but similar frustrations are being voiced worldwide. As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders noted recently, one common trait of the young protesters who rattled Hong Kong, Beirut, Santiago, Moscow, and other cities in 2019 is that they do not feel in any way represented by the older leaders who run their countries.
“Their anger represents a positive force of change — and a register of this decade’s failure to fully deliver the fruits of 30 years of worldwide human improvement to the next generation,” Saunders wrote. “Most of these protesters do not enjoy the lives and livelihoods that they and their parents had expected to be available for them. Many want something completely new — a new political system, a new way of managing the economy, a new ecological commitment.”
Canada has largely avoided such conflict because we continue to enjoy a buoyant economy, and elect youngish politicians who claim to be listening. But a generation gap is opening up here too. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and comprising some eight million Canadians, retain the lion’s share of economic wealth and political influence, while making increasing demands on government pension plans and health care. Millennials, mainly Boomers’ children born between 1981 and 1996 and numbering around 7.4 million, on the other hand, increasingly argue that they’re facing stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, and massive personal debt due to the high costs of education and housing. (Justin Trudeau, born in 1971, falls squarely in Generation X.)
“The movement we are part of is about intergenerational solidarity, which means people of all ages looking out for each other — and our particular focus in that is fighting for young people, and giving young people a chance,” says Eric Swanson, the Victoria-based executive director of Generation Squeeze, an advocacy nonprofit with more than 35,000 supporters across Canada. “We have a lot of people coming to us as they hit that crunch, where all these things start happening at once, and people are forced to make tough decisions, forced to leave the community they love and prefer to live in, forced to delay starting a family or perhaps not having one at all, forced to take on multiple jobs or precarious work, and through all of that living with increasing anxiety, from personal debt that you have to take on now to buy a home, anxiety around your or your children’s future when it comes to climate change,” says Swanson, who’s 36, and has a one-year-old daughter. “That’s why we need governments at all levels to start responding more urgently, and in a more coordinated fashion.”
Gen Squeeze executive director Eric Swanson
Gen Squeeze was founded in 2014 by Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health who often publishes research showing how Millennials have been getting the short end of public finance. In one paper, Kershaw calculated that Canadian governments spend up to $40,000 per person age 65-plus, but only $11,000 per person under 45; in another, Kershaw estimated that young Canadians pay 20 to 62 percent more in taxes to support retirees than they did four decades ago, even though many seniors are wealthier than at any time in national history. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons once accused Gen Squeeze of “trying to start an inter-generational war.”) Increasingly though, Gen Squeeze’s research and advocacy has been focused upon dampening the crippling price of housing in Canadian cities, Victoria included.
To that end, Swanson says Gen Squeeze has been working to “dial down harmful demand” on urban housing. It lobbied Vancouver and Victoria to restrict short-term rentals, and helped persuade the B.C. government to pass the Speculation and Vacancy Tax — and apply it to the entire capital region, much to the frustration of Langford mayor Stew Young. (“We are seeing provincial data revealing global capital coming here [to buy housing] too, not just in metro Vancouver,” Swanson says.)
The Gen Squeeze message
More controversially, Gen Squeeze has also encouraged municipalities to “dial up” the supply of housing, by supporting large housing developments opposed by neighbourhoods — leading to accusations that Gen Squeeze is just a stooge of wealthy corporations. (Along with VanCity Credit Union and the Vancouver Foundation, Gen Squeeze’s funders include the developer Wesgroup and the rental owners’ association LandlordBC.)
“We need to build a lot of homes,” Swanson replies. Although publicly-funded housing and co-ops are part of the solution, he says, private developments also increase supply. But will many private units actually be affordable? In the spring of 2018, Swanson urgedVictoria’s council to approve a project at 1201 Fort; now it’s being sold as Bellewood Park, with condos priced from $665,000 to $1.9 million.
“We need to build more housing Downtown, near urban cores, employment centres, and amenities, and be comfortable with the fact that it’s going to take some time for that housing to become affordable, as the unit ages,” Swanson says. “Simultaneously, we need to recognize that a lot of the problem in the end price is the underlying land value.”
To drop those values and spur housing, Gen Squeeze advocates increasing taxes on unimproved and underused land, and decreasing income taxes — an idea first proposed by the 19th-century economist Henry George, and which it’s currently researching for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Gen Squeeze has also called for a luxury tax on residences worth over $1 million, and eliminating the exemption on capital gains from the sale of a principal residence, a loophole that costs the federal government $6 billion a year. “Nobody does anything to earn that money,” Swanson says, although he admits cutting the exemption means “we will have to invest more in seniors as well, because a lot of people are banking on home equity to fund their retirement.”
SUCH ARGUMENTS SEEM TO BE increasingly influential — especially in the City of Victoria, where Millennials hold a growing share of political power.
According to the federal census, in 2011 nearly the same number of Millennials (18,270) and Boomers (17,070) lived in the City of Victoria. But by 2016, the numbers had tipped decisively in favour of Millennials (23,165) over Boomers (18,100). They will likely tip even further in the 2021 census, given Victoria’s hot economy and boom in apartment construction.
That trend might explain why Together Victoria got all three of its first-time, Millennial-aged candidates elected to council in 2018, and why Mayor Lisa Helps was re-elected. (Helps was 38 when she first won the mayoralty in 2014, making her one of the younger mayors in the City’s history, but the youth record likely goes to Alexander R. Robertson, who was 30 when he became mayor in 1870.) And since then, the council has fast-tracked concerns that often split public reaction along generational lines: bike lanes instead of cars, expanded services instead of low taxes, and new housing instead of heritage, trees, and quietude.
The next big fight over new housing is coming soon. On November 21, the council directed City staff to come up with a plan to increase the stock of lower-cost, “missing middle” housing, such as multi-unit houses and townhomes — and during the discussions, Helps indicated that she wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across the entire city, as Minneapolis did this past year, to get such housing built.
“I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right [on single-family lots]. I’d like to see fourplexes as of right,” Helps told her staff. (Video of the meeting here; start at 1:51:00.) “There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.”
(One critique of such blanket “upzoning” is that it jacks land values even higher, and only produces expensive townhomes in desirable neighbourhoods, not the affordable housing that cities need. So Victoria’s council, to its credit, also told staff to build an “affordability” requirement into its “missing middle” plan. City staff will present their draft recommendations this coming spring.)
Urban municipalities are now pushing for similar upzoning in cities across North America, in an attempt to address a housing crisis generated by a multitude of factors, including an economy producing a lot of downtown-based, tech- and service-oriented jobs — mainly employing Millennials — and outdated transportation infrastructure that prevents commuting from cheaper housing farther away.
Over the past three years, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. have all upzoned parts of their cities to permit greater housing densities, especially along transit routes. And in November, the City of Vancouver directed its staff to draft bylaws that would automatically permit six-storey rental housing on arterial roads and four-storey rentals on side streets near parks, schools and shopping.
“At best it’s an incremental improvement, but once we get this type of bylaw on the books, then it’s relatively easy in subsequent years to extend that,” says Adrian Crook, the founder of Abundant Housing Vancouver, a volunteer-run YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) advocacy group. “I think that’s how we get zoning reform. It’s not a single pen stroke, it’s a bunch of them.”
Of course, another attraction of upzoning to municipal governments is that it eliminates the lengthy consultations and public hearings that are required to rezone residential properties for higher densities. Crook, who was in Victoria recently to speak about the YIMBY movement to the Urban Development Institute, cites a recent battle over 21 rental townhomes in Vancouver’s high-end Shaughnessy neighbourhood, which concluded in a public hearing with dozens of speakers, consuming 10 hours of city council time. (The council rejected the proposal and a 13,000-square-foot mansion is being built on the lot instead.)
“That is the problem with our current housing-approval process,” Crook says. “The people who can potentially benefit from those 21 rental townhomes, they may not even live in Vancouver right now, and they’re not going to be motivated to show up at a council meeting. But the surrounding neighbourhood is highly motivated, because they perceive harms to be directly visited upon them. So that’s what we’re constantly fighting.”
Crook, who’s 43, says it’s “reductionist” to claim the two camps split entirely along Millennial-Boomer lines, but he admits that those demanding density and new housing are generally younger, while the oppositional “incumbents” in residential neighbourhoods are older. “They’re a generation that was raised on Jane Jacobs, and fighting freeways,” Crook says. “That’s a good fight, but now they see any type of growth as a bad thing.”
Crook has seen it in his own family. “My mother lives in Port Moody, in the house I grew up in. She very much fits that Sierra Club-model of environmentalist, but she voted in the current council because she thinks there’s been too much development and change in Port Moody. She loves the Skytrain and West Coast Express, but doesn’t want the areas around the stations developed,” Crook says. “It’s a really weird, contrarian perspective, to want all the amenities but nobody living around them.”
Ross Crockford was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and lives in a triplex that predates his neighbourhood’s single-family zoning.
Residents take the City of Victoria to court for overriding its Official Community Plan.
(UPDATE: On November 22, the BC Supreme Court rendered its decision in this case. See the note at the end of this story.)
“I’M NOT AN ACTIVIST KIND OF GUY,” John Wells says. By day, he develops instrumentation for the high-tech sector. But this autumn, he put his name on a court action that could change how developments get approved by the City of Victoria, and potentially every other municipality in British Columbia. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
In his case, the development in question is Rhodo, a set of 20 townhomes planned for two residential lots at 1712 and 1720 Fairfield Road, next to Hollywood Park, in the Gonzales neighbourhood. Aryze Developments first presented the project to neighbours, including Wells, in 2017. Though Aryze generated many letters of support for the project through their website, attendees at community association land-use meetings were almost universally opposed, arguing that Rhodo packed too many people into too small an area, it crowded the park and the sidewalk, and its boxy modern design didn’t fit the neighbourhood.
John Wells says the terms of the OCP constitute a public trust (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Victoria’s council approved Rhodo at a public hearing in August. A majority of speakers supported the project, and the majority of councillors (aside from Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Geoff Young) cited a need for diverse housing in the city and in the Gonzales neighbourhood, and claimed that increased density in such a walkable area, along a transit route, would help reduce climate change. But the neighbours didn’t accept those arguments. They got a lawyer’s opinion that the City had overstepped its authority, rallied to launch a court case to set aside the council’s decision, and Wells volunteered to become the face of the lawsuit.
The nub of their legal argument concerns the height of the development. Section 478 of BC’s Local Government Act says that all bylaws passed by a council — such as the rezoning bylaw for Rhodo — “must be consistent with” the municipality’s official community plan. In Victoria’s Official Community Plan or OCP, Gonzales is designated “traditional residential,” defined as consisting of “ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys” and multi-unit buildings up to three storeys on arterial roads. (Fairfield is designated a “collector” road.)
At the public hearing, Aryze and City staff said Rhodo was “2.5 storeys” tall, apparently because its top floor includes open-air balconies. Wells says Rhodo is three storeys. (The architect’s plans say it’s 11.14 metres tall, and a City planning document says residential construction between 9 and 12 metres equals three storeys.) “I deal with math a lot, and the equation for ‘up to two storeys’ is ‘less than or equal to two’,”. Wells says. “It’s not ‘around two’.”
Artist’s rendering of the controversial "2.5-storey" Rhodo project
City planners acknowledged the “up to two storeys” problem in their reports to councillors, but recommended Rhodo proceed anyway, noting that the OCP also contemplated a “range of built forms,” that the “appropriate scale” of a building was to be based on “an evaluation of the context,” and that the townhouses would advance the OCP’s broad objectives of diverse, transit-accessible housing.
Wells isn’t opposed to development; like any developer, he says, he just wants clear rules, and that means the City needs to respect the clear terms in the OCP. As he points out, Victoria developed its OCP between 2009 and 2011 with the involvement of some 6,000 residents, and in 2012, council enshrined the plan in a bylaw. “With this [Rhodo] decision they crossed the line, they violated the public trust, which is what the OCP is,” Wells says. “For me that’s the nucleus of this complaint.”
To finance the lawsuit, Wells has raised over $10,000 from more than 75 donors via gofundme.com — and in the process, he’s spoken with residents across Victoria who say they’re fed up with the City cherry-picking phrases from its policies to justify oversized developments. “I realized this isn’t isolated,” he says. “This has been going on for quite some time.”
IAN SUTHERLAND CAN SYMPATHIZE. As chair of the Downtown Residents’ Association’s land-use committee, he’s been battling City Hall over developments since 2011, and he agrees the OCP should be strictly interpreted. “It’s supposed to represent a contract between the council, the development community, and the citizens.”
Trouble is, the City keeps rewriting the contract, and frequently amends the plan for projects all over town. In May, Sutherland persuaded all of Victoria’s neighbourhood associations to add their names on a letter to Mayor Lisa Helps and council, calling on them and City staff to “follow best practices in land use planning by unequivocally upholding the Official Community Plan.” The City’s reply? “Zero. Not a peep,” Sutherland says. “It’s almost like they didn’t understand what I was talking about.”
Sutherland’s current headache is the City’s tendency to override the density provisions of the OCP. Density often gets described in floor-space ratios, but he says it’s really about whether a development will help or hurt the liveability of an area. A particularly egregious example for him is the proposal to gut the 1892-built “Duck’s Block” on Broad Street: the OCP says that historic part of downtown has a density limit of 3:1, but the planned hotel will have a density of nearly 5:1. “All those beautiful little courtyards and back alleys, they’re part of a low-density culture that will be rubbed out, because these developments soak up every square inch of dirt.”
Sutherland’s also been critical of the proposal for four towers at Cook and Johnson — one of which will include a new fire hall — noting that the project has an overall density of 6.8:1 in an area permitted only 5.5:1 in the OCP. At the project’s public hearing on October 24, City planning staff said they looked at a “balance” of considerations, and that inconsistency with any one policy in the OCP wasn’t enough to derail a proposal. Council agreed and approved the project — and in her comments, Mayor Helps said that she effectively considers parts of the OCP to be obsolete.
“One of the problems with the Official Community Plan, and the way that it’s used sometimes, is that it’s wielded as a shield against change,” Helps told the audience. “And I don’t think that’s right.” She was on an advisory committee for the OCP when it was being created, before she was first elected to council in 2011, and the OCP didn’t identify the concerns Victoria faces today. “If we had declared a climate emergency, and been in the middle of a housing crisis when we approved the OCP in 2012, it probably would’ve looked like a very different document. So our responsibility now is to look at the reality around us, and amend the document accordingly as needed.”
Wells’ case is slightly different: for Rhodo, the City didn’t even bother amending the OCP, which is a more complicated procedure under provincial law than rezoning, requiring a municipality to consult with “persons, organizations and authorities” that might be affected. (For an example of what’s involved, see Coquitlam’s manual for OCP amendments here.) Perhaps the City got lazy — or perhaps it passed on an OCP amendment for Rhodo because it believes the law is on its side.
In its filed response to Wells’ action, the City notes that section 471 of the Local Government Act says an OCP is “a statement of objectives and policies,” so the City considers it a “visionary” document that shouldn’t be strictly interpreted. Some judges have agreed: in 2011, BC’s Court of Appeal upheld Central Saanich’s subdivision of the Vantreight farm into residential lots, saying its rezoning bylaw was consistent with the various environmental and social goals in the OCP, and that the council acted reasonably by weighing various factors in its decision. But more recent BC court decisions say an OCP is a legal document, and when it imposes clear requirements, those should be followed.
The case will probably be heard in mid-December. Regardless of the decision, though, the issues will soon be tried in the court of public opinion as well. Laurel Collins, one of the councillors who voted for Rhodo, is now off to Ottawa, and the City will hold a byelection for her seat early in the new year. Judging by Victoria’s ongoing arguments over land use, neighbourhood-advocate candidates are sure to emerge.
Ross Crockford used to be a lawyer, but he’s feeling better now.
UPDATE: On Friday, November 22, the BC Supreme Court dismissed the Wells petition to strike down the City of Victoria’s rezoning bylaw for the Rhodo development.
Mr Justice Giaschi said Wells’s lawyers had failed to bring the petition to be heard within the two-month limit in Section 623 of the Local Government Act. He also said the bylaw was “consistent with” the City’s Official Community Plan, and the Council’s decision to pass it was sufficiently “reasonable” that it should not be struck down under the Judicial Review Procedure Act.
The judge noted that City staff and Council had actively considered the development’s compliance with the OCP, and sent the proposal back for revisions to satisfy the Plan. Although one part of the OCP did say a “traditional residential” neighbourhood only permitted buildings “up to two storeys” on collector roads like Fairfield, the judge said that clause had to be read “in conjunction with other parts of the OCP,” which allowed for a range of building types, and identified various goals, including increasing the supply of housing.
After the decision, Wells issued a statement on his GoFundMe page:
“The judge's decision does not mean that the OCP has no meaning, or that City Council can make whatever decision they want. What it does mean is that the courts will give City Council some leeway in how they interpret the OCP, which in this case, and in this specific location, includes 2.5 storeys in an ‘up to 2 storey’ area.
“During the hearing, the judge commented that if residents are not happy with how Council makes decisions, that is what elections are for. Therefore, if we are not happy with how much leeway this City Council seems to be taking with the OCP, we should be having that dialogue with our elected representatives, and future candidates, about why respecting the OCP is important.”
That dialogue is likely to get more heated. Last Thursday, Council directed City staff to come up with policies to increase “missing middle” housing, such as townhouses — and Mayor Lisa Helps announced that she effectively wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across Victoria to get such townhouses built. (Start at 1:51:15 in the video of the meeting HERE.)
“I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right,” Helps said. “I’d like to see fourplexes as of right. There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community [last year] when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.”
Victorians, get ready for more Rhodos.
Victoria’s affordable housing crisis puts the bullseye on public land in Fernwood.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF MY HOME is one of my favourite city neighbourhoods: Fernwood. I love its diversity, its heritage homes, its artsy, alternative vibe and lack of pretentiousness.
These days its experiencing a lot of community angst over a proposed housing development on lands owned mostly by School District 61 to the west of Vic High. Called the Caledonia, it will offer 154 units of desperately needed affordable non-market housing. The Fernwoodians I know say they have no issue with the “affordable” aspect. Instead they are concerned with its size, the impacts on the neighbourhood’s traffic, the precedent it will set for further development, and the loss of School District-owned land.
The developer—in this case the CRD’s Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC)—has submitted its development application to City Hall, and is requesting rezoning and Official Community Plan (OCP) amendments, with the hope of a fall 2020 construction start. In total there are five separate buildings, including three-storey townhouse rows, and four- and five-storey apartment buildings, with 109 parking stalls underneath.
Artist's rendering of one part of the Caledonia redevelopment proposal
The first the community heard about the new Caledonia project was last November when an agreement was announced among the City, CRHC, BC Housing and School District 61 (SD61) to create the large housing complex. This “Letter of Intent” was both an agreement to work out a “land swap” among the players and a vision for the 154-unit housing complex. The land swap would “assemble” a 9,000 square-foot rectangular lot, owned by SD61, but leased for 60 years to CRHC which would build the housing. The City of Victoria would end up owning the Compost Education Centre, Spring Ridge Community Gardens and Haegert Park, all important community spaces currently owned by the School District. It was a big deal.
Ownership before (left) and after the land swap. The project would go on the SD 61 land (blue swath, right). (Courtesy of Fernwood Village Vibe)
After some feedback from the community, CRHC made changes to its plan, and last summer held an open house for the community. Christine Culham, a senior manager with CRHC, told me, “I do think we’ve been really thoughtful in the way we listened to the community around their concerns.” She mentioned that building heights have been reduced (though there’s still one at five storeys)—and topmost floors of the two higher ones “stepped back” to appear less massive. Neighbourhood traffic concerns led to changes in the configuration of entrances. A building of 1,500 square feet was added to provide community space.
Long-time Fernwood resident and Fernwood Community Association board member Dorothy Field emailed me in August, saying, “the proponents, CRHC are treating it as a totally done deal. The Fernwood community is not very happy, so the designers have tweaked the plan a bit with ‘green’ addenda but nothing substantive has changed.” She noted that Fernwoodians are supportive of a new development which provides low-income housing, but “we are distressed at the size, density, and height of this proposal. When asked if the number of apartments could be reduced, CRHC said, ‘No, that’s the arithmetic.’”
Culham explained to me that while they try hard to keep everyone happy, the number-one priority of the City of Victoria and the CRD is affordable housing, so that weighs heavily in the balancing of objectives. Building costs have increased 36 percent, she notes, “so it’s difficult to make a property affordable without any government grant or intervention. Right now both the provincial and federal governments are coming to the table with funding…that hasn’t happened in 20 years, so we’re looking to take advantage of those grants; you never know when they’re going to go away.” The Caledonia project has already been approved for provincial funding, partly because of its high number of units.
Given the cost of land and construction, the only way to have affordability in the City of Victoria is to create density, Culham continued. “How do we get the best use out of land? Just like the fire hall, building up is the only way we’re going to be able to get that.” In the case of the Caledonia, she says, “I am mindful and I am empathetic to the challenge around change, but I do think that the benefits outweigh the change that is occurring.”
Culham, who lived in Fernwood in the past and appreciates its special character, feels the Caledonia’s proximity to Cook Street and its amenities mean its “walkability score is off the charts.”
A passionate advocate for affordable housing, she sees the provision of it in the City of Victoria as a matter of fairness and equity. With 61 percent of those living in the City of Victoria being renters—with a median household income of $44,600—the average rent they can afford is $1100 per month. But the average rent for listed vacancies in the City is now close to $1500 per month. So in her analysis, with Caledonia rents averaging $1000, she is building housing for the majority of the population. “Those are the people we don’t hear from, even though we have 1,500 waiting for homes on the BC Housing Registry,” she said.
I MET WITH FERNWOOD RESIDENTS Dorothy Field and Trish Richards for a look at the site of the proposed housing on a sunny fall day. They first pointed out to me the CRHC housing already occupying some of the SD61 land. Built in 1992, there are 18 units for families in the attached townhouse structure (also called Caledonia). Only 27 years old, it will be torn down, not just to make room for the new development but, according to Culham, because “it’s a leaky condo.” In 2012, the CRHC was given a remediation estimate of $130,000 per unit.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines leaky condos as a “catastrophic failure” of building envelopes, which lets water into the building frame and leads to rot, rust, decay and mould. It has been attributed in part to a building boom in the 1980s and early ’90s, which led to a high demand for workers and materials, and in turn to lower-quality construction and materials. It’s not a stretch to think something like it could happen again, given the current construction boom.
Culham told me residents of the old Caledonia will have first right of refusal once the new buildings are complete. Meanwhile, they have been offered alternative units in other CRHC buildings.
One current resident, who came by to talk to us as we wandered around, said seven families had already moved out, which seemed premature given nothing had been approved—including the land swap and the rezoning from a combination of “Traditional Residential” and “Parks” to “Urban Residential.”
The resident said that due to her special needs, she was having to look at housing out in the Royal Oak area.
As we chatted in the sunshine, David Maxwell came by on his bike. He is the chair of Fernwood Community Association’s Land Use Committee. He noted that CRHC has known for years about the problems their tenants have been living with and dragged their feet on remediation of the 18 units. “Why should we have faith CRHC will be able to manage 154 units properly?” he asked.
Maxwell and Richards agreed that the first order of business was to let the School Board know they should not be giving up any more school land. Besides the land under the existing Caledonia, much of the lot is “rubble fields” resulting from the demolition of the Fairey Tech school buildings in 2011 (the tech programs moved to a new facility). It was understood by the neighbourhood that this area would provide, once remediated, more green and activity space for the school and community. Eight years later that still hadn’t happened.
PERHAPS I SHOULD REMIND READERS that Vic High’s renewal was the subject of a lengthy process of public consultation involving three options for upgrading and necessary seismic work. The community made it clear they preferred the Full Monty, involving seismic and other improvements, as well as creating room for 200 more students and a Neighbourhood Learning Centre. In June 2018, the School Board unanimously supported it. The price tag was $79.7 million.
No one was warned, however, “If you choose this option, we’ll have to build housing on school lands.” Yet when the new Caledonia project was first announced last November, and through subsequent consultations, raising needed funds to fix Vic High was part of the rationale.
At the end of June 2019, however, the Province came though with $77.1 million in funding for the high school upgrades—leaving SD61 with only $2.6 million to raise. People are now questioning whether the School Board should be entering into long-term leases on Vic High lands when such a small amount could likely be raised by any number of less-invasive means.
Chief among those people are Fernwood residents Scott Fox and Corey Kowal. Throughout the fall they’ve been making the rounds of School Board and committee meetings with well-polished power point presentations.
The father of two girls who currently attend George Jay Elementary and will likely attend Vic High, Fox’s background as a business analyst is apparent in his presentations. Kowal, like Fox, lives with her family near Vic High. She has a background in strategic planning and operations management with the BC government.
Using aerial shots of different local high school grounds, Kowal argued at one SD61 committee meeting that Vic High, after the proposed removal of land for housing, would have less space per child than most other high schools in the district. School green space, research has shown, correlates with improved mental health, safety and school pride, she said, noting, “Once the land is gone, it’s gone.” With an inner-city school like Vic High, where many students don’t have their own back yards, it’s especially important to have green and activity space available.
Ministry of Education regulations call for each school in the province to provide a minimum of five hectares of land per 1,000 students. Fox worked out the space left for educational purposes after the land swap to be 4.69 hectares per 1,000 students.
Culham disputes those numbers; in CHRC’s analysis, there would still be 5.05 hectares per 1,000 students after the land swap.
Either way, of course, it’s very close to the minimum requirement.
At an October presentation to the School Board, Fox gave another power point, this one suggesting a lack of due diligence around the land swap. He said that there had been no land appraisals performed by qualified independent appraisers; that no cost benefit analysis had been performed regarding the land swap; and that there had been no internal controls to prevent bias and collusion, as is recommended by the BC Auditor for any real estate asset sale.
Fox and Kowal, along with others, have formed the Vic High Neighbourhood Action Group, with a website (www.itsnotsurplus.com) and will host information sessions on November 5 & 6, both 7:30-9 pm at 1923 Fernwood Road.
SD61 is holding an open house on the issue on November 12, 6-8 pm at Vic High’s Roper Gym. It is expected the board will vote on the land swap shortly thereafter.
THERE ARE NO LESS THAN FOUR levels of government aligned behind the Caledonia project: SD61, CRHC of the CRD, BC Housing, and the City of Victoria. The development package submitted to the City by CRHC includes a 33-page book full of persuasive details about the need for affordable housing, the appropriateness of the site (a “walker’s paradise”), and the project’s many admirable features including energy efficiency, urban agriculture, rain gardens, tot play areas, and a new city “greenway.”
In late October, David Maxwell, chair of FCA’s Land Use Committee, was alarmed to learn from a City of Victoria planner that, despite the School Board not having decided yet to go ahead with the land swap, the development application had already moved through all the necessary departments—regarding roads, utilities, sewer, etc—with recommended changes sent to the CRHC. Though the planner assured him “this is the way it’s done all the time,” in Maxwell’s mind, it seemed premature and wasteful. “This is public property, funded by the taxpayers, as are all the City and CRHC staff involved…[They] are wasting all that money before knowing whether it can go ahead.” Echoing others, he says, “It starts to look more and more like a done deal, like we’re all just going through the motions, just playing this huge game.” (It doesn’t help that Mayor Helps and School Board Chair Jordan Watters have made positive comments about the development.)
The Fernwood Land Use Committee will soon give the City a formal response on the Caledonia application indicating its lack of support due to the needed OCP and zoning changes, said Maxwell; “We don’t have any five-storey buildings near there.” He believes if such height and density are allowed there, it will set a precedent for the whole area west of the site, over to Cook Street.
Fernwood community members know that affordable housing is needed, but have noticed the City hasn’t done much to generate such housing in all the other developments council has approved. As Field pointed out to me, “We also have four large developments approved or almost approved that will add to pressure on existing public infrastructure: Wellburn’s, St Andrews, the former co-housing site [Fernwood Commons at Chambers and North Park], a large new tower at Chambers and Johnson…the City has not negotiated affordable suites in any of these new buildings.” (Going forward, the City’s new inclusionary zoning policy will require 20 percent of all units in larger developments to be affordable.)
The task of adding affordable housing, especially in core neighbourhoods, gets more difficult by the minute. Victoria continues to attract those who have wealth—to retire here, to have second homes here, to invest here, causing land values to increase. As Culham pointed out, this makes it difficult to provide enough housing for citizens of modest means—those who work in our nursing homes, shops, offices and cafes. It’s little wonder that once-sancrosanct school lands, churches, and heritage buildings are now being eyed by developers, including those building affordable housing.
Perhaps it’s time for neighbourhoods to be more proactive, implementing a bottom-up approach wherein they themselves come up with neighbourhood-supported ideas for increased affordable housing.
Websites of all the organizations mentioned above offer more information. Access Caledonia’s development application here.
Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus.
Parsing the promo material for a new development near the Esquimalt Lagoon.
HERE'S A RULE OF THUMB: when, or wherever, you see the word “nestled” in real estate advertising copy, make the sign of the cross and run at top speed in the other direction. You need nestling? Go to your partner, or the park, to your therapist, guru or support group, your pet corgi; hell, your pet rock. I urge this in behalf of the last remnant shred of authentic human emotion. That was emotion, not emoticon.
The torn genius employed by Rennie Marketing—a Vancouver-based company engaged by various real estate developers to find a route to your dreams (and your credit limit) via any orifice that can be pried open and penetrated—has advanced to Hell by at least six damnations for seduction in behalf of a new townhouse/condo project, Two Waters, that has in its crosshairs a large, verdant, ocean-side ex-paradise in Colwood bracketed by nearby standard-issue suburbs and, if Lagoon Road project signs can be trusted, other quick-sprouting projects for neighbours.
Two Waters' online promotional material
There’s a whole lotta nestling going on these days in real estate promotion. Presumably, “nestled” will be claiming overtime pay because “Hidden gem!”, “Opportunity knocks!”, “Dreams do come true!” and “Was that an eagle calling to its young, or star-song passing over an angel’s wing?” all have exhaustion breaks and time off for good behaviour.
The language in the promotional copy is skillful, self-aware and coy—if those terms don’t overly contradict each other—and loaded with manufactured longing in roughly the same way that all us young guys used to protest, “No, I’m saying you’re beautiful and I love you because you’re beautiful and I love you, not because I want to get into your pants. Why do you always have to think I wantsomething?”
Consider the totemic name of this Colwood project: Two Waters. My instincts tell me this has nothing to do with “hot” and “cold” (though “still” and “sparkling” bear further study). The project moniker pole-vaults over the likes of Meadowview Acres (never a meadow in view) or Marlene Estates (developer’s girlfriend). No, this is all “one with the land,” along with a conspicuous cultural and linguistic mortgage in favour of First Nations culture.
Online promotional copy for this master-planned development states, in part: “We respect the land and each other. We carry the responsibility of stewardship. We share resources and nature.” Definitely that “nestled” guy, finally off the crystal meth but now clearly high on grass and kumbayah.
The heraldic logo for the project, which floats at the edges of a full-page newspaper ad and a promotional mailer, both of which now sit in front of me, features two sets of wavy lines drawn at right angles to each other, encircled by “Two Waters In Balance.”
Balance. What is balance? Sounds like a good thing, like something you need and from which you would benefit. Ironists might claim “balance” should never be caught un-tethered from “bank;” but, then, that kind of cynicism is just heartbreak’s porch door. In today’s world of multiplying angers and rising dangers, and trapped, as we are, in a global community whose last shred of equipoise could vanish in a risky heartbeat, “balance” is powerful cultural code. The word invokes a mountain of Zen-inflected ooga-booga and is, of course, enshrined in the Victoria Charter of Rights, Vibes and Gimmes. It has enormous market heft because it all but claims parentage from some holy book. Remember the good old days (I’m casting back to the ’70s and ’80s) wearing your “truth face” to advertise your rarified spiritual credentials, and to get laid? Kind of like that. “Balance,” in other words, is a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, the adult option, I suppose, to “Paint With Rainbows.”
“A new vision of community begins with a bird’s eye view,” warbles the full-page ad. And there, just beside the aerial photograph of the property, and within reach of the gag-worthy banner “It will take a village” (I swear I’m not making this up), is a picture of a heron in profile—clearly on the payroll for now, but soon to be served with a scram notice when the ‘dozers start to rumble. Is that a heartbroken, prefigurative tear rolling from its eye down its long beak? Can’t quite tell.
But wait: the copywriter moves way past all this manipulative child’s play with a statement in the mail-piece so mystical, ambiguous, recondite, code-loaded and indivisible that you might easily conclude its various claims had been annealed in Heaven’s smithy:
“Today, progressive living is as much about thoughtful architecture and design as it is about sustainable practice.”
…There’s a tricksome little smile on your face. You’ve just pulled the cork on a very decent white; the hints-of-brown-sugar sockeye and your secret-spiced mustard greens will be ready soon; the killer Caesar salad’s already on the candlelit table; and once again you have perfectly timed the cork pop with the punch line of your by-now-patented ski adventure story about being chased by and outrunning, actually out-skiing, ha-ha, a mini-avalanche rumbling down the slope mere feet behind you. Your brother and his new (second) wife are over; so are neighbours Ben and Elissa from the next building (you’ve bonded over herbicide-free landscaping).
You hope tonight you can shoulder-check your brother if, a glass or two in him, he starts in again with that anti-bike-lane rant. Besides, you have an important announcement to make about the Canada/Mexico inter-cultural project that you’ve been working on for two years….
Ahhh, progressive living!
I’ll attempt a less novelistic deconstruction. “Progressive living” is code for a lucky life—the life you want for yourself—filled with self-celebration, apotheosis, the happy marriage of intelligence, education and good taste, all of it validated and made worry-free by a terrific income and a gilt-edged investment portfolio. “Living the dream” is a passable colloquial synonym.
As for the rest of that Two Waters promotional meta-poetry above, consider: how could you possibly see anything in your mind’s eye but those two cha-cha-ing pixies of “thoughtful architecture and design” (to be fair, the project is designed by brilliant architectural practitioner Paul Merrick) and “sustainable practice?” On closer inspection, those pixies appear not just to be dancing, but copulating, for God’s sake!
Wal-Mart, by the way, if blunter and slightly less iambic, is no less aspirational: “Save Money, Live Better.”
Real estate has always been about better tomorrows, a projection of some hidden you yearning for release and expression. The text, the written thesis, of Two Waters hypothesizes and then beckons to a you still capable of emotional sunrise, innocence, hope for the future and strong skills of bad-news management; that is, insulation from today’s abrasive social noise and all those worrying headlines. Honestly, what is a home if it can’t keep risk at bay?
René Girard, French philosopher of social science, developed a theory of mimetic desire. That is, we borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object or experience is always provoked by the desire of another person—the model—for this same object. This means that the relationship between the subject and the object is not direct: there is always a triangular relationship of subject, model, and object. In the case of Two Waters, the voice or persona of the promotional material itself has skillfully appropriated the model role.
So, you’ve made up your mind? You’re going to buy in Two Waters beside the Esquimalt Lagoon? Best to give a read first to David Wallace-Wells’ new book, The Uninhabitable Earth—Life After Warming, just so you have a good feel for the melting speed of the Arctic Ice Sheet and its likely impact on sea rise. After all, you don’t want to buy near-waterfront only to discover you’re the chagrined owner of a float-home.
Also, news junkie that you are, you will have noticed that demagoguery and autocracy, not democracy, is a growing global political trend led, and cheer-led, by that orange-haired sociopath south of us. Frankly, given mounting prospects for international fisticuffs anywhere, at any scale, Two Waters might do well appealing to our need for safety as well as lifestyle: “Today, progressive living is as much about an assured berth in Two Water’s fully stocked underground bomb shelter as it is about the cornucopian food-and-medicine survival kit included with every home…and an added thoughtful touch: a ‘surrender’ flag in every front hall closet.”
I know, doesn’t quite have that ring. Those two poor pixies, backs now bent in defeat and sorrow. But trust me: when slogans like “Make America Great Again” are working, it’s a sign that little else is.
Oh, if I may indelicately remind you: Trump is a property developer.
Two Waters whispers a solemn promise to return you to a lost paradise when nature was your friend and partner, and was the source of material and spiritual bounty. Two Waters pledges to restore some utterly lost harmony.
Crippled nature, unfortunately, has retreated, its very essence jeopardized by human intervention.
Retreated, but not utterly or permanently—Genesis 3:19 (King James Version): “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” The ultimate real estate advertising headline, if you think about it.
Founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller once ran an advertising agency in Victoria (Broughton Communications Group).
Will new Downtown buildings help our resiliency and community in the face of social upheaval?
LEONARD BERNSTEIN ANNOUNCED his retirement from conducting on October 9, 1990, and five days later died of a heart attack at his Manhattan apartment in The Dakota. At his funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, construction workers removed their hats and waved, calling out “Goodbye, Lenny.” A city family big enough to have heroes and small enough to weep at their passing. A place, not an anywhere.
Cities, communities of people, need identity and are bound by story; they need to be a who, and need as an urban culture to share that story, to feel like participants in its abstractions, its history and practices—things that can be seen and felt. I’m so glad I live in “a little bit of old England,” a city where everywhere you turn, you’re presented with remind—what, that’s gone, too?!
The Jukebox under construction on View Street
Victoria’s current Empire State Building frenzy of Downtown highrise development should abate in the early 2020s, the market (temporarily) exhausted, the last cement truck off to its Bay Street home. Then, we may witness our works. It is certain that Downtown’s visual identity, personality and place-mood—its qualities, to use that old-fashioned word—will have been transformed; and clear that the city missed (or forewent) the opportunity to try to understand the why, the secret sauce, of this (fadingly) singular place, to figure out how to re-fashion Downtown’s best qualities within some new urban and social design expression.
Ever visited someone who lives on the upper floors of one of Victoria’s Downtown-area highrises or, for that matter, driven or walked to the top of Beacon Hill? It’s the breathtaking views, baby! The vista! At even a modest elevation, our surrounding land- and waterscape become legible. You part the living room curtains, you crest the park hill, your eye takes it in, your spirit lights up. The panorama offers perspective, permits context and clarity; you know where you are. Lucky you!
As an upper-storey highrise resident, even if you have not yourself become a god, you mingle with the gods. View confers both social and spiritual status. View delivers something humanly important. You need only consult the imagery and symbolism of Medieval and Renaissance religious art to be fully exposed to the meaning and value of such elevation. Higher is liberating. Higher implies supervisory status. In a symbolic act whose meanings can hardly be missed, royalty sits on a throne: authority, author, self-maker, creator. Higher magnifies and places one closer to the energetic source—at a guess, the timeless, essential influence of the sun working on human consciousness, rituals, social protocols…and real estate pricing!
The human roil is, by contrast, in the opposite direction, grounded. Hell is the hard game of the sidewalk. Consider that Christ was down with the people, a real mingler, before God bumped him upstairs. (Miracle explained! You’re welcome.)
Enough exegesis; it’s my point that highrise and lowrise embody different webs of meaning, different human expressions—the one individuating, self-spotlighting, isolating; the other democratic, compromissory, socially binding, messy.
It isn’t that Victoria skipped on the opportunity to stand athwart the Highway to The Future, stern arms held out straight to reject the furies of the highrises as they marched into town. Rather, it skipped on the opportunity to initiate strategies to neutralize and even convert their fortifying and privatizing tendencies and impacts.
The defensive materiality of each new building, palpably projecting a guarded, gated, securitized response to unspecified forms of stranger danger, the impermeability—glass, metal, concrete, gating—of these buildings tells you much: not architectural welcome or community, but defense, privacy, protection, isolation.
And the visual poverty, the shab and physical disrepair, the indifference and lack of aesthetic programming, of the adjacent public realm wordlessly articulates a perverse and unhealthy public/private partnership: public dangerous/private safe, the very opposite of a blueprint for human connection and successful city-making.
In some small way, I cite the absence of social literacy amongst developers. This is not a crowd that sits up nights reading history and philosophy. They don’t teach Utopian Urbanism 101 at the School of Developology.
The largest responsibility, though, falls to civic leadership, both elected and managerial, and equally with us so-called citizens who, increasingly bemused by public life and alienated from its meanings, find interaction much beyond the coffee shop patio unsanitary and risky.
I understand: cultures lose sensibility or, to be generous, swap old aptitudes (and attitudes) for new, voluntarily discarding and forgetting the old, in the relentless push for currency. But novelty, which we reflexively celebrate, also disguises or embodies cultural dislocation—a turn too sharp to navigate, a gap too wide to comfortably jump. It takes time (if time’s even the cure) for a culture to make meaning of and to integrate various forms and expressions of novelty, to test them for truth and utility…and consequences—the “oracular and critical potencies of the commonplace,” as Mike Davis puts it in his book of essays, Dead Cities.
Nothing will substitute for a community-wide dialogue, however faltering and argumentative at the start, about the idea of urbanity here, and the various possibilities of its physical expression in buildings and the public realm. If a community, through its municipal structure, can’t or won’t tell public realm designers and city budgeters about its values and priorities, and tell Downtown newcomer buildings how to behave, nothing else will.
Developers are risk managers, not social rhapsodists. The gleam in their eye is profit and return on investment, not some vision of a better world. Actually, I correct myself: I can think of at least four industry philosophers and/or visual poets in Victoria. First, Max Tomaszewski and partner David Price, (Essencia Verde in Cook Street Village, and the former Medical Arts Building, Cook and Pandora, now re-branded The Wade). Next, mad artist Don Charity (Mosaic, Jukebox). Third, Chris LeFevre (Railyards, and numerous Downtown heritage renewals). Last, Bijan and Faramir Neyestani, responsible for the Aria, the Paul Merrick-designed masterpiece on Humboldt Street.
Glimpse, imaginatively, a more empowering and citizen-esque Downtown Victoria furnished with useful or whimsical public realm features (including soapboxes), and buildings that meet the street generously in an aesthetic and social partnership; people (including yourself) acting more publicly connected, more owners of the public realm, their behaviour more extroverted, engaging, less wary, estranged and carapace-like.
In his intermittently wise book Twelve Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson observes: “Before the Twin Towers fell—that was order. Chaos manifested itself afterward. Everyone felt it. The very air became uncertain. What exactly was it that fell? Wrong question. What exactly remained standing?”
Peterson’s clever phrasing begs for local application: “There are compelling economic and land use arguments in support of all the new Downtown residential highrises. Are the buildings generating a new story about Victoria? Wrong question. What’s the message?”
Please, don’t leave this column thinking I’m just being fussy about “frosting” or decorative trivialities Downtown. There are other, deeper reasons to foster powerful public community Downtown.
Cities concentrate human potential in all its physical and cultural expressions. But remember: with grace comes gravity. Inherent in this, in any, urban concentration, however rich in promise, is an anarchic, explosive, counter-social impulse (people who don’t want to play) whose mildest expressions are inertia, social disaffection and petty crime, and most powerful, widespread anomie and serious damage to the urban fabric. (“Violence is a quest for identity. The less identity, the more violence,” noted Marshall McLuhan.) Believing these are normal times, we take normal steps to define and patrol social boundaries and identity, and in so doing we take as faith the durability of an invisible, shared public code that transmits and stabilizes the personality and the culture of the city. But social codes wane, lose their potency and relevance, and no amount of authority—or repressive propriety—will compensate for their decline.
It’s hardly alarmist to describe these times as a corner-point, a civilizational moment. National politics is in many places shattered and, concurrently, life’s becoming a risky technological tomorrowland. Ever the crucible, the US is home to increasing social absenteeism. In American social critic James Kunstler’s words: “we can’t construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us, and therefore we can’t make any coherent plans about what to do.”
Can we in Victoria remain or re-become an identifiable and coherent urban community, not simply a crowd of people to whom the future happens? Healthy urban culture must be authored and constantly renewed. And land use, urban form and urban design—what goes where, and why, and with what consequences—is central to that process. Such concerns address social resilience and the almost painterly conditions required to sustain it. (A powerfully enhanced advisory design process couldn’t hurt.)
History’s knocking hard everywhere, right now—a moment astutely decoded by architecture critic and writer Nathaniel Popkin: “Ours is an age of loss disguised as plenty.”
Despite all urgency, in this vast fog-state of paradox we’re lost and immobilized, amorphous, not focused, stupid about history, stupid about the future.
Time to be smart, fellow citizens...before the page turns.
Jason McLennan, founder and chair of the board of the International Living Future Institute and Cascadia Green Bulding Council will be giving a talk about “The Livable City” on Wednesday, March 20 at 7pm, at the McPherson Theatre. Seats are free.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
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.
Downtown residents question the $34-million deal for a new fire hall.
CRITICS HAVE ISSUED THEIR LISTS of the best TV shows of the past year. For high stakes and dramatic twists, though, it has been hard to beat the live stream of recent City of Victoria council meetings.
“We have one of the most difficult decisions we will probably have all term in front of us today,” mayor Lisa Helps told councillors on November 15. For nearly three hours they debated sites for a new Crystal Pool, before voting 7-2 to keep it in the southwest corner of Central Park, the location City staff had already spent two years and $2 million planning for, despite the objections of its neighbours. The following week, at the November 22 council meeting, they looked certain to ratify that decision. A group of North Park residents marched down to City Hall to show their opposition. And then the council stunned the audience.
Helps said she’d had a conversation with RG Properties’ Graham Lee, who leases the Save-On arena, and that he was “enthusiastic” about exploring a partnership for a public swimming pool on the arena’s parking lot. “My report back to the public and council is that meeting went well, there is an interest, and I’m not going to say anything further because that would be motivating one way or another.” But that was enough: councillors voted unanimously to pursue discussions with Lee, even if it meant blowing the January deadline for a first crack at federal-provincial infrastructure cash, and risked losing $7 million in grants the City had already accumulated.
“What tipped the balance for me is even if we get some federal and some provincial funding, we’d have to hold a referendum [to borrow money] and we could have the North Park residents forming the ‘no’ side,” Helps told Victoria News. “We all know what it’s like to do a large infrastructural project that the public doesn’t support, like the Johnson Street Bridge, and I don’t want to do that again.”
There may have been other factors (a new geotechnical report showed significant bedrock and groundwater at the Central Park site), but the official story is that councillors listened to the neighbourhood, and changed course. Now, with the pool on hold, their attention will turn to Victoria’s next big undertaking — a new No. 1 fire hall — which appears to be following a similar early plotline. City crafts megaproject. Proponents sell plan to neighbourhood. Conflict ensues.
LAST MARCH, the City announced a remarkable deal. After 18 months of closed-door negotiations, it had signed a contract with Dalmatian Developments, to pay the newly incorporated company $33.7 million upon completing a 41,700 square-foot fire hall as part of a new mixed-use building on Johnson at Cook, on land that’s currently the back end of a parking lot for Pacific Mazda. The fire hall, built to the latest post-disaster earthquake standard, would include six bays for fire vehicles, Victoria’s first purpose-built emergency operations centre, and space for BC Emergency Health Services to operate four ambulances. The old fire hall on Yates would remain open while the replacement was being built, and the City would use money from its financial reserves, so there’d be no associated tax increase.
The new fire hall on Johnson Street could be topped by affordable housing, but the deal requires concessions from the City (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design)
It was great news, Helps told reporters. Moving the fire hall Downtown made sense with more residents in the area, and it was cheaper than the City building one on its own. (In 2013 CFB Esquimalt opened a fire hall of similar size for $27.3 million, but it didn’t have to buy land.) When CTV asked if there was a risk of cost overruns, as with the “fixed-price” Johnson Street Bridge, Helps replied: “How could it go like the bridge went, when a private-sector developer is building the project? The City will pay when it’s done.”
But members of the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) started digging into the deal, and didn’t like what they saw. The fine print of the City’s announcement said the agreement was “subject to Dalmatian Developments bringing their overall project through the rezoning process” — and that “overall project” turned out to cover the entire Pacific Mazda property.
Dalmatian is a partnership between Jawl Residential and Nadar Holdings, a company owned by the family of the late Victoria mayor Peter Pollen, who bought Olson Motors at 1060 Yates in the 1960s. (He ran it as a Ford dealership until 1988, when it became Pacific Mazda, but it remains in the Pollen family.) The property, consisting of nine parcels of land, is oddly zoned. The eastern half is designated S-1, which permits buildings up to five storeys covering no more than 60 percent of the land, with a floor-space density up to 1.5:1. The western half is R-48, which allows up to 10 storeys, but doesn’t limit coverage and says nothing about density; Dalmatian says that effectively gives the western half a huge “theoretical” density of 9.8:1. Neither zone permits a fire hall, so some rezoning is needed. Dalmatian proposes spreading the R-48 density around the site, and erecting four mixed-use buildings: the fire hall, limited to 12 storeys because of its seismic requirements, and three connected towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall.
Last summer, Dalmatian revealed the fire-hall building’s design, crafted by HCMA (the architects also working on the new Crystal Pool), and the DRA held a community meeting in the Mazda showroom to discuss the plans. Ninety-three residents turned up, and they were peeved — not with the developer, but with the City for letting the project get this far before consulting the public. “I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of a social experiment, to see how much noise, how much disruption I can take before I will be pushed out of this area,” said a guy who lived on the north side of Johnson. Several said they saw no benefit to their neighbourhood, just five or more years of construction, and then sirens. “This is just cramming more and more buildings in. We’ve got no green space, and this is supposed to be Harris Green,” another complained. “Where’s the City of Victoria’s planning department on this?” he demanded, to applause from the audience.
Dalmatian’s rezoning proposal includes three towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall, at the northwest corner of Yates and Cook, along with the building containing the fire hall (centre back) (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design)
“We just want the City to lead by example, and respect its foundational planning documents,” says Ian Sutherland, the chair of the DRA’s land-use committee. The Official Community Plan considers the area “core residential,” allowing a density of only 5.5:1; the proposal has an overall density of 6.8:1. There’s no legal right to swap densities around to different parcels, Sutherland says, and doing so would set a dangerous precedent. It would also give a huge “lift” to the total value of the property, one that would be largely missed by the paltry $12 per square foot the City currently requires in community amenity contributions (CACs) for densities above 3:1. “As soon as this zoning happens, that’s it, the money’s collected, and then they can build whatever they want in the future as of right without any further CACs at all.”
Sutherland wants the City to enforce the 5.5:1 density in the OCP and R-48’s 10-storey limit. He’s worried, however, that councillors may think they have no alternative to what has been proposed. He got a copy of the Dalmatian contract via FOI, and though heavily redacted, its text makes clear the deal to build the fire hall is contingent on a rezoning of “all of the Development Lands”, and permitting “any density not used in connection with the [fire hall] Project to be used on the Nadar Remainder Lands”.
Consequently, on November 22 he wrote to councillors on behalf of the DRA, appealing to them to respect the neighbourhood’s concerns. “The signing of the contract for this Fire Hall was made by the previous council without any public knowledge or assent and has locked the City into terms that are highly questionable. The public is invited to participate as an afterthought but is told that the deal has been struck; it’s this or nothing. But we propose this is a false choice and that this application is not the only way forward. We ask our new council to consider themselves not bound by the terms of this contract as written.”
VICTORIA CERTAINLY NEEDS a new No. 1 fire hall. The existing one, built in 1959 and only 26,700 square feet, is so cramped that the department’s largest trucks barely fit into its bays. (Worse yet, a 2010 report said the entrances could collapse in a quake, making it impossible for the trucks to leave.) Firefighters sometimes have to drive against one-way traffic on Yates to get onto Fort and reach the eastern part of the City.
The proposed site isn’t perfect. It’s west of the “recommended” area in a 2016 City staff report, but fire trucks can travel quickly east on Johnson, and north and south on Cook. A third-party evaluation said the driveway is too short to let fire trucks safely turn into traffic on Johnson, but controlled lights can stop cars up the street. What about the noise, though?
David Jawl, a development manager for the fire hall project, says he’s confident the fire service will be an excellent neighbour. “They can be a 24/7, eyes-on-the-street safety presence,” he notes, and they have experience operating stations next to apartments, on Yates and in James Bay. (The department says it won’t turn on sirens until a vehicle reaches Cook.) Besides, Jawl adds, “we plan on developing the future phases right next to the fire hall. So any concern a neighbour across the street has about noise or disruption, we share those concerns.”
Jawl Residential has added a public plaza at the corner of Yates and Cook, plus several levels of underground parking, to help win over the neighbourhood. The potential element likely to sway councillors, though, is affordable housing. In November, the Province announced that it is giving Pacifica Housing $19 million to build 130 mixed-income rental units downtown, and Jawl is seeking approvals to put all of them over the fire hall. (Calgary has a fire station with an 88-unit affordable-housing tower, and last year Vancouver opened a fire hall with 31 apartments for vulnerable women and their children.) “We wanted to stick our necks out a bit,” Jawl says, “and [show] that we could try and do a beautiful-looking affordable housing project.”
Getting all this, Jawl says, requires master-planning and rezoning the entire property instead of just doing it in pieces. That would also ensure that the plaza, the parking, and the requirements in the City’s Downtown Core Area Plan — which permits up to 17 storeys on the western half of the property, he notes — around tower separation, view corridors, and setbacks, all get enshrined in the bylaw generated by the rezoning. “We feel it provides an amazing opportunity for the whole neighbourhood to blossom into this mixed-use, vibrant hub of downtown.”
David Jawl is Peter Pollen’s grandson. His mom, Kathy, is Pollen’s daughter, and his father Michael is related to the esteemed Jawl Properties clan that built Selkirk Water, The Atrium, and other local landmarks. (Jawl Residential is run by Michael, David, and his siblings Elizabeth and Peter.) David says his grandfather, a passionate advocate for a healthy downtown, started family discussions about transitioning the Mazda property 10 years ago, and in 2015, when the City put out a call for interest in building a new fire hall, Pollen gave his blessing to their proposal. “So we have a lot of connection to this land,” David Jawl says. “We feel a lot of responsibility in how it gets developed.”
Ross Crockford wishes everyone, including Victoria’s politicians, a happy 2019.
We know what we have to do. The only thing holding us back is…
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A PROBLEM WITHOUT A SOLUTION. It’s the nature, the “job,” even, of problems to have solutions, a structural requirement; just like there’s no such thing as a one-sided door, or a here without a there.
So it is with the homeless “problem.” It has a solution; possibly several. One would be for all of us to be homeless (goodbye problem, hello trend or new normal); but, of course, that’s foolish to imagine, given current social and political stability, coupled to rosy global prospects.
The homeless problem…oh, you want me to start by defining the homeless problem? Well, the homeless are a problem for themselves: they don’t have homes. And we are the homeless’s problem because we won’t house them, or do so by miserly and unsuccessful increments. And, of course, what do our crossing-the-street avoidance and averted gaze mean, if not that the homeless are a problem, a problem for us, like some design flaw in the otherwise promising human project. Everybody knows it, nobody says it. Instead, we speak in a kind of code. With wan conviction, we say we want “housing to be provided in appropriate locations,” etc. Translated into English, that means we want them to disappear.
And ask yourself how well all of that’s working.
Ron Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, claimed in early October: “There are over 2,000 homeless people in the city. Although the Goldstream tenters have become sort of the spotlight on the crisis we’re experiencing as a city, there’s a lot of homeless people in the city.” Over two thousand homeless? Jesus! That’s roughly one in two hundred over the entire regional population. Maybe it won’t be too long before the number is 3,000. You never know about the tricky and changeable future. I mean, if you do a casual inventory of your near-future expectations for society and hopes for security, isn’t economic risk and its consequences at or near the top? Well. I’d love to be wrong, but I sense that the pendulum is swinging toward risk, which may well yank the broomstick props from under a significant number of the just-hanging-on. (There are currently a surprising number of folks living in their cars in Victoria. Does that qualify as homeless? I don’t know.)
So, now we all share a clear picture of the homeless problem? Good.
Here is my coarse-grained solution to the homeless problem: we create places that can house 500 or more in clusters or “communities” of individual suites and present like a residential version of Uptown Shopping Centre (walk its internal “boulevard” to get what I mean). House and feed them, look after their physical and mental health needs. Provide calming wallpaper and nutrition breaks, counselling and life skills training and education. Lots of efficiently delivered services (society is spending a fortune now, anyway). Show movies every night. Deliver support cheques. Provide needed transportation. Consolidate all the usual homeless services, provide social and recreational spaces, make sure to include coffee joints. Give such places cozy monikers…is The Uplands taken? Resist the temptation to place these facilities out on the flatlands of the Saanich Peninsula, or out past Stewieville on the way to Sooke. There’s plenty of available land in both directions, but the isolation sends a horrible message.
Victoria already knows what it needs to do: more structures like Rock Bay Landing (l) and Our Place
More logically, identify available sites closer to the city centre. I just drove past a vacant square block—a whole block!—east side of Douglas, immediately north of Mayfair Mall, right at the Victoria/Saanich border. Or make deals with one or several of the car dealerships on Douglas, between Mayfair and Uptown. Their surface parking areas are enormous and, in some cases, contiguous. Purchase the air rights, leave the car dealership surface parking as-is, and build up and over. Toss in property tax breaks in perpetuity. My guess is that the owners would jump at the opportunity, considering that, courtesy of increasingly non-negotiable demands of the climate change agenda, the private automobile has 10 to 15 years left. After that, it’s all going to be non-private-car-owning Moto, share-car, car-on-demand and cleverly engineered new bicycles built for two or more.
But, you exclaim, the costs of all that housing and services! The costs!
Society is paying now—not just financially, but also through social wounds that are real if hard to price. And I say: a small price to pay for a job well done.
The reason the homeless represent such a potent threat is that we know deep down those protective walls around the human project are not solid, but just images, membrane-thin, projected on shifting, filmy surfaces, like cloud. We understand exactly who and what we are, one layer below the surface, and what lurks in us, individually and together: darkness, danger, deconstruction, and all the violence that brings. Please, don’t scoff; this is just Nature 101. It’s a jungle in there! You would no sooner want “the homeless” living next to you than you would anything else that carries risk of infection—or the power to depress the resale value of your home. Border Crossings, the Winnipeg-based quarterly, in an interview piece about filmmaker David Lynch, quotes Lynch: the mind “is a big beautiful place, but it is also pitch-dark.”
These are especially hard times. The drumbeat has been quickening, the skies greying, for a while, and at present you can feel social climax in the air; not in, or just in, Victoria, but everywhere. Civilization has an itch, and is beginning to scratch; not for the first time on the long voyage. If your sensitivities are appropriately tuned and your knowledge of history sufficiently well-informed, you must wake up gasping these days. It’s scary. Uncertainty, the sense of risk, is spreading over the entire landscape, challenging normalcy, the very structure of the everyday, on every front.
You can put it all on Trump and the burgeoning extreme right if you want, but that still leaves the unanswered question: why did our, uh, cousins elect a demonstrably crazy narcissist psychopath criminal sonofabitch? In your heart, you know there were years of prelude in which social irritation was building...everywhere, not just America. Germany, for example, is gearing up for the return of heady “Sieg Heil!” days. The reason? Turkish and other immigrants polluting the ra—oh, sorry, taking German jobs.
Operating under laws and corner-points of existence too mysterious for me to figure out, it seems that just when we’re lost in orgies of self-congratulation for our social, political, and economic accomplishments, that’s when the next valley, the next sorrow, forms and grows. You recall, in Voltaire’s Candide, the protagonists echo each other in bursts of lunatic Leibnizian optimism: “This is the best of all possible worlds!”
Friends, history really does happen—not elsewhere, or elsewhen, but in front of us, right now. Did you imagine that “end of the liberal order” was just editorial page punditry? History is ever-poised to turn into…foreground. History loves headlines.
Spend a candid moment with your own state of mind, not your the-city-should-undertake-longer-range-infrastructure-cost-planning upstanding citizen mind, but the in-the-bathroom-staring-at-your-spreading-middle/between jobs/trying-to-make-sense-of-life’s-changes one. Now, let your imagination drift. Be homeless. Work it. Follow your thoughts, minute by minute. Dinner? The discarded pizza crusts in somebody’s garbage can. Beer and soda can empties for income, wherever you can find them, maybe the same garbage can; or panhandling on the Causeway. Where are you going to sleep? After you lost the house, you slept in the car; then, you couldn’t pay car insurance; now, you crash in a doorway. How many days before you can pick up your next government cheque? Pills to straighten that roller coaster in your head. Somebody boosted your pack the other day? Aw! Need a new prescription? Tough shit.
And now that you’re in the mood, reflect on those homeless activists screaming for housing, lifting the corner-flap so high you can see revolution and social anger and anarchy on a red boil.
Meanwhile, back at the garden, “This place, Victoria, is so charming.” “Quite a tech hub you’re developing here.” “Omigod, you pay such a lifestyle premium shopping at Thrifty’s!” Folks are moving here by the planeload. Companies and businesses are locating or relocating here. “Welcome to Victoria. Net Worth Statement, Please.”
So, why, given our social talents, expertise and worldliness, don’t we successfully house the homeless? Why do we remain poised—paralyzed, actually—between terror, resentment, anger, sympathy (at a proper remove) and understanding? Given the levels of human talent in this place, can’t we design a new solution to this old problem?
By my roughest of estimates, we could eliminate regional homelessness for about $120 million in capital costs—roughly the cost of the new bridge. And much of the dough is already in place in the $90-million housing fund of the CRD, Province and Feds.
I know, I know, you’re tired and you just want the world to work. Still, work’s never done, and we disregard those discordant notes beneath the community’s happy song at our peril.
Finally, you ask: “And if we do this, actually succeed in providing reasonable housing and support services, do you promise that nothing else bad will happen and things will settle down?
I promise, unconditionally.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.
Victoria City council will soon be faced with a controversial heritage conversion and demolition project in the heart of Old Town.
MOST OF US PAY AT LEAST LIP SERVICE to the value of the City of Victoria’s Downtown heritage buildings. We enjoy how they conjure the past, make Victoria unique, and attract tourism dollars. It’s up for debate, however, whether current powers-that-be—City council, staff and citizen committees—are up to the task of guarding Old Town’s heritage buildings as the continuing development boom rocks their foundations.
I set out to examine just one new proposal—that for the 1892 “Duck’s Block” and its neighbour at Broad and Johnson—but right away, it seemed to open the proverbial can of worms.
The Duck's Block on Broad Street
My first call was to Stuart Stark, as he was the chair of the City of Victoria’s Heritage Advisory Panel which gave the proposed development a unanimous thumbs-down on March 13, citing concerns about the height and monolithic design “absorbing” the heritage building, and noting it was “not consistent with the Official Community Plan (OCP), the Downtown Core Area Plan and the Design Guidelines.” Minutes also state the concern that, “Block by block Old Town is being converted from three to six storeys.”
On March 28, however, the City’s Advisory Design Panel gave the project a unanimous thumbs-up.
To make things even more confusing, I learned that in August 2017, the Downtown Residents Association’s Land Use Committee had soundly declined to support the Broad Street development for similar reasons as the heritage panel’s. The Committee’s chair, Ian Sutherland, pointed out that the OCP is relatively new (2012), and “was compiled to the satisfaction of the public and the industry stakeholders.” The Downtown Residents Association’s position is that the maximum density of 3:1 for Old Town was a carefully considered policy and should be upheld. The Duck developers are requesting almost double that amount.
Since making their presentations to these citizen committees, developers UVic Properties and Chard Developments have made only minor adjustments to their plan for 172 residential units plus ground floor retail. The new buildings are still seven storeys tall. David Chard told me they have now applied for rezoning and permits and expect it will reach the Committee of the Whole in the next couple of months. If passed, it will go to public hearing and City council.
An artist's rendering of a redevelopment of the Duck's Block proposed by UVic Properties and Chard Developments
Before I could query him about the Duck’s Block proposal, Stuart Stark informed me that he had resigned from the Heritage Advisory Panel, within a month of the March 13 meeting, and that the kind of issues the proposal raises are a good example of how heritage is being endangered by practices and attitudes at City Hall. He was willing to talk to me, he said, “in the hope that citizens might realize that their relied-on heritage program no longer exists.”
A long-time heritage consultant in Victoria, Stark had sat on the Heritage Advisory Panel over three different periods in its history—in the 1970s, 1990s and from 2014-18; he chaired it for 6 months previous to his resignation.
“We had a fabulous heritage program for 35 years, but for the past few years it’s been disintegrating,” he told me. He’s referring to a constellation of programs, policies, plans and guidelines that are supposed to protect both the individual heritage properties Victoria is renowned for, and the overall character of Downtown’s “heritage conservation area.” This includes Old Town, Chinatown, and the historic waterfront area. Development is allowed in these areas, even encouraged through grants and tax holidays, but there are various restrictions. It was such programs—and their visible results—that led to Victoria winning the Prince of Wales Prize for Municipal Heritage Leadership in 2001, said Stark.
One aspect of the program is the Heritage Advisory Panel itself. Composed of 10 volunteers, all with expertise in heritage matters, along with the City’s heritage planner, its mandate is to advise council on proposals regarding heritage in the City. City Councillor Pam Madoff usually attends as a guest, though is not allowed to comment on proposals. They meet monthly to review proposed changes to heritage properties—now only commercial and multi-family ones.
This was one of Stark’s complaints. A couple of years back, planning staff made recommendations to council on administrative changes aimed at speeding up permit approvals. Council passed these measures, perhaps without realizing that it meant quite a drastic change. “In the stroke of a pen,” says Stark, “any application for changes to a single-family house became a staff review,” rather than going through the Heritage Advisory Panel. This removed about half of what the Panel once advised council on—and perhaps explains, for instance, how a 1904 house in Rockland, connected to the Dunsmuirs, was able to be demolished. If council has no recommendation against such demolition from its Heritage Advisory Panel, it has a hard time justifying declining it itself.
Stark, however, isn’t convinced that the Panel’s recommendations even make it to council, at least in a clear, unaltered fashion. They are “filtered through planning staff,” which sometimes disagree openly with the Panel’s recommendations.
“The goals of the OCP are being used to trump heritage,” Stark told me. And indeed, if one reads the OCP, one can see how, despite platitudes about heritage resources being protected and celebrated, there are other goals to do with the economy and walkable cities that might well be used to justify significant alterations to heritage structures. The OCP, for instance, calls for “at least 20,000 new residents and associated housing growth,” 50 percent of them in the Urban Core.
But it’s more than that, said Stark. “There was once an atmosphere at City Hall that heritage was important. It’s not there now.” He emphasized that “valuing heritage did not prevent development—and it shouldn’t. But heritage was a lens through which all projects were reviewed—now it seems to be viewed as more of a hindrance to development.”
Stark understands that developers are not the problem. They are trying to do what they do best—making a profitable investment through development projects. But he feels that City staff, particularly those at the top of what’s now called “Sustainable Development and Community Planning,” no longer really care about the heritage of Old Town—there’s a lack of knowledge and/or interest.
How else to explain the “façadism” that’s being allowed? Stark pointed to Customs House as the most visible example of this currently, with its three walls propped up and a heap of rubble inside. Plans call for Duck’s Building to be gutted and another floor added on top, with the façade retained.
The façade of the Customs House building is being retained for a redevelopment at Government and Wharf
The lack of value attributed to heritage at City Hall also helps explain, in Stark’s mind, the lack of timely and meaningful consultation with the Heritage Advisory Panel. “We were often the last to see a proposal,” said Stark—and, if they had issues with the proposal, planning staff would complain about the time they’d already put into it.
Stark claimed informational presentations by staff about planned changes are relayed to council as “consultation”—as if the Panel had some say on them. After such a faux consultation on zoning changes involving height restrictions in Old Town, the Panel passed a unanimous motion that did not get relayed at all to council, said Stark.
Stark met a few times with senior staff and once with the mayor who urged him to stay. Believing things wouldn’t change, he resigned.
I invited Councillor Pam Madoff to comment on Stark’s resignation. She wrote: “Stuart’s resignation from the Heritage Advisory Panel is a loss to the Panel, to City Council and to Victoria. A highly respected heritage consultant, and designer, with decades of experience, Stuart has also been a tireless and effective volunteer advocate of our built heritage for decades. As chair of the Panel he spent untold hours preparing for each meeting and ensuring that all voices around the table were heard. For Stuart to have become so frustrated with the role of the Panel, and how its opportunity to advise council had become increasingly limited, that he felt he had no option, other than resignation, should serve as a wake-up call for how the City’s heritage policies are currently being implemented.”
When I asked the City’s Director of Sustainable Development and Community Planning Jonathan Tinney about Stark’s resignation, he acknowledged the wealth of heritage knowledge among Panel members” and said, “We want to make sure we get the benefit of that—and the feedback from Stuart was helpful. Some changes have been made as a result.” He told me more applications are now going to the Panel that formerly were handled solely by staff. An additional heritage planner has recently been hired.
Stark remains skeptical that the heritage program has the backing of senior staff, or even the mayor, who he sees as pro-development.
Madoff tends to lay the blame at council’s feet: “All council and the mayor have to do is apply things that were put in place earlier.” The appropriate guidelines and policies are all there, she feels. They just need to be applied with consistency. This will provide developers with the surety they need to create projects that will work in Downtown’s heritage conservation area.
Madoff doesn’t believe that heritage needs to be sacrificed for other priorities. She pointed to earlier developments which managed to restore and revitalize heritage properties without adding extra storeys on top and devolving into “façadism.”
LISTED ON CANADA'S Historical Places website, Duck’s Block is described as “an excellent example of a large-scale Late Victorian commercial building. Constructed in 1892 for Simeon Duck, a successful early local entrepreneur, MLA, and former Minister of Finance for British Columbia, this handsome Victorian building is a testament to the entrepreneurship of its original owner.” Initially a carriage works, it also housed retail outlets, entertainment venues, meeting rooms and a brothel. “Bold decoration and architectural solidity make Duck’s Block a dominant presence within Broad Street’s narrow streetscape.” Among its character-defining elements are “rusticated masonry piers at street level, and stone lintels; bold Victorian detailing, such as arched windows on the uppermost storey, … [and] intact original storefront elements such as cast iron columns.”
Both Duck’s Block and the next door building (615-625 Johnson), which is to be demolished under the proposal, are on the Heritage Registry and in the heart of Old Town. The guidelines for this area note: “The distinctive character of Old Town, without parallel in other Canadian cities, derives from Victoria’s decline as a major seaport and centre of commerce by 1900, that protected it from the pressures of urban development that have altered the scale and character of most other urban seaports.”
Michael Williams, the late developer and heritage afficionado, bought Duck’s and the Trounce-designed building beside it many years ago, though never developed them. As a result, they now house affordable artist studios, retail spaces, apartments and a dance studio. Williams bequested these buildings, his other numerous Downtown properties, his businesses (e.g. Swan’s Hotel and Pub) and extensive art collection to the University of Victoria upon his death in 2000.
UVic Properties, which manages the university’s revenue-generating properties, has sold Duck’s and the corner property (also built by Duck, in 1875, as the Canada Hotel) to Chard Developments, at fair market value, according to David Chard. In 2017 the two properties were assessed at $5.7M.
Chard will build market condos on his properties—113 in all. Duck’s will be gutted and have an extra storey built on its roof, and the old Canada Hotel building will be demolished and replaced with a seven-storey building.
UVic’s new building will occupy the parking lot to the left of the Duck’s and house 59 non-market rental units for UVic grad students. It’s been noted that once students graduate, there is no requirement for them to move out to make room for other students.
In all, that’s 172 residential units—with no parking. Retail shops will occupy the ground floors.
Stark told me, “As an alumni of UVic, I am totally embarrassed that the university would inflict this on a heritage conservation area.”
I asked Councillor Madoff what Michael Williams would think of the current proposal. Noting that Williams certainly never did anything like what they’re planning to do with Duck’s, she stated, “He was very protective of the character of Old Town. He understood the value, texture and scale of Old Town and that was what he was working to enhance.”
Madoff said she told the developers a couple of years ago that she couldn’t see even one principle of heritage conservation fulfilled by their plans. “The storefronts didn’t relate to each other. And in taking the height up, they’d also flattened the height along Broad, when Old Town guidelines clearly call for varied heights echoing the rhythm and character of the conservation area.” Besides being too high, she warned them, it reduced the Duck to a façade.
Before I even asked developer David Chard about this, he told me, “We’re maintaining the entire structure, so it isn’t façadism.”
At 22.47 metres, the project is well over the 15 metres stipulated in the guidelines. Chard noted that there are heritage buildings in Old Town already over 15 metres, and Duck’s Block itself is one of them. While this is true, Madoff noted, “15 metres was chosen as the limit for new buildings because new infill developments were not intended to dominate the Old Town profile and the profile was to remain ‘sawtooth.’”
The main reason for greater height from Chard’s standpoint (and most developers) is that it is needed to accommodate the number of units that “make the economics work.” One huge expense, said Chard, is seismic work which is especially challenging with 125-year-old buildings. With the Duck proposal, the plan is to build the two new buildings before working on the Duck—“We’ll use them to reinforce the Duck while we replace its rock footings with concrete,” he explained.
Chard believes that what’s getting lost in the discussion is this: “Many heritage buildings are in poor shape. What will happen to these buildings if they are not redeveloped?”
The most concerning aspect of the UVic/Chard proposal for Madoff is that the three-storey Johnson Street heritage building is to be completely demolished. Designed by architect Thomas Trounce in 1874 as the Canada Hotel, it is one of only a few of his designs left. Admittedly, said Madoff, it has been stripped of some heritage features over the years—like bay windows—but it could have been restored.
David Chard disagreed with that. He said the poorly-constructed wood-frame building could not be saved, as it was in “very rough shape.”
Nevertheless, the property is a registered heritage building, and demolishing it, said both Stark and Madoff, sets a dangerous precedent for Old Town.
THE HERITAGE ADVISORY PANEL’S unanimous lack of support for UVic and Chard’s proposal was followed on May 8 with a similar thumbs-down for Reliance Properties’ application for the Northern Junk project. The Panel suggested the seven-storey building on that site be reduced to four or five storeys, and urged that materials be more responsive to the immediate neighbourhood. (See Ken Johnson’s letter to the editor in this edition about the companion issue of selling off City-owned lands that this development necessitates.)
Reading through the minutes of the Heritage Advisory Panel shows it is not anti-development. A proposal to build a new eight-storey condo project on Store Street, between the Janion and Mermaid’s Wharf, was recently passed unanimously. And in June, it supported a Heritage Alteration Permit for the 1897 Hall Block at 727 Yates Street, which adds two floors on top for rental housing. Council has since approved it for a public hearing.
The current acting chair of the Panel, Rick Goodacre, served as executive director for Heritage BC for 23 years. He told me that dealing with development proposals virtually always involves a type of deal-making or trade-off, because the developers want to get as many units as possible on a site, while the City wants to see heritage buildings maintained, as well as more residential units Downtown. He implied that sometimes a good balance is struck, whereas other times it’s debatable (he pointed to the Janion, with the huge new building behind the historic hotel).
In the past, many redevelopments of some of Victoria’s oldest buildings earned the support of the panel, and subsequently council. Madoff can rattle off numerous examples—from Dragon Alley, to the Vogue, Chris Le Fevre’s Wilson’s Storage project on Herald, and Michael Williams’ restorations—all part of a slow and steady stream of projects that revitalized Old Town, proving that developments can add housing while not sacrificing heritage buildings.
But can they still do so in the current market? Or have much higher land prices made those more modest, respectful developments financially impossible?
Without developers opening their books for me, I don’t know the answer, though I do appreciate the risk they take on. The larger, more complex projects, involving heritage properties, are among the riskiest, taking years of planning and consultation. It’s hardly surprising that by the time a developer gets to the Heritage Advisory Panel, he or she might well feel that they’ve already figured out the puzzle as best as it can be—and they are not inclined to lop off a few floors just because a citizens committee suggests it. Even staff can only advise the developer. In the end, the shape of the application for rezoning and permits is up to the developer, even when they get a unanimous thumbs-down from advisory panels or community groups. The decision on their proposals is ultimately council’s, taking into consideration the reports of advisory panels and land use committees.
Two official citizen bodies—composed of volunteers putting in serious time and study—have clearly advised council against the Duck proposal as it stands (though the Advisory Design Panel loved it). They are basing their refusal to support the project on established rules in official documents. Besides the OCP, the Core Area Plan is a principal guide for planning decisions related to Downtown.
Madoff said the City developed its Core Area Plan in a very conscious way, allowing, for instance, buildings of 20-plus storeys on Blanshard, because it would save Old Town from such pressures. She supported it, but now states, “If [Old Town Guidelines are not respected] it puts the Core Area Plan into question for me.”
Downtown’s heritage conservation area is a relatively small area west of Douglas Street between Humboldt and Chatham. If council doesn’t enforce the regulations around height and density in the area, developers will notice, and we can expect more precedent-setting changes to the character of Old Town.
Madoff worries that changes, including the “façadism” trend, are going to make Old Town look like a theme park rather than a vital part of Downtown. “International visitors,” she said, “are discerning. They know authenticity when they see it. If it looks like a stage set, we’ll lose on all counts.”
Leslie Campbell knows there are many issues to reflect on, heading towards Victoria’s October 20 civic election, but consider adding to your list the way potential council members manage growth in Victoria’s Old Town.
A lack of balance on a June housing forum provides food for thought as to where the community needs to look for answers.
DID YOU KNOW THAT VICTORIA is the “hottest” ranking “luxury primary housing” market in the world? According to Christie’s International’s Luxury Defined 2018 report, we beat out Paris and Washington DC and every other city due to our strong year-on-year luxury sales volumes and high domestic demand during 2017.
At first blush this might seem rather exciting, something to be proud of. But earning this distinction means a lot of local homes are being bought up by wealthy folks from outside BC; Christie’s mentions an upsurge in buyers from the US and China.
The building boom, here and elsewhere in BC, is obviously fuelling the economy: real estate is now BC’s largest industry by GDP, and construction is #2. Together they are about one-quarter of the economy—larger than Alberta’s oil and gas sector.
But such glories come with a price. Besides being in danger of the bubble deflating, neighbourhoods and citizens are feeling squeezed as lower-cost units are demolished and replaced with taller buildings offering condos that most in the neighbourhood could never afford. The building boom corresponds with (some argue, has caused) a rise in all housing prices, from rentals through condos, from one end of town to the other. Victoria is now one of the least affordable cities in Canada.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the provincial government, besides funding non-profit housing, has brought in measures to “cool” the hot luxury real estate market. These include taxes like the foreign buyers tax, a school tax on properties over $3 million, and the poorly-named “speculation tax.”
Promontory, one of several luxury condos in the Mariashes' 20-acre Bayview Place development in Victoria West.
How those in the development and real estate industry feel about these taxes, particularly the speculation tax, was on full display at a June 12 luncheon presented by Kenneth and Patricia Mariash, owners of Focus Equities and developers of Bayview Place. It was misleadingly entitled The 2018 Global Issues Dialogue: Exploring the BC Housing Crisis. Marketing materials listed Kathryn White, CEO of the UN Association of Canada, as a host, and promised to “identify practical and realistic solutions that address housing affordability.” As it turned out, it was mostly a venting of grievances against new taxes and regulations standing in the way of ever-greater development. Even former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was there for some reason, telling us, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Enough people complained to the UN Association of Canada about its involvement in the event that it issued a series of clarifying tweets, one stating, “UNA-Canada did not sponsor the Kenneth W. and Patricia Mariash Global Issues Dialogue. Rather, we were the charity of choice.”
THERE WERE ABOUT 300 IN THE AUDIENCE, which included many mayors, councillors and other big-wigs from the region. During the three hours we heard over and over again from the eight male speakers that the speculation tax was wrong-headed. Mariash said buyers were now “running scared” because of the Province’s new tax. BC now stands for “bring cash.” He also criticized the City of Victoria for years-long permitting processes, which he says can add $250,000 to a housing unit’s price. His most surprising remarks centred around how he first heard about Victoria many years ago in LA, and was told “Victoria is on the no-invest list” due to Councillor Pam Madoff. This was all before Mayor Helps gave a short “greeting” from the City of Victoria, assuring the audience that approval times are now down to 6-8 months in 90 percent of cases.
One of the forum’s panelists, Jon Stovell, CEO of Reliance Properties (developer of the Janion and Northern Junk properties) and chair of the Urban Development Institute, rattled off all the taxes now faced by his industry: the transfer tax, vacant property tax, speculation tax, school tax, GST, along with the mortgage stress test, which itself is taking many out of the market, he claimed. Even with all these, he noted, we still haven’t done anything to fix the supply.
One of the main speakers did at least mention what was needed to do that. Mike Harcourt argued that the lack of affordable housing is not a crisis so much as a permanent condition given global realities, including population growth and climate change. While he admitted city halls need to speed up approvals, and that the speculation tax “needed a second look,” Harcourt argued the solution is mostly about building affordable housing, and that the NDP government was on the right track with its commitment to build 114,000 new housing units over the next decade.
No one on the panel offered any ideas on how to accomplish this beyond letting developers continue unfettered with what they do best.
During the short Q&A, there was at least one dissenting voice. Nicole Chaland commented, “Many of us locals have noticed the intense building boom has corresponded to the greatest housing unaffordability…Increased supply doesn’t seem to be the most reliable way to meet the challenge.”
Panelist Michael Ferreira of Urban Analytics attempted a response by pointing out the “compounding of demand” with people wanting to live in cities, investors wanting to get into the market, and people like him who want to jump in and buy another house to ensure their adult children have a place to reside. “Supply is part of the solution,” he concluded.
But supply of what—more million-dollar condos? The developers’ own construction workers must find it difficult to afford decent housing here, not to mention the service workers in restaurants and shops. Even younger people with well-paying jobs fear getting permanently shut out of home ownership.
NICOLE CHALAND WOULD HAVE ADDED BALANCE TO THE PANEL. The former director of sustainability at Simon Fraser (2007-2017) is so immersed in community activism right now, she’s put aside plans to start a business until after the civic elections in October. She sits on the Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan Working Group and on the steering committee of Cook Street Village Residents Network.
I contacted her after the event and she sent me an op-ed she and Sheldon Kitzul penned in response to the forum and sent to the Times Colonist. In it they wrote, “This was not a genuine exploration of what possible policy solutions are available to solve the housing crisis. Far from it. This was a temper tantrum; a fist-bumping anti-tax political rally featuring an all-male panel of developers and former politicians.
“At no point did any speaker give us the impression that they had actually read and understood how the speculation tax works. At no point did anyone explain that one could simply avoid paying the tax by renting out their second home for six months, by selling their expensive home and buying one that is less than $400,000, or by making BC their primary residence and paying income tax like the rest of us.”
(Perhaps unsurprisingly, the T-C didn’t publish Chaland and Kitzul’s op-ed. The T-C’s before and after coverage of the Mariashes’ forum, along with three pages of puff pieces on the Mariashes last November, and a recent op-ed by Mariash, not to mention the big golf tournament the paper and Bayview jointly sponsor, all testify to the cozy relationship Mariash enjoys with the city’s daily.)
Chaland does not believe there will be any leadership from the private sector in addressing the lack of affordable housing. She wants the Province to “stay the course” with the new taxes. She is also advocating that the City of Victoria demand more from developers in the way of “Community Amenity Contributions” in return for rezoning and density approvals. A draft report she’s written states: “From 2016-2017, Victoria’s approach to CAC’s generated $3,086,000. Some analyses suggest that, given our current building boom, we’re missing out on tens of millions of dollars. This would pay for affordable housing, new parks in the Downtown core and childcare—all amenities which are desperately needed in Victoria.”
Chaland told me the City’s Director of Planning Jonathan Tinney seems overly cautious in his insistence that all such CACs must be voluntary. This is not the case in other cities, noted Chaland.
IN OUR CONVERSATION, Chaland referred to research by John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He would have been another great addition to Mariash’s panel of speakers.
Rose’s research paper “The Housing Supply Myth” seems hard to refute. Rose reviewed the rate at which housing cost increased between 2001 and 2016, alongside how wages increased. He did this for 33 cities across Canada, using Statistics Canada data. He found that in most cities during those years, the rate at which housing costs increased was never more than double the rate of wage increases—a situation that would still degrade affordability. But Victoria’s housing increases were almost three times those of wages. In Vancouver they were six times more.
More number-crunching around building volumes allowed Rose to conclude: “the expensive markets are providing not only enough units to satisfy growth in the number of households between 2001 and 2016, but to also provide (in absolute terms) surplus units to the market at rates comparable to (indeed, slightly higher than) less expensive markets.”
He continued: “In all of the seven ‘severely unaffordable’ markets where housing affordability degraded most significantly between 2001 and 2016, the relative amount of surplus dwellings, as a percentage share of total dwellings, increased in number.” Or, as he put it in a Globe and Mail interview, “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” The same is true of Victoria. Here, as Chaland told the luncheon audience, over the past 15 years, for every 100 new residents, 113 new units of housing have been added.
Other researchers looking primarily at Vancouver’s luxury housing boom have argued that a good number of new buyers of luxury homes are foreign buyers, some of whom are merely “parking” or laundering money this way. It is this global trend that is leading the Province to implement taxes and a just-announced public registry of who owns real estate in BC. Said Finance Minister Carole James, “Right now in BC, real estate investors can hide behind numbered companies, offshore and domestic trusts, and corporations. Ending this type of hidden ownership in real estate will help us fight tax evasion, tax fraud and money laundering.”
It could well be that such regulations and taxes will not lead towards more affordable housing. But as the research of Rose and others makes clear, neither will unfettered development. The market has proven that, at least given the current global scene, it cannot be relied on to provide what is most needed by BC citizens: affordable housing.
THE CRD RECENTLY REPORTED that this region needs 6,200 affordable units. Since these are unlikely to come from the private sphere, Mariash would have served his audience better by including in his speaker lineup some of the knowledgeable people building non-profit housing: Kaye Melliship, for instance, the executive director of the Greater Victoria Housing Society, an organization that has quietly been building non-profit housing for low-wage workforce members, people with disabilities, and seniors for decades. In 2018 the organization earned the “Non-Profit of the Year” Award. Among its 16 properties is Pembroke Mews, an apartment building geared to low-to-moderate income workforce tenants. Built in 2012, it is on the fringe of Downtown and offers 25 apartments on 2 floors above commercial space. Rents are pre-set and tenants are selected with an income no higher than $33,000.
Other agencies in the non-profit housing sector locally include Pacifica Housing with 36 buildings on the Island, Cool Aid, which runs 15 supportive housing buildings, and Greater Victoria Rental Development Society (which built the Azzuro on Blanshard and the Loreen on Gorge Road E.)
It’s in finding land for organizations like these, easing their approvals through local governments, and donating funding, that affordable housing will primarily be realized.
But private developers can get in on the action too. If Mariash had included David Chard or a speaker from BC Housing, we might have heard how private developers could build something like Chard Development’s Vivid on Yates Street. Chard partnered with BC Housing to make the 20-storey, 135-suite condominium project affordable for lower-income and mid-income buyers: they have to have a household income of less than $150,000 and commit to being the primary tenant of their home for a period of two years. Its below-market pricing—condos start at $289,800—was made possible through favourable lending terms backed by BC Housing. Only a dozen units remain unsold.
Another source of knowledgeable panelists is the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), an umbrella group that has produced an “Affordable Housing Plan” with a ten-year roadmap towards sufficient affordable housing across British Columbia. Its extensive research shows exactly what we need and how much it will cost. After dealing with the backlog of nearly 80,000 units in BC (2016), an additional 3,500 affordable units will be required annually on average. How much will that cost? An estimated $1.8 billion per year over the next ten years. It’s a lot, but according to the organization, the non-profit housing sector “can bring $461 million to the table annually through land contributions, leveraging equity from assets, private donations and financing. This requires the provincial and federal governments to each commit an average annual investment of $691 million over the next ten years.” It notes the governments’ portions are not dissimilar to what they already committed in both the 2016 and 2017.
This sounds promising. But how is it working out as developers buy up more and more land for luxury housing and inflate land values? Are non-profits being priced out of the core area, thereby threatening the diversity that makes a city vibrant—and making it harder to solve long-term transportation and emissions challenges? Will Downtown be transformed into a resort town where more and more people are just passing through?
BCNPHA’s Policy Director Marika Albert (formerly director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria) would have been perfect on the panel to address some of these questions.
Finally, another obvious choice for any discussion of affordable housing in BC would have been either Carole James or Minister of Housing Selina Robinson. Either could have discussed the government’s 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability, which includes building 114,000 units over the next decade, along with various measures to dampen speculative-type investment. The ministers could have enlightened us about the new Building BC Community Housing Fund to which municipalities, non-profit groups and housing co-operatives can apply for funding of their affordable housing projects.
Ken Mariash is obviously a man of many talents. It takes a visionary with much business acumen to take on a project as large, costly and complex as the 20-acre Bayview site. But his dream project—and the projects of other luxury resort builders—are having the effect of driving up land costs. And they are taking up too much of the City of Victoria’s time and attention. Our civic leaders’ and workers’ efforts needs to be directed toward assembling land—at 100 units per acre, 70 acres would be enough—in parts of the City where denser, far more affordable housing can be created. The CRD accepts that 6200 affordable homes are needed. Let’s focus on that.
Focus editor Leslie Campbell has lived through a number of real estate boom-times in Victoria. This one feels different.
Oak Bay neighbourhood wrestles with a 98-unit housing proposal.
ONE DAY, Focus may tell you about a housing proposal that everyone in the neighbourhood is happy with, where the public process surrounding it is hailed as transparent, inclusive, effective and painless for all involved. But that day isn’t here yet.
When it was announced last summer that Oak Bay United Church wanted to build some affordable housing on its property at Granite Street and Mitchell—just one block over from Oak Bay Village—it sounded refreshingly bold and in tune with the times. Affordable housing is the region’s number-one need.
Oak Bay United Church in Oak Bay
Soon afterwards “Stop Overdevelopment by Oak Bay United Church” signs popped up like mushrooms on neighbourhood lawns. A “concerned citizens” website was created, and media reports citing divisions and alarm were heard. Some early concepts for the development indicated up to five-storey buildings and 160 units could be proposed. For a 1.2-acre lot in a leafy, mostly single-family neighbourhood, it did seem perhaps too bold.
Now, church representatives claim they have listened, and in their recent plans—unveiled at open houses at the end of April—have tried to meet neighbours’ concerns as much as possible. We shall see how that works out.
IN HER OFFICE in a 1920s-era duplex behind the church, Oak Bay United Church Minister Michelle Slater told me the idea of developing the property stems back to 1994 when the heritage church was “condemned” as unsafe, and the congregation had to conduct services elsewhere. It wasn’t clear that the church, built in 1914, could be saved, so everything was up for consideration, including selling off the whole property. Eventually, it was decided that restoration was possible, and the congregation worked hard for years to raise $1.5 million. In 2010, 16 years after its closure, the church reopened.
Oak Bay United Church Minister Michelle Slater
Once back in their church, congregants had little appetite for further change any time soon. But, said Slater, “it was always accepted that that was just the first step to renewal.”
There are five structures on the 56,000-square-foot property. The church occupies 9000 square feet. There is also a large storage shed; an office building (often called the “duplex”); the cinder block, seismically-challenged Gardiner Hall (with a gym); and Threshold House, which is rented to Threshold Housing Society, and has nine studio apartments for vulnerable youth. With the exception of the church, the latest plans call for demolition of all these structures.
Slater said that if the 200-strong congregation was dwindling, they would look at amalgamating with another church and selling off the property. But it’s actually growing, though that includes those who use the church’s many services.
“We’re becoming increasingly aware, particularly through our ministry to children and families, of the real crisis with diverse and affordable housing,” said Slater, mentioning seniors who attend weekly coffee meetings and young parents who come to church activities.
Sometimes congregants can’t afford a prescription they need, so the church steps in. It has also provided food vouchers, or even a funeral for those in need.
In all, she estimates that Oak Bay United provides about $2.5 million annually in community services (calculated by a formula arrived at through research by the Halo Project at McMaster University). Some of it, she noted, comes in the form of saving the community money—for instance when members notice another congregant is unwell, and ensure they receive help before needing an expensive hospital bed.
At this point, Slater stopped herself, noting wryly that it sounded as if she’s trying to justify the church’s very existence—perhaps in reaction to the heated atmosphere in the neighbourhood of late. The social services she alluded to have added an extra layer of complexity to the debate. Do such services mean the church deserves more right to develop as it pleases, despite neighbours’ concerns?
Continuing the historical overview, Slater told me that a few years ago, the board asked a couple of members to look into options for developing the 56,000-square-foot property, in keeping with the mission and purpose of Oak Bay United Church. That led to them devoting $20,000 to a feasibility study led by Chris Corps, a land economist, which in turn led, in March 2017, to the church board giving unanimous support to applying for a $500,000 loan from BC Housing to do a thorough proposal involving “diverse, inclusionary and affordable housing,” said Slater.
“We could make a lot more money if we just put up some luxury condos. But that’s not what this community needs,” said Slater. “And making the most money is not the most important thing to us.”
The church got the BC Housing loan, and by last August, its board members had started knocking on doors to inform immediate neighbours that the church was thinking of developing its property. Some became alarmed, Slater said, and asked for a meeting. About 60 people came. They wanted to know the plans, but, said Slater, “We’re not a developer; we wanted input first.”
In November, four sessions with “near neighbours” were held. “We asked what would you be most concerned about?’” said Slater. Feedback was all over the map, she said. “We got everything from ‘nothing’ to ‘six stories.’ [On style], we got ‘traditional’ to ‘contemporary.’ We gave all the input to the architect. In mid-December we presented four scenarios for siting and massing to test people’s responses.” (The scenarios involved three-, four- and five-storey buildings; many neighbours were aghast there were no smaller options.)
The biggest concerns were around height, density and traffic. “We’ve worked hard to mitigate or solve the concerns people have—which are for the most part legitimate,” said Slater. However, she argued, Granite Street, running parallel to Oak Bay Avenue, is viewed by the municipality as a transition street, from the busy Oak Bay commercial zone to residential. “It is not solely a single-family-home neighbourhood,” said Slater, pointing to the boxy, 3.5-storey Granite House condos across the street towards the Village. “Our project will be much more attentive to the character of the neighbourhood than Granite House.”
Reverend Slater is diplomatic when speaking of the resistance to the development: “I am not surprised at the depth of feeling, because everyone values their neighbourhood and wants to preserve what’s best about it. I was distressed by some of the personal comments about our consultants,” along with the level of distrust. “We feel we’re really trying to do something good,” she said. “This is a good way for Oak Bay to contribute to the region and show leadership.” She seems bewildered and dismayed that some people do not trust the church.
AN INDICATION OF THAT DISTRUST, and perhaps another brick in the wall between the church and its neighbours, occurred at a meeting of Oak Bay’s Committee of the Whole on January 15. The last item on the agenda was a request from the church that council approve a process to expedite the church’s development application, once submitted, as a pilot project for affordable housing projects. It brought citizens out in force; they filled all the seats and the hallway. Numerous letters of concern had been sent in.
Kim Fowler, the planner on the church’s team, explained that they are working on “a minimum, break even” budget, and delays would be costly. She pointed to other municipalities that have adopted streamlined processes or a “concierge”-type service with staff dedicated to ushering non-profit proposals through various hurdles at City Hall. (Fowler played a similar role at the City of Victoria when she worked as the project manager for the Dockside Green redevelopment project).
Councillor Tara Ney, noting the evident community interest, voiced a concern that “the amount of time for making decisions, the amount of time for consulting thoroughly with the community—that those parts of the process are not compromised.” Fowler assured her that that would not happen.
When Councillor Hazel Braithwaite warned that “it takes a long time to get something correct,” there was applause from the gallery. Braithwaite also suggested that shepherding the application through City Hall was Fowler’s job—and that it would have been “friendly” if the church had notified citizens of its request for expedited service.
When Councillor Tom Croft asked, “Where is the extra cost of delay when the church owns the land?” Fowler alluded to an existing mortgage (it is about $300,000), and the escalation of construction costs. At 6 percent, she said, that translates to $170,000 in carrying costs per month.
Other councillors noted that with “complicated applications like this,” the best way to expedite it is to have a good application, and to not short-circuit public engagement. Councillor Eric Zhelka advised studying the case of Oak Bay Lodge—which came to council two times with proposals that were both rejected. The lesson being: “Find a design with everyone here [meaning the audience] before you come to council, that everyone can support.”
The Committee decided not to even vote on Fowler’s request.
Later, Ney told Focus the request for an expedited process was “not an example of good timing.”
On a Saturday morning in April, I met with five members of “the resistance” at Sue MacRae’s house, right next door to the church property.
They expressed many concerns: about Oak Bay’s infrastructure not being adequate to handle another 100-plus residents on the one-acre site; about the unfairness of the church having $500,000 to put towards developing their plan and doing PR, while their group relies on volunteer time and digs into their own pockets for signs and flyers; and about the size and scale of the proposals they’ve seen and how it will impact their beloved streetscape, characterized by lots of trees and 100-year-old single-family homes.
But they were most perturbed by the public consultation process, and the distrust they feel it has fostered.
Both Reverend Slater and the church’s development team co-chair Cheryl Thomas have told me that what they were actually trying to do in consultation sessions in the fall was get neighbours’ input before designing anything. But it seems to have backfired, as these neighbours believed that there was a plan, but it was being kept secret. They pointed to the church’s application for a BC Housing loan, which they obtained through a Freedom of Information request. Though 90 percent redacted, it shows that as early as March 2017, the church was outlining options to BC Housing and Oak Bay municipal staff—whereas the neighbours only got notified in August that the church was considering development. Cheryl Thomas assured me that only financial models went to BC Housing, not actual designs, yet it seems clear those would have required some assumptions about size in order to project costs and revenues.
Diana Butler, a former mayor of Oak Bay who lives on Granite Street, suggested the fall consultations were mostly for show, and as evidence, pointed to the short time lapse between the November “consult sessions” and the “reveal sessions” in December, at which the scenarios involving 101- to 160-unit buildings were presented. The development team’s unwillingness to entertain a project with a much smaller profile fuelled suspicions around the church’s motivations, as well as its strategy.
Two of the church's neighbours, Wayne Todd and Diana Butler
At our meeting, neighbour Wayne Randall said he believes it’s now the church’s strategy to focus solely on the wider community and ignore the neighbours. Butler concurs. She has written extensively on the Concerned Citizens’ website (ccn-oakbay.com), at one point writing: “We have spent hours and hours working with the development team to design a better consultation process. We placed our trust in the development team truly wanting to engage the neighbourhood in a meaningful discussion. We are very disappointed that they have so abruptly abandoned this route, in preference to taking their project to the wider community where they hope to get more support.”
The development team contracted Gene Miller to help with consultations with this group of neighbours, who say he sincerely tried to help. They told me he met with them separately a couple of times, to try to work out a better process. But, they said, “he failed.” (Disclosure: Gene Miller writes for Focus. I did not know he was involved until recently, and have not had any communication with him about the project.)
Curtis Hobson, a special education teacher who lives directly across from the church, told me, “We feel excluded, manipulated, and are being painted as against change or affordable housing.” Hobson and other neighbours I spoke with said they are in favour of affordable housing on this site, but not at the scale the church has in mind.
Curtis Hobson and Sue MacRae, both close neighbours of the church's property. Threshold House (in the background) would be demolished to make room for the project.
At the meeting, these residents provided me with an outline of what they would accept: A maximum three storeys, with massing along Granite Street, with some variation in height, and a more traditional design in keeping with the neighbourhood. Ideally, they’d like the buildings broken up or clustered so that pedestrians can move through the site. They want to keep Threshold House, but if it must go, they want alternative housing to be provided on the site for the nine vulnerable youth (age 16-22) now housed in its studio apartments. This heritage-style building, they argued, is only 25 years old, fits into the neighbourhood well and serves a valuable purpose.
The main stumbling blocks towards agreement, however, will be the massing and the number of units: the neighbours’ wishlist calls for 25-40 suites, whereas the latest church plans (not unveiled when I interviewed them) call for 98.
AT A MEETING WITH the Development Team co-chair Cheryl Thomas and architect Rod Windjack, I was shown rough drafts of the plans that will be unveiled at the late-April open houses. Thomas lived in Oak Bay when her kids were growing up, and got involved in the church in 2012—mostly to sing in the choir. She ended up on the board and came to realize “we’ve got to make this place sustainable.” As a congregation, she said, “we wanted to live our values and provide something that was truly needed. Obviously affordable housing is desperately needed.”
Windjack, an architect who was involved with the design for the new Oak Bay High School, had his work cut out for him, trying to accommodate the needs of both church and neighbours. Besides the concern over size, he said, one thing that came through loud and clear from neighbours was that the development shouldn’t result in additional parking on nearby streets. This, he noted, created a burden on the church financially, because underground parking is so costly.
After numerous iterations, Windjack eventually came up with a 3.5-storey (four floors), L-shaped building with 98 units (predominantly one-bedrooms) and tilted it, so it’s not monolithic from the street. “We’ve tried to deal with how the building responds to neighbours, through how it sits on the site and by playing with the massing of the building—using articulation in front, further extended by our use of materials,” Windjack said. Materials include some brick, echoing the church. The main building has a gently-sloped roof with dormer elements that are common in the neighbourhood. At 51 feet high, it is slightly higher than the ridge line of the church.
Oak Bay United Church's 98-unit proposal, unveiled at the end of April
In the location where the church office now stands on Mitchell, the project is proposing a three-storey “brownstone” building with four market-priced leasehold units.
Parking—for 116 vehicles—would all be underground. Virtually the whole site would need to be blasted (through granite) to create a two-storey parkade, costing about $5 million of the $26-million total price tag. About half would be for church-goers and the other half for project residents. While they cannot prohibit a resident from having a vehicle, they can tell prospective renters that units do not include parking. Residents would have good bike storage and likely a car-share vehicle, perhaps even bus passes, noted Thomas.
Everyone with the church and the neighbourhood was in agreement that a green strip, with majestic Garry oaks, that runs along the back of the property, had to stay.
Units would be small, even by present standards: one-bedrooms approximately 420-455 square feet, two bedrooms 650-700 square feet, and three bedrooms 850-900. “That’s what makes them affordable,” said Thomas. (Brownstone units are larger.)
Rents for the affordable units would be set by BC Housing and CMHC, and rent increases would be tied to the cost of living (not the market). A one-bedroom unit would cost about $1000 per month.
Thomas stressed that the development team has tried to accommodate all that they heard from neighbours, but the financial realities are limiting. In their attempt to keep the height to 3.5 storeys, only 50 units will be officially “affordable,” though 44 others are characterized as “market affordable.”
The feedback at the Open Houses planned for late April might help them “further refine what we’ve got, but we don’t see major changes,” said Windjack.
CURTIS HOBSON DIRECTED ME TO an interesting 2014 article in the United Church’s Observer magazine, called “The Perils of Redevelopment.” In discussing the trends for many churches—declining congregations, rising costs, and the sale or redevelopment of their properties—it warns, “Even a plan conceived with the best of intentions can go horribly wrong.”
The article stresses the importance of constructive community outreach, without which, it warns, years can be spent fighting with neighbours and municipal governments.
Neighbour Wayne Todd researched every development mentioned in the article and found virtually all of them had been sold or failed, with congregations forced to rent other facilities. But he also inadvertently stumbled on one church project, not mentioned in the Observer article, that worked out well; in fact it may become Canada’s first net-zero-energy multi-family building.
Andrew Gregory chaired the planning committee of the North Glenora Community League during the time (2013-2015) the Westmount Presbyterian Church in that Edmonton community sought rezoning for its property in order to put up affordable housing. In a report on it, he stated: “It took dozens of meetings and hundreds of hours of focused effort on both sides to get to ‘YIMBY.’”
He mentions the wisdom of arriving at “a mutually understood definition for community engagement.” He writes: “It seems that the Achilles heel of most re-development plans in the city is that too many decisions are made too early without involving the community…committing the developer to a plan before engagement has taken place and derailing authentic dialogue before it can happen.”
Certainly in the Oak Bay case, it does not appear that the church went to neighbours with a blank slate. It had priorities and financial realities that led it early on to think big.
One major difference between the Edmonton church and the Oak Bay church is that in Edmonton, the North Glenora Community League’s planning committee (all volunteers)—took the reigns to negotiate a community engagement process. Then it took minutes of every meeting which were posted, hosted periodic town halls, and conducted surveys on specific aspects. In Oak Bay, there’s been no similar body providing such leadership. (The Oak Bay Community Association did host a community forum on housing affordability that both sides appreciated.)
Another difference: the Edmonton church seemed willing to take its time—two years in total from announcement to passing at Edmonton City Hall—whereas Oak Bay United Church representatives seem in a hurry, and seem to believe they’ve already done much of the community consultation necessary—not the hundreds of hours allowed for in the Edmonton case. By the way, it too started out on shaky ground, but in the end, at the final Edmonton City Hall public hearing, two residents spoke in favour of the development, none opposed, and it passed unanimously.
Another noteworthy difference: the Edmonton church’s proposal was for a 16-unit townhouse development for families.
EVERYONE I SPOKE TO for this article seems to care deeply about their community and be in favour of some affordable housing on the church property. No neighbours expressed concerns about property values. Even the vociferous ad-hoc group I spoke with would accept a three-story building.
Yet even if the church wins wide community support for its project, it may be embarking on a perilous journey. Its financial straits have been alluded to time and time again, in church minutes, at consultations, at council meetings, and during interviews.
The church has a $300,000 mortgage now. To create a development on its property, it has borrowed $500,000 from BC Housing (which needs to be repaid, regardless of the outcome). If it gets rezoning approved, it will be borrowing tens of millions more from BC Housing to finance it. Yes, it will get rental income to pay down its debts, but it will also be sacrificing significant space for its activities, along with $100,000 in annual revenues from its thrift store, and $54,000 in annual rent from Threshold Housing Society. These revenues currently get fully spent on church operations and maintenance. Right now, the sanctuary needs an estimated $300,000 in repairs. When Threshold leaves, the church will also have to refund the balance of a loan the housing society provided for renovations—about $40,000 now.
But the church is committed to the project. And as of last August, it’s doubtful the congregation could back out if it wanted to. The church board transferred all decision-making to its project development team. In church board minutes, it’s noted that the team, composed of four church representatives as well as some external advisors and consultants, has “commission status,” meaning they have “complete authority” until their mandate expires at end of the rezoning process. “The governing body or executive [of the church] may not debate the commission’s decision and come to a different decision.”
Reverend Slater told me she hopes their proposal goes before council in May, and that it’s approved in advance of the municipal election in October. Given the usual pace of the development process, this seems wildly optimistic.
Interestingly, the church is already permitted, under its “institutional” zoning, to build three floors of multi-family housing on the church property. But the proposed density will make it necessary to apply for rezoning. For instance, the minimum square footage for a one-bedroom apartment has to be 603 sq ft, not the 420 the church is planning. The project would also take up a far greater portion of the land than its institutional zoning allows.
Will a majority of councillors be willing to “spot zone” the development as proposed? Will they give weight to the church’s provision of services and financial need? In light of citizens’ complaints, will they send it back to the drawing board?
When I asked Councillor Ney about this, she reiterated the message of the January meeting, that the way to ensure success is to have a robust consultative process, developing rapport with the community and coming up with something that is amenable to all. “For whatever reason,” she said, “the consultation with this proposal went off the rails,” resulting in people being scared and nervous—especially about the massing. Historically, Ney said, Oak Bay was not planned with adequate transition zones between areas of multi-unit buildings and single-family homes. Ney noted that council often has to “soften the edges” of developments so they are not pushed hard against neighbours.
But there appears little room for compromise on the part of the church. Thomas said, “Our reality is we’ve made it as small as we realistically can. We are now [in the late April open houses] putting all our cards on the table. This is the best we can do.”
So what is the church’s fall-back position if rezoning is refused? Thomas said they would probably have to subdivide, selling off the Threshold building to get enough money to do the needed repairs of other buildings. “There would be no housing. And it puts the church in a precarious long-term position,” she said.
It is admirable that Oak Bay United has stepped up to create some desperately needed affordable housing. Reverend Slater might be overly optimistic, but she’s correct in her assessment that the project proposal is “an opportunity for the community to wrestle with the ‘over-development’ issue, and how a community has that conversation.”
Leslie Campbell attended the first open house on April 25. She overheard one gentleman saying, “Well, at least it’s going in the right direction.”
The debate over density at 1201 Fort is sure to repeat itself across the City of Victoria.
VICTORIANS CROWDED INTO CITY HALL on April 12. They stood in hallways, craning to hear the speakers in the council chambers, or downstairs, watching a live stream of the meeting on a TV in the foyer. The agenda package was 2,311 pages long — nearly 2,000 about a proposed development for 1201 Fort Street, the site of the former Victoria Truth Centre.
“This has been an emotional journey for everyone,” said Mike Miller, president of Abstract Developments. In the two years since he’d bought the two-acre property, he told the council, he’d held 20 meetings with the neighbours and revised the project six times. One six-storey condo building faced Fort Street, but he’d reduced another to four storeys, and scaled down the size and number of townhouses facing Pentrelew Place at the back, cutting the total units from 94 to 83.
An artist's rendering of Abstract Development's proposal (centre of image) for the former Truth Centre property on Fort Street
“I’ve truly given all that I know to this application,” Miller concluded. “I do understand this can be a trying process. However, the passionate dialogue has been invaluable, and I feel has resulted in a better project.”
Then dozens of citizens came up to speak. A large majority supported Miller’s project — a procession of architects, planners, contractors, realtors, and residents of other Abstract buildings, talking of the urgent need for more housing, and the quality of Abstract’s work — a sampling of the many allies Miller has made since he renovated his first house in Burnside 20 years ago.
But the speakers’ list was also peppered with those who lived next to 1201 Fort, and had written many of the letters filling the agenda package. They said they weren’t opposed to development, but saw no benefit from this project, which they said would generate noise, traffic, parking conflicts, and require cutting down protected Garry oaks and sequoias.
The main thrust of their complaint, however, was that the project violated the City’s own planning documents. According to the Official Community Plan (OCP), nearly three-quarters of the site is considered “traditional residential”, and zoned R1-B, “single family dwelling”. Abstract wanted a new site-specific zone, adding to some 650 already in Victoria’s bylaws, putting the four-storey building on land meant for houses. As Jamie Hammond, representing the Rockland Neighbourhood Association, told councillors, “If this is approved here, the question becomes for residents across the city: Where else is this acceptable?”
Signs of neighbourhood discontent are sprouting up as fast as projects bringing increased density to residential neighbourhoods are being proposed (Photo by Ross Crockford)
That question is increasingly being asked by Victorians. While some of us are excited by the energy in town, others wonder if our communities are being sacrificed to simply make developers rich and expand our municipal government. Over the past five years, new construction has enlarged the City of Victoria’s annual property-tax revenue by at least $5.4 million. That’s allowed the City to keep a lid (somewhat) on tax increases, but raised suspicion that the City is tempted to amend the OCP and its zoning bylaws at the first whiff of new money.
The OCP, drafted in 2011, envisions 20,000 more people living in the City by 2041. But the 285-page document contains contradictions. On page 25, it says “sufficient zoned capacity” already exists to meet that demand; on page 33, it warns that existing zoning won’t be enough, “running the risk that housing will become increasingly more expensive as available capacity is depleted.” The document envisions 50 percent of new density occurring Downtown, 40 percent in “urban villages” (mainly around Mayfair and Hillside malls), and 10 percent across the rest of the City. It also envisions greater density along arterial roads. That might lead one to expect towers along Douglas Street, or Shelbourne, serviced by rapid transit, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the push is to build luxury condos on streets bordering established residential districts.
That pressure is splitting neighbourhoods. The Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association has been attacked by some members for failing to criticize controversial developments, such as the five-storey condo block underway at Oliphant in the Cook Street Village. (Board members say such “political” activity would jeopardize the association’s charitable status, which it needs for its child-care programs.) Community associations are supposed to facilitate meetings between developers and residents, but those meetings have become so fractious that, last month, the Fairfield-Gonzales board voted to explore changing or withdrawing its involvement in the City’s development process. Some Gonzales residents have also formed their own association (gonzalesna.ca) so they can voice opposition to the City’s proposed new neighbourhood plan, which would permit row housing throughout their district, and multi-storey apartments along Fairfield Road.
An almost sure sign that the City of Victoria's tax base will soon be increasing (Photo by Ross Crockford)
IF THERE'S ONE THING EVERYONE CAN AGREE ON, it’s that housing in Victoria is rapidly becoming unaffordable to all but a few. The solution, say developers, is obvious: build more supply to bring prices down.
And it’s not just developers. In Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, and other expensive cities, a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) movementis gathering force. Mostly comprised of people in their 30s, they’re demanding that cities dump decades-old zoning laws to allow more apartments, everywhere. In their view, it’s hypocritical for owners of single-family homes to preach environmentalism and then oppose density, forcing new housing to sprawl ever farther from Downtown.
The closest thing to a YIMBY group here (so far) is Cities For Everyone, a community organization led by alternative-transportation consultant Todd Litman. He publicly defends the 1201 Fort project — right on a transit and bicycle corridor — as exactly the kind of new density envisioned in the OCP.
“Infill development often does require cutting down trees and paving over lawns, and may increase vehicle trips on a street,” he wrote in an April 9 letter to Council, “but these local impacts are generally offset many times over by reductions in regional land consumption and vehicle traffic that would occur if those households instead located in conventional automobile-dependent urban fringe housing.”
It’s debatable if 1201 Fort will be for “Everyone”: its one-bedroom units start around $400,000. “Although the units in this project will not initially be affordable to low- and moderate-income households,” Litman also wrote, “they will contribute to the City’s overall affordability through what urban economists call ‘filtering,’ which means that increasing higher-priced housing supply allows some households to move out of lower-priced units, and because [construction] depreciates in value over time, so mid-priced housing becomes future affordable supply.”
But not all academics agree that increasing supply will improve affordability. John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and the environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, recently published a paper entitled “The Housing Supply Myth”. Using census data, he calculated that over the past 15 years, Victoria added 27,116 households to its population — but built 30,574 dwelling units.
“We would think that if a market got less affordable, maybe that meant supply was getting tighter and tighter. But that’s baloney,” Rose told the Globe and Mail. “Here [in Vancouver] we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy.” He said the drivers of unaffordability are mainly on the demand side, such as the “pointless” construction of luxury units, largely created for part-time residents and speculators.
Others argue that if the urgent problem is affordability, we can’t simply boost the supply of expensive condos and then wait (perhaps decades) for their prices to “filter” down to what renters can afford. Provinces and cities are trying to accelerate this via taxes on speculators and out-of-province owners, and greater regulation of short-term rentals. But some say we could also build more affordable housing by demanding greater Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from projects — something the City has been slow to grasp.
“In stark contrast to other BC municipalities, Victoria has launched itself into a densification plan that will never achieve its rationale of general or specific housing affordability,” wrote Doug Curran recently on Mile Zero Mirror, a local renter-advocacy blog. Curran, who worked as a community organizer in the District of North Vancouver before moving here in 2015, says his former municipality has collected $11 million in CACs from the construction of 777 residential units since 2013, charging about $22 per square foot, and using the funds to build a community centre. If the same metrics were applied to the 4,778 units in the pipeline here, Curran says, Victoria could’ve raised $40 million for affordable housing.
Signs of the times (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Victoria’s current density-bonus policy was only enacted in 2016, and charges $12 per square foot for developments Downtown. City planners argue that’s because real estate is cheaper here than in North Vancouver. But they do admit there are “limitations” to the current policy. If a development doesn’t trigger a rezoning, it isn’t subject to the charges; consequently, several new condo towers Downtown haven’t paid anything towards affordable housing. And if an independent economic analysis says a rezoning won’t produce a significant “lift” in the value of the land — as was the case for 1201 Fort — it’s not required to provide any affordable units. (Abstract has pledged to build 10 affordable rental units in a newly proposed nine-storey building at 1010 Fort instead — a gesture of goodwill that also improves the likelihood of council approving both buildings.)
An improved policy is working its way through City Hall. On March 8, councillors requested an analysis of ways to further increase affordable housing built by developers — including “pre-zoning” areas feasible for affordable units, to speed up project approvals. But in the meantime, the October 20 civic election creeps closer, and Victoria’s politicians are increasingly aware that they will have to justify the current density boom to longtime residents who are likely to vote.
“I don’t necessarily think that council or the City or the community has necessarily done the best job of managing and stewarding change in a way that everyone sees the benefits or that’s sustainable,” mayor Lisa Helps admitted to the Times Colonist in February — right after councillors voted down a 44-unit rental apartment block proposed for a residential section of Burdett Avenue, and opposed by 150 petition-signing neighbours. “That’s something that I’m grappling with right now as I kind of prepare for the [election] campaign. There’s a lot of change going on. How do we make sure that as change is happening, everyone is heard and everyone benefits?”
Partway through the April 12 hearing, I stepped outside. Lots of people were out strolling, enjoying the evening, and I walked over to The Drake, a newish microbrew pub on Pandora. The place was packed, almost all people under 40. I sat beside three young professionals who’d all moved to Victoria in the past two years. They were from Edmonton, Toronto, and Albuquerque, working here for government, in finance, and in tech. They said they loved Victoria and wanted to stay, but it was nearly impossible to find a place to live.
I forgot to ask if they planned to vote in October. I must be getting old.
UPDATE: ON MAY 3, VICTORIA’S COUNCIL VOTED 6-3 IN FAVOUR OF THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL. For: Helps, Alto, Coleman, Loveday, Lucas, Thornton-Joe. Against: Isitt, Madoff, Young. (Video here; click on item D4 in the agenda.)
“This is a hard decision,” said Mayor Helps, who introduced the motion to approve. “We heard a lot of conflicting views,” she noted, echoing the two truths in the title of the article above. “We heard, on the one hand, that [the proposal] fits the spirit and intent of the OCP, and we heard, on the other hand, that it doesn’t .... We heard that it’s incompatible with the vision for the City and the neighbourhood. And then we heard from others, almost using the exact same language, that it is compatible.”
“So when there’s this amount of direct disagreement, it makes it difficult for Council to make a decision,” she continued. “And this is where we have to use all of our own thinking and knowledge and experience that we believe and find not only about the future of cities in general but this one in particular.”
The mayor said the current zoning wasn’t appropriate, as it wouldn’t protect the trees, and allowed eight single-family dwellings plus a four-storey block on Fort. She said the revised proposal was much better than it was when it first came to the City, and would put most of the parking underground, with an entrance off Fort. She also noted that the site was on a transit corridor, and cited Todd Litman’s letter in favour of increased density along such routes.
Most important, though, was that advocates from “Generation Squeeze” came out to speak in support of the proposal. “They’re looking out for the people who are coming after us, who are being squeezed out of housing, who are being squeezed out of affordability,” Helps said. One opponent had pointed out that the smallest condos in the proposed development would have to rent for at least $1,600 a month, an amount far out of reach for anyone earning the median income in Victoria of $45,000. “But actually this isn’t true,” Helps said. “The general rule is that no one should spend more than 30% of their income on housing. But the other thing that’s emerging is a more nuanced approach to affordability, and that is, no one should spend more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation combined. And so if you live in this area, you can easily take transit or walk or bike, and so your transportation costs, if you work downtown, would be zero dollars.”
Helps’ motion to approve the development passed. But it turns out the units will be even less “affordable” than she thought: the developer is now taking registrations for “pre-sales pricing”, which starts at $550,000 — far higher than the $400K the developer ballparked in 2016.
The presumption that one’s transportation costs will be “zero” in such a location may also be more “nuanced” than the mayor allows. A new study says there’s almost no relationship between lower personal spending on transportation and neighborhoods with better bus connections; far more important is the number of adults in a household, how many children they have, and their annual income. In other words, those who can afford one of these condos are also likely to own cars.
If the City wants affordable housing for “the missing middle”, maybe it should demand that such housing actually gets built.
Ross Crockford is a former trial lawyer, and has received a National Magazine Award for his journalism.
Victoria’s council still needs to learn lessons for its next big project.
THIS HAS BEEN A MIRACULOUS YEAR for the City of Victoria. Lowest unemployment in Canada. Cranes on every block Downtown. Record levels of tourism. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our civic government has engaged in a bit of magical thinking.
This is what occurred to me when I read a headline in the June 23 Times Colonist: “Victoria might not need to borrow for Crystal Pool.”
The day before, City parks director Tom Soulliere delivered an update to Victoria councillors on the municipality’s next big infrastructure project, the $69-million replacement of Crystal Pool. Soulliere reported that the City will ask for a big chunk of the cost from the federal government’s $180-billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, which distributes its next round of grants in April. Consequently, he said, the City might not need to borrow money for the project, which would require voters’ approval in a referendum: “While external borrowing remains a potential part of the overall funding strategy, it may be possible to eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of external borrowing required, should applications for grant programs prove successful.”
A lesson that needs learning: Sometimes buying a new car is a good idea. A new Ford Pinto, not so much.
The councillors surely sighed with relief. The week before, they’d heard the new Johnson Street Bridge was still rusting in pieces in China, and won’t open until next March at the earliest. Relieved they wouldn’t have to face a referendum this autumn, or perhaps at all, councillors started debating the name of the new pool instead (now it’s “Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre”) and enthused about how it could transform the city.
Getting a new pool almost entirely paid for by other governments certainly would be miraculous. If the feds and province kick in two-thirds of the cost, it would comprise the biggest-ever gift to the City, greater than the $37.5-million in total federal contributions to the bridge. (The City would have to contribute to the pool as well, but since it’s already allocated $10 million from reserves, it would only need to come up with another $10 million or so, a sum voters would likely approve.)
But is such a huge grant likely? The City hopes to draw the money from the “social infrastructure” component of the federal plan, which covers a vast range of needs, including “investments in Indigenous communities, early learning and childcare, affordable housing, home care, and cultural and recreational infrastructure.” Since 2002, the largest federal grant for a pool was $12.9 millionfor a new aquatic centre in Yellowknife. Surrey, Richmond, and UBC apparently had to build their new 50-metre pools with no federal money at all.
Instead, it seems the pool is tracing the early trajectory of the bridge project — even though on June 15, Project Director Jonathan Huggett gave councillors a list of “lessons learned” from the bridge.
Lest we forget, when council approved replacing the bridge in April 2009, the discussed cost was $40 million; when the budget jumped to $63 million a month later, nobody on council opposed it because they assumed most of the cost would be covered by federal-provincial stimulus money. The City then raced to make the project look “shovel-ready” to impress Ottawa (including holding the infamous “Pick One!” design contest). When John Baird showed up with $21 million a few months later, council abandoned any thought of fixing the old bridge (then-estimated cost: $25 million), and focused on getting voters’ approval to borrow the rest, instead of asking questions about the unique machine it was building.
Now similar things are happening with the pool — which Stantec said could be refurbished for $6.2 million (see Option 2 in their January 2015 report) — suggesting that early lessons from the bridge haven’t been learned. Staff prefer new assets to fixing old ones. Federal approval doesn’t mean your plan is flawless. And even a fraction of external funding tends to give projects a momentum that is impossible to stop.
“IF I COULD REDUCE MY EXPERIENCE with projects to a one-liner, a successful project is about identifying risks and managing those risks,” Huggett told councillors in his “lessons learned” report. The City’s engineers had produced extensive “risk registries” listing potential problems with the bridge, but key risks had been missed—in particular, that the “innovative and largely untested” open-wheel mechanism required extensive redesign, and that fabricating the lift span in China involved translators, negotiations across distant time zones, and confusion about welding standards.
Such problems won’t crop up for a standard 50-metre pool built locally, Huggett noted, but it faces its own risks (unknown geotechnical conditions, groundwater), which can be countered by having adequate contingency funds, certainly larger than the four percent in the bridge construction contract. The pool currently has $23.6 million of its budget (34 percent) for cost escalation and contingencies, although that will be eaten up quickly, if local construction prices keep increasing at the current rate of six to eight percent per year—another risk.
Countless articles have been written about how to generate “lessons learned,” a standard task in project management. But the literature says it’s not as simple as writing a report on the failures of a project, and then buying a bigger insurance policy for the next one — which is like compensating for a bad golf swing by aiming further to the left. Instead, leaders need to establish a culture where problems are identified, analyzed, and resolved.
Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, cites these practices:
Frame the work accurately. The cost of the bridge has steadily escalated mainly because numerous costs (design, permitting, insurance) were lowballed or missing from early estimates, and the construction contract had tiny cash allowances for big items (fendering, likely to cost another $5 million or more) — the result of trying to make the bridge appear “on budget” and within its advertised “affordability ceiling.” Huggett said the City needs to ensure it has prepared “a full scope of work” for the pool, but it’s too early to tell if that’s been done.
Embrace messengers. “Those who come forward with bad news, questions, concerns, or mistakes should be rewarded rather than shot,” Edmondson says. As Geoff Young noted at the “lessons learned” meeting, everyone at City Hall had to “get behind” the decision to replace the bridge, forcing even the fire chief to endorse the project. Has the City learned otherwise? At the February 23 council meeting, Ben Isitt questioned why UBC was able to build a pool for $40 million all-in, and demanded staff bring down the project costs, which only spurred a rebuke from Mayor Helps: “We need to show confidence in this project as a council. We need to make comments in public, in meetings that show confidence in the estimates that our staff have produced, because no funder is going to give us money if we’re not confident in the project.”
Acknowledge your limits. The City’s staff and consultants had little experience with the specialized engineering of movable bridges, and were unaware of (or unwilling to disclose) the risks of an unusual design. This time, council needs to ask: How many pools have you built? Did they come in on time and budget?
Invite participation. This certainly didn’t happen with the bridge project: Early warnings from the finance department and costly issues with other facilities (fire hall) had to be directed to City management, which “preferred” to sit on bad news for months.
Set boundaries and hold people accountable. All of the staff associated with the early years of the bridge are now gone, although none of them were publicly disciplined for their conduct relating to the project. MMM — the consultants who proposed the troublesome “open-wheel” design, asserted it could be built for $63 million, and recommended the City sign the low-contingency construction contract — are still on the City’s payroll.
The City will apparently generate a complete “lessons learned” when the bridge project is finished. In the meantime, it’s not hard to think of a few more lessons that need to be on the list:
Scrutinize all claims of “emergency.” Esquimalt and Oak Bay have pools of similar age that they successfully refurbished. If we’re told that Crystal Pool’s systems will fail at any moment, why can’t they be repaired?
Question your presumptions. Mayor Helps said of the pool on February 16, “I think it is very fiscally imprudent and irresponsible to keep putting money into a facility we know we’re going to tear down.” How does she “know” that, when Stantec said it could be fixed?
And create a Plan B. The City might only get a couple of million from the feds. Will it reconsider repair, or push replacement regardless? After all, if council’s magical thinking doesn’t pan out, it will have to go to a borrowing referendum — and then voters will judge whether our elected officials have actually learned their lessons, or not.
Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
Affordable housing—for low- and moderate-income people working Downtown—should be a City of Victoria priority.
VICTORIA'S CURRENT HOUSING SCENE is now recognized in official circles as in “severe crisis”—both in terms of affordability and availability. The Capital Region Analysis & Data Book shows 50 percent of households can only afford 13.7 percent of the region’s homes.
The City of Victoria has responded to the crisis in numerous ways. It has removed the necessity of rezoning for garden suites. It has given preliminary approval to a moratorium on granting demolition permits for rental housing, as developers salivate over replacing those three-story 1970s-era apartment blocks that form the bulk of the City’s affordable housing. It is considering special taxes on vacant and derelict properties. It is fast-tracking applications for rental developments and encouraging developers to include some non- market “affordable” units in their buildings.
And, upon learning that at least 300 Downtown housing units had been diverted from their intended purpose of housing to money-making tourist accommodation, it started debating ways to restrict that practice— those developments, after all, got building permits on the basis of supplying housing, not hotels.
These are all necessary, but wholly insufficient steps to turning the tide on the affordable housing crisis.
But promises of help are coming from both the feds and the NDP-led, Green Party-supported provincial government. The NDP promised to build 114,000 affordable rental, non-profit and co-op housing units over 10 years, and to provide social housing to middle-class workers who have been priced out of BC cities. The Greens were willing to spend $750 million per year building and renovating social housing, to construct about 4000 affordable housing units per year. And the feds’ new $180-billion infrastructure funds are geared, in part, to affordable housing projects (some of it in the form of federal land to build on).
It’s timely and crucial for local communities to make concrete plans for projects in the region that will attract federal and provincial funding. It’s clear that the private sphere will not, and likely cannot, build the homes that are truly needed.
Centennial Square Parkade. A seismically-vulnerable and low-value use of Downtown space?
ONE POPULATION THAT IS ESPECIALLY ill-served by the housing market is Downtown workers of modest income—the folks who cook and serve us in cafés and restaurants, who clean hotel rooms, who are the helpful receptionists in offices we visit, and who help us find the perfect shirt or gift in Downtown’s stores. There are over 24,000 people working Downtown, about half of them in the hospitality (4183), restaurant (3834), and retail (3225) sectors (2013 figures).
Despite the building boom throughout the city, but especially in or near Downtown (see the slide show at www.focusonvictoria.ca), none of the newer and under-construction buildings, with one notable exception, offer “affordable” rents for those making the low-to-modest living that many thousands of Downtown workers earn.
Downtown employers are paying competitive wages, but tell me they have trouble finding and keeping good employees simply because of the difficulty and expense of parking and travel from their far-flung homes—in Shawnigan or Langford or Sooke. Transit and cycling are both often highly inconvenient for someone who is forced to work two jobs, as many do. But owning a car—and parking it Downtown—is prohibitively expensive for these workers. (My 1-hour-40-minute visit to the dentist the other day resulted in a $7 parkade charge. Double ouch!)
A minimum-wage job currently pays $10.85/hour. If the BC NDP government keeps its promise around minimum wage, this will rise incrementally to $15 per hour by 2021. Many Downtown employers already pay above minimum wage, so let’s take the example of a worker currently making $15/hour. At 40 hours/week, he or she makes about $2500/month before taxes and deductions. That means their affordable rent would be $750/month. (The accepted definition of “affordable housing” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income before tax.)
What can one find now in that $750/month range?
When I looked at online ads for apartments in or close to Downtown, I did find one “$750 Downtown loft apartment.” On further inspection, however, it turned out to be a 10-foot-square room within a loft apartment. And when I stumbled on a fully-furnished “large one-bedroom” in Esquimalt for $650, and emailed to ask if it was just the bedroom (I thought I was getting wise to the scene), I was soon contacted by Used Victoria to let me know it might well be a scam. It was: I was sent photos of the lovely interior, saying I should drive by 1194 Esquimalt but wouldn’t be able to see inside since they were out of town. Verbatim: “If you are interested. I want you to remember that I’m in (Portland, Oregon.). and the keys and documents are here with me, so you will not be able to see inside the apartment, you can only view from the outside. I will send the keys and documents to you via FedEx and you will receive it within 48hrs…” Of course, with the application, I was to send $950. Besides the too-good-to-be-true price, the brackets every time they mentioned “Portland, Oregon” gave it away.
But I digress.
There were actually quite a few of the second-bedroom-for-rent type ads. In Esquimalt that might cost you $600; closer to Downtown (e.g. on Pembroke) it’s more likely to cost $750. (And these were not “short-term vacation rentals”—those are about twice as much.)
There are a lot of folks advertising themselves as great tenants in the “apartments for rent” section—everything from “professional couples” willing to pay $1400 to $2400/month, to a “sober nerdy vegan” who can afford $475-$625/month. Craigslist has a whole department devoted to “rooms & shares.”
If you really want your own, albeit tiny, apartment Downtown, expect to pay a lot more. For example, a 452-square-foot studio (with a 50-square-foot balcony) at Hudson Walk One on Caledonia is asking $1510 per month—certainly not affordable for the Downtown worker making $15/hour, or even $20/hour. That price tag is also about 50 percent more than rents at Hudson Walk One were when it launched a year ago.
The Janion has an even smaller pad—350 square feet—for $1280. Again, unaffordable for a full-time worker at $15/hour. In fact, at the 30 percent definition of affordable, one would have to make $4300/month—about $26/hour—to rent 350 square feet. If you are determined to have your own space for just shy of $800 then you might find one at the Dominion Rocket—but it might be only 179 square feet.
While the City sometimes demands developers include some non-market units in new buildings, they are usually only just a small handful per complex.
The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society’s Azzurro project across Blanshard from the arena
One non-profit thankfully stepped up recently to help more workers of modest means. The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society, paired with Realhomes Development Corp to develop the 7-storey, 65-unit Azzurro right across Blanshard from the arena. Forty-three of its units are non-market: $925 for a one-bedroom and $860 for a studio. Despite the low rents, Alanna Holroyd, the executive director of GVRDS, says she can make it work financially. It helps that she was able to do much of the work herself, and that the $5 million in development costs were waived. She has assembled a great team, including locally-based builders Knappett Projects. She also credits BC Housing financing—100 percent financing [of 14.8 million] through construction at 1.6 percent, interest only—as making housing lower- income people a feasible business model. Holroyd notes, “The lower two levels of commercial also played a significant role in getting financing from BC Housing. After the sale of the commercial spaces, a further $2.5 million will be raised.” While grants of $495,000 from the CRD and $544,000 from the City helped make Azzurro happen, Holroyd believes she can do such developments without any grants in the future.
If we want a liveable, vibrant Downtown, we need more such creative, bold moves. By supplying affordable housing in the core for the the core’s workforce, they will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and help make the heart of our city more truly liveable.
AMONG THE RECOMMENDATIONS of the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force last year was one urging the contribution of City-owned land at no cost or at reduced market value for the development of affordable housing projects. The Task Force report noted that “Under current law, the City can donate land or enter into long-term lease agreements with organizations that commit to providing affordable housing. The City can also enter into land swaps with other public institutions or the private sector and use those properties for affordable housing purposes.”
The most visible form of City-owned property Downtown, besides City Hall, are parkades. Could we develop a plan to transform one or more of them into affordable rental apartments—a Downtown workers’ paradise?
The City of Victoria owns five parkades. We can rule out the one below the Central Library, so that leaves four, all above ground. Most were built in the 1960s when seismic standards were much lower. From past research via FOIs, we know that City-owned parkades have not been seismically evaluated. It’s highly likely that once they are assessed for seismic vulnerability, they’ll have to be replaced, otherwise the City would be faced with a huge liability issue if an earthquake did strike.
In that case, do we simply put up replacement parkades? That seems crazy in light of land values, needs for housing, and climate change.
Why not consider replacing them with affordable homes for Downtown’s service workers? Start with the one which has the fewest parking spaces—it just so happens that’s the one adjacent to Centennial Square. You could retain some or all of its 188 spaces by putting them underground. They can be designed with smaller parking spaces to match the smaller cars we’ll be driving, as well as outfitted to provide charging for the electric vehicles we’re expected to drive. The main floor would have space for retailers paying market-based rents. Above, build a high-rise of varying-sized suites, all rented on an affordable basis to those who are eligible: people who work at jobs Downtown and have incomes in the target range suggested by the City’s Housing Affordability Task Force: $18,000-$57,000/year.
Oh, but what about losing precious parking spaces, you ask? It’s surprising how many parking spots might be available underground. Under the Central Library, for instance, there are 544 parking spots. (It’s worth noting that there are also 11 privately-owned parkades and 40 parking lots Downtown.) There might even be a net gain in parking spaces if Downtown workers no longer need to drive a car to work.
This means there’s an important added benefit: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (In BC, transportation accounts for 37 percent of our total annual emissions.)
Another possible objection: That particular parkade, and the attached one-storey part of the building on Douglas, were designed in 1963 by renowned architect John Di Castri. It’s a heritage building. Yet that same pedigree belongs to the Crystal Pool, which Victoria council seems determined to replace (see story, page 22). In the case of the Centennial Square parkade, the seismic issue alone will mean its eventual demise. Let’s make sure what we build there is beautifully designed (perhaps incorporating or echoing Di Castri’s work), durable, and aimed at a higher purpose like affordable housing. Think how such a transformation would enliven Victoria’s central plaza, especially if families with children are housed there.
The Centennial Square side of the John Di Castri-designed parkade
But why stop at one parkade? There are three other above-ground City-owned parkades, each seismically questionable: at Bastion Square, View Street, and Johnson Street. The City should be planning now for how to deal with them over the next decade, in ways that will best align with our future needs—around housing, transportation, and climate change.
Most likely, the City would and should involve one of the local non-profits involved in building low-income housing—the Greater Victoria Rental Development Society and the Greater Victoria Housing Society, for instance, have each built quality apartment buildings throughout the city in which units rent at non-market rates. Those in the social-housing industry can figure out the details, including eligibility criteria and precise rental rates, but all of the apartments should be geared to Downtown workers of modest means. The buildings will ideally house 300 or more residents per building.
Our theoretical full-time worker, with a $2500/month income, could get a decent studio or small one-bedroom for $750. A couple, perhaps with a child, working Downtown with a monthly income of close to $5000, could get a larger suite for up to $1500. Incomes would be reviewed annually and rents reassessed. Sure there’s nitty-gritty details like “what happens if a person leaves their Downtown employ for a job somewhere else?” But surely we can dream up some fair-minded policies to deal with such situations. Perhaps they are given six month’s notice.
I like this parkade-to-housing concept simply for the compassion it shows to those who enliven Downtown through their work, not to mention how it places value on homes over cars. But other benefits would also flow. Besides the already-mentioned reduction of green house gas emissions, it would help local businesses retain employees, a crucial ingredient of stability and success. And that would help the City’s economy, as those businesses would be far less likely to pull up stakes for the suburbs. It might even cool the housing market a tad, a good thing, as one glance at real estate ads will attest.
Since the City owns the land, that cuts out a huge cost of development. According to GVRDS’s Holroyd, “if the site has a Certificate of Compliance [from the Ministry of Environment[, it could be worth $250 per square foot and up depending on what density is allowed after rezoning.” But, she warns, “the variables are massive.” Regardless, “it could easily be half the cost of construction…without a development fee of course.” Holroyd agreed that having land donated makes a lot more things possible.
So the City supplies the land, perhaps waiving some fees, and other levels of government provide funding, and non-profits take care of the rest.
Unless we are willing to have our governments step up and provide non-market housing, we’ll face a city bleached of its diversity and vitality, and we’ll witness more lives, especially young ones, stunted by unbearable costs.
Remember Portland, once held up as a shining example of how to deal with homelessness? It now has 4000 homeless, including many families living in shelters, and is currently working on a pilot program to supply government-constructed “pods” of 200 square feet, placed in the backyards of willing homeowners. And they are not cheap; the pods cost about $75,000 each (but here too the land is free). Victoria has the opportunity to avoid such drastic measures by moving more aggressively to actually initiate development and put up the land.
If this community is willing to tear down a di Castri-designed swimming pool and spend $70 million to replace it (even though it could be fixed for far less), I think we have a moral obligation to affordably house the people who work to make the Downtown experience so fine.
Leslie Campbell invites other dreamers to send us your ideas on how to create a liveable, green, compassionate city.
As waves of newcomers arrive, opportunity and peril loom over our urban identity.
FROM New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden’s review of director Alexandr Sokurov’s 2002 film, Russian Ark: “This ultimate display of wealth and privilege in the movie is so heady it would be easy to infer that Mr. Sokurov…harbors a lingering nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary era of czars and serfs. But this extraordinary sequence—courtly social life set within the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg—even more powerfully evokes the historical blindness of an entitled elite blissfully oblivious to the fact that it is standing in quicksand that is about to give.”
It was 1971 and I was a newly-minted Victorian, having arrived here the year before from New York City via Prince Rupert (the story of that long rail journey some other time). I had just founded Open Space, the warehouse cultural centre on lower Fort Street that still bears my name (I swear, a letter showed up one day addressed: Open Space, 510 Fort Street, Victoria, BC and began: Dear Mr. Space…).
I could barely conjure the next month’s rent, let alone funds for programming and physical plant improvements to sustain the cavernous, cruddy warehouse. “Go see Pam Ellis. She’s a patron of the arts,” said knowing friends over beers at the Churchill. They filled my head with tales of fabulous wealth earned, via her husband, Geoffrey, from the One-Hour Martinizing chain and, if I remember correctly, an English beer fortune thrown in.
I made an appointment through Mrs. Ellis’ factotum, and on the day arrived a bit early at her 30-room bungalow on Runnymede Avenue. (Years before, God had thoughtfully created South Oak Bay around her home to provide a windbreak from the rude ocean breezes.)
Mrs. Ellis was closeted improbably with Princess Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff (formerly Jennie Ross of Ross/Butchart Gardens fame, and wife, for a while, of dashing but impoverished Russian aristocrat Prince André Chirinsky-Chikhmatoff—a name evoking fairy-tale royalty, onion-domed castles, Glinka mazurkas, satin window swags, and flattering candlelight). So I waited in an anteroom, sipping flavourless tea, almost within earshot of their animated repartee.
Eventually, the princess departed, and I was shown in. Awkward, bumptious, full of myself and my life-changing cultural vision, I launched, after introductions, into some unscripted and feverish explanation of Open Space and its cultural mission, hoping to convey the idea that, eclipsed only by the domestication of wild herds, the invention of the steam engine, and one or two other equally significant human milestones, Open Space was inarguably the most important cultural advance on the planet. All of this was larded with the worst eyewash and mangled promises of an ovation in this life and sainthood in the next for any benefactor whose dough might be leveraged to make this precious dream come true.
I had to stop mid-peroration to catch my breath, which gave Mrs. Ellis an opportunity to interject an incongruous, loopy soliloquy about dieting. On and on she melodiously maundered about her efforts to reduce, gesticulating and patting her plump arms and generous middle. I adopted the glazed look of the fascinated listener: a treacly, sickeningly interested grin that in a more just cosmos would have been removed by a lightning bolt. To look at my face, you would think she was rattling off long swatches of flawless Tennyson verbatim.
During this weird monologue about her weight-loss efforts, Mrs. Ellis spoke energetically to the middle distance above my head, as if to some balcony audience. Then, winding down, she turned straight toward me, her eyes penetrating deep within my shabby soul. The notes of caprice and gossipy self-absorption never left her voice as she said, “You know, Mr. Miller, its so hard being fat in a skinny world.”
THOSE WERE THE DAYS. The wealthy could express metaphor and refinement (however synthetic); the aspiring rest of us had the sufferings to which we were fairly accustomed (apologies to Auden). And if there were reason to grumble about the rich, at least it was a microscopic consolation that they followed socially-approved protocols for cultural largesse via carefully-managed endowments. (God, listen to me! Where’s Tevye, from Fiddler, singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” when you need him?) Also, there was a faint sense that such plutocrats, less outright crooks than clever and aggressive opportunists, had at least made their fortunes by tapping legitimate and tangible market veins like beer and dry cleaning, and not asset-backed securities, derivatives, credit default swaps, leveraging, money bundling, or other dark and suspect financial arts.
You may also accurately conclude that Victoria, while not immune to the winds of change, was “a little bit of Olde Inertia” those forty-five years ago, and still under the frosty and disorder-averse social influence of proper and vaguely British (roll your r, please) Oak Bay social aristocracy. Then, as now, provincial government was present, but a world apart from the city’s daily life.
The Hudson’s Bay stood stolidly, massively, at the north end of Douglas, forbiddingly vending yesteryear’s styles, while a slightly less un-welcoming and “with it” Eaton’s at View and Douglas jumped Broad Street with an elevated pedestrian bridge. I have a possibly imagination-inflamed memory of busty, heavyset sales matrons in both stores, disapproving lifers whose body English and angry punching of the cash register keys proclaimed that spending money on frivolities like clothing was near to biblical sin.
Murchie’s on Government Street, back then, likely sold more Earl Grey than coffee. You understand, these reminiscences send us back to the pre-Starbucks Pleistocene! Honestly, can you even imagine a time before lattes?
There was a Downtown residential population of sorts, but more of a single- room-occupancy crowd, as longstanding citizen and City councillor Pam Madoff notes. You “commuted” home to the James Bay, Fairfield, and Fernwood suburbs from a day at the office or shop, and journeyed to the double-wide-strewn hillbilly hinterland of Langford and Colwood only for banjo lessons or to blast at small, furry animals.
But all of these memories—truth and legend alike—are about to be swamped by something new. As I’ve noted in previous writing, Downtown is in the middle of a transformation: Residential growth which, if unabridged by any near-term economic hiccups, will, in under a decade, swell the population to between ten and fifteen thousand, contained within a tiny, forty-block area—roughly Broughton to Herald, Cook to Wharf, with some further help from expanding residential colonies in Songhees and Vic West.
Disorienting change: Former McCall Brothers Funeral Home has a new life as a sales office for the new condo across the street.
Those numbers may seem fantastic, but you have no idea what’s coming. Look past the visible hoardings, excavations and construction cranes to many other candidate properties or property assemblies—yes, including one whole city block—either acquired or in play for new development.
Why here, why now, what’s driving it? Who knows? Does the current boom have legs, or will some market plunge leave many Downtown sites as holes in the ground and half-completed works for a generation? We’ll see (I assume the inevitable).
Importantly, who are these newcomers steadily swelling the Downtown residential population? Can these newcomers be Victorianized, harmonized with the city’s culture, or will they redefine that culture? Will the physical structures housing this human flood result in some dismal, isolating West End of tombstone high-rises and irreparable damage to Downtown character, or in an economic, social, cultural and energetic renaissance? Pointedly, are you ready for six-hour breakfast lineups outside Jam on Herald?
But what most interests me is cultural transmission: the challenge to all of us, to the city, to successfully convey story. Not history, exactly, but the singularity and character of this place, so newcomers are welcomed by a context and continuity.
Discussing W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz, Colin Dickey remarks that buildings and the entire urban fabric are human acts, projecting not just a functional message, but also a cultural one: ideas, values, preferences, importances. “No historical [condition or monument] arrives ex nihilo. Patterns are laid out decades in advance, in plain sight. They draw attention to themselves, even if we have no desire [and little skill] to recognize them.” (You need look no farther than the hundreds of now-a-generation-old cracker-box apartment buildings visually littering the Victoria landscape to appreciate Dickey’s potent thought.)
Of course, so as not to get too lost in rhapsody, it’s helpful to add social critic James Kunstler’s theory of history: “Things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time.”
In other words, opportunity and peril loom over urban identity. Newcomers will change, but also need to be changed by, the city’s identity, and by its public realm, cultural aspirations and accomplishments…in aid of which, we might even prevail upon Open Space to put up two plaques on its lower Fort Street exterior: one a bas-relief likeness of Pam Ellis with her thoughts about being fat in a skinny world, the other of Mr. Space.
Co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller has, with partner Rob Abbott, launched the website FutureTense: Robotics, AI and the Future of Work.
How many big infrastructure projects can the City of Victoria tackle at once?
CRYSTAL POOL IS A CHALLENGING PLACE to navigate if you’re disabled. You need a key to turn on a power lift to climb the eight steps from the lobby to the men’s locker room. You need another lift on a different staircase to get to the top floor’s tiny weight room, too crowded with equipment to fit a wheelchair. Anyone who’s visually impaired could smack their head on the concrete bleachers overhanging the pool deck. And if you want to get wet, you need someone to hand-winch you down into the water in a hoist.
“The staff here over the years have done everything they can,” says Doug Nutting. “But they’re working with a facility that had no consideration in its original design.”
Nutting is the executive director of Recreation Integration Victoria, an intermunicipally- funded group facilitating active lifestyles for people with disabilities. In December, as Victoria councillors debated the future of the 1971-built Crystal Pool, he wrote a letter urging them to replace it. If you include the debilitating effects of aging, Nutting says, 18 percent of Victorians live with some type of disability, and a public pool should be available to everyone. “If you just retrofit, you’re sentencing people with disabilities to at least another 10 or 20 years of having a substandard, partially accessible facility.”
Such inaccessibility was one of the reasons why Victoria councillors voted in February to replace Crystal Pool, at an estimated cost of $70 million. “That [18 percent] is a big chunk of the population, and that for us was a real eye-opener,” says Thomas Soulliere, the City’s director of parks, recreation and facilities.
UBC says its new pool cost $40 million, all in. Victoria is budgeting $70 million for a new pool.
In 2015, the engineering firm Stantec said $6.3 million in repairs would keep the pool operating. But the City was interested in “current and anticipated community need” for the facility, and hired HCMA Architecture and PERC recreation consultants to assess it. Last December, they said the demand for indoor swimming—by recreational and club swimmers, and elderly and disabled residents—was 22 percent greater than the pool could currently handle. They said a 30-year repair of the pool would cost $40 million, and expanding it to satisfy the “latent demand” for swimming would cost $60 million. The uncertainties of renovation, plus a year-long closure to do the work, persuaded a majority of councillors to vote for a new pool.
Why not simply undertake Stantec’s minimal repair? “We didn’t think doing just the behind-the-scenes systems work was a viable option for the long term,” Soulliere replies. “That keeps the building functioning, but is that really the best overall value, given the service gaps?”
Consequently, Soulliere will go before councillors again in June with HCMA’s designs for a new pool. If they approve, the City will hold events throughout the summer to tell voters about the costs and benefits of the new facility, leading up to a referendum in the autumn. “There’s a lot of zeros there,” he says, smiling. “It should attract attention.”
BUT THE POOL ISN'T THE ONLY IMPENDING PROJECT with a lot of zeros attached. Victoria and the other core municipalities are about to start building a $765-million sewage treatment system, and the City of Victoria’s share of that cost—after senior government grants have been applied—will be $90 million or more. The City will also have to deal with its problem of rainwater and groundwater flowing into older sewers. The City’s allocation of the capacity of a new treatment plant is only 35 percent of the total and it will have to pay financial penalties if it exceeds that use. According to the CRD’s 2012 Core Area Inflow & Infiltration (I&I) Management Plan, the City will need to spend at least $47.5 million repairing its sewage pipes by 2031. If the treatment plant is near capacity when it opens, as Stantec has predicted it might be, the City would have to reduce its I&I faster and to a greater degree, or the region will be pushed into building a second plant.
Rendering of the a sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point. City of Victoria's share of the treatment project costs will be $90 million or more.
Then there’s the replacement of Fire Hall #1, which the City hopes to have built by a private developer, with adjacent housing to offset the cost. In a closed meeting last September, City council directed staff to start negotiations with one firm—and those negotiations are still “underway,” said Susanne Thompson, the City’s director of finance, in an email. “There will be a report to council in camera within the next few months. Next steps will depend on direction provided at that time.”
There’s also the Bay Street Bridge. In 2013, an engineer’s report said the bridge was in poor condition, and needed $11 million in work, mainly to replace its concrete deck. But in 2015, Stantec said the deck was OK, and the City could get away with $3.6 million in repairs; the City applied for grants for that work, and this March, the feds and the Province said they’d provide two-thirds of the funding. (The City balked at spending a further $11 million to cantilever bike lanes off the bridge.) Those repairs will start in 2018, after the Johnson Street Bridge is completed—and, one hopes, operating trouble-free—because the work will require closing at least one of the Bay Street Bridge’s lanes of traffic.
The City also needs to perform catch-up maintenance on its other facilities. In 2015, the consultants Morrison Hershfield assessed all 97 City-owned buildings, and rated them on a Facilities Condition Index. Crystal Pool rated the worst: In addition to Stantec’s $6.3 million, the consultants said the pool would need a further $3.2 million by 2025. But over the next decade, the Conference Centre will also need $13.3 million, the police station $7.8 million, City Hall $4 million, and the parkades from $1.1 million to $4.5 million apiece, to continue providing acceptable service.
And that doesn’t include seismic upgrades. In 2010, Read Jones Christoffersen conducted seismic risk assessments of 14 City buildings, to prioritize those that should be upgraded to the highest “post-disaster” standard. They estimated such upgrades would cost $34 million, $20 million for the conference centre and its parkade alone. While a few on the list have been upgraded since then, such as the Oaklands Community Centre, many have not. Other key buildings, such as the police station, Downtown library, and Crystal Pool—which Stantec didn’t recommend for seismic upgrading in 2015 in any case—weren’t included in the study.
THE SEWAGE TREATMENT and Bay Street Bridge projects have already been partly funded by grants from upper levels of government. But it’s impossible to guess how much more the City might get for the rest—and without grants, the City will have to fund these projects from its capital budgets, through tax increases, or by tapping its financial reserves.
In February 2016, City council allocated $30 million “in principle” from the City’s debt-reduction reserve for the fire hall; if the City spends all of that, it will only have $16 million left in the fund, below the minimum in the City’s reserve policy. The City also has $15 million in its infrastructure reserves (it adds $8 million per year), but with the Johnson Street Bridge still unfinished, it’s reluctant to tap that fund—which is why staff recently recommended taking money from the parks budget, or tax increases, to pay for the new parks and plazas around the bridge. If any of the big upcoming projects go sideways as badly as the bridge, tax increases may be the only remedy.
Final price tags are also hard to predict in a hot construction market: Currently, construction costs are escalating by 0.4 percent every month. (And one councillor told me that two projects the City recently put out to tender got no bids at all.) The City says it’s accounting for this with its new “Project Management Framework,” requiring hefty contingencies for early estimates—a “lesson learned” from the Johnson Street Bridge—and third-party evaluations of a project’s costs and benefits. That’s why it’s budgeting $70 million for a new pool: $35 million for construction, $10 million for “soft costs” (design, project management), $10 million in cost escalation, and $15 million for contingencies.
But such careful padding has also faced criticism. Ben Isitt, the only councillor to vote against a $70-million pool replacement, has pointed out that UBC built its new 50-metre aquatic centre for $40 million. (A 2014 report to UBC’s board of governors budgeted $26.7 million for construction, and UBC says $40 million was the final cost for everything.) Online pundits note that YMCA’s new 25-metre pool, built by the Westhills developers in Langford, cost $26 million. And Surrey recently opened two 50-metre pools costing $45 million and $55 million, all-in.
“It doesn’t really matter what UBC did, or the Y, or Surrey,” Soulliere replies. “For this particular project, given what we’re dealing with, at this particular time, in this market, it is good value.” He was in charge of recreation at the City of Vancouver when UBC announced its new aquatic centre, he says, “and all hell broke loose: ‘You’re going to pay what for a pool?’ But these things are bloody expensive. And depending when you hit the construction market, there are going to be these inconsistencies that make [an] apples-to-apples [comparison] difficult.”
Ultimately, though, deciding whether a new aquatic facility is worth the cost will be up to voters. While touring Crystal Pool, I met a young woman in a red knit cap who had to ride her scooter around to the side of the building in the rain, and ring a doorbell so staff could let her in to use the facility’s one universal change room. “It’s not ideal,” she said, laughing. She’d moved here from Revelstoke, which opened a new pool in 2005. “It’s more accessible to more people in ways that the older facility wasn’t,” she told me. “So I can totally see the benefit of having some newer structures in place. But it’s a matter of who’s going to pay the bill.”
Award-winning journalist and author Ross Crockford is a former editor of Monday Magazine and a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org.
Douglas Street, once fully invested with life and social purpose, now seems diminished.
QUICK, THINK OF A WORD that rhymes with “colostomy.”
Good for you!
That profane stew of surveying and shoveling, blueprints, backhoes, migraine-coloured diversion tape, and hellfire-tinted traffic cones. Surfaces shattered, guts and filth exposed, society’s shitty undies pulled down, all niceties abandoned. Invasive urban surgery: mud, crud and blood. Eeeuuwww!
Watched a two-month-long project near my home recently: realignment of an innocent, unoffending T-intersection minding its own business and doing pretty much the job you want a T-intersection to do. Suddenly, barricades, signage, lights, flaggers, equipment, trucks, detours, trenches, Everests of excavated wet earth and gravel, new drainage pipes, new curbs, light poles and paving; tax dollars and resources enlisted to improve the good enough. Now, finally, post-surgical results: a new skin of raked, seeded topsoil and curing cement. The patient survived. So did I, thank you.
If infrastructure suggests all of this, the linguistic doorway to the apocalypse is crumbling infrastructure: a Doomer movie of decay, social collapse and the return of an ever-nesting, never-resting Dark Age (consider the Trump-era recrudescence of the American neo-Nazi White Right)—against which extraordinary public resources are directed to sustain the hope (some would say illusion) that the civic enterprise is still on the rails…that the human project continues.
By the way, Crumbling Infrastructure, if not quite as good as Dying Fetus or Deicide (both already taken), would be a terrific name for a death-metal band.
Writing about urban evolution reminds me that in many cases human settlements emerged as cities (the oldest a recent 5000 years ago) on a thought: “Oh, this hill has a good view.” “This slope is sunny.” “We can tie up our boat here.” “Lots of game and fresh water.” “We can defend this place.” The entire kit of contemporary urban parts is just decorative icing over elemental states like appetite, convenience, visions of triumph, plans for rest and safety, dreams of opportunity, or the point at which exhausted pack animals or slave porters gave up the ghost.
Admittedly, cities are also hopes for order. Listening, a moment ago, to violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Samuel Sanders perform Edward Elgar’s “La Capricieuse,” I was taken by how the structure of musical thought springs from an innate architecture in our heads, a sense of system and form, which we apply to music, storytelling, and city-building, too.
Local writer Janis Ringuette cites historian Richard Mackie and other sources to uncover the intentions upon which Victoria was founded:
“James Douglas was instructed [by the English] to organize the new Colony of Vancouver Island: ‘The object...should be...to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties…Conditions for the...disposal of lands...will have the effect...of preventing the ingress of squatters, paupers and land Speculators.’”
That land Speculator ingress prevention thing worked out well, don’t you think?
Like entire cities, neighbourhoods, too, are ideas. Look at city property maps and note the proliferation of orderly double-rows of rectangles serviced by die-straight streets on all sides, as if the straight line and right angle themselves might be tools of successful governance. The impulse for social management started long before and endured long past the days of Douglas’ colonial governance, simply re-expressing itself in ever-smaller property increments. The dreaming, imperial finger of the explorer withered; the founder class subdivided its holdings; planning bureaucrats and bylaw-enforcers—the property cops—took over.
Almost every city, big or small, has a square reserved for ceremony and patriotic re-enactments, designed to mark the city’s connection to its founding or some other historical event. Such places, hyperbolically constructed to convey significance, elicit awed respect and reinforce the importance of memory. All feature statuary, plinths, obelisks, fountains, noble words and antediluvian dates in stone, cannons, and too much lawn; and they endure—serious and un-visited, grass ritually cut and edged—long after ceremony has hollowed out as a form of social expression and the energy of their founding story has waned. It’s hard to proclaim “We, The People!” when everybody’s off shopping the sales or glued to the next episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Hierarchy, nature’s system for arranging the meek and the mighty, is also built into urban ordering. Almost every city has a main street (often imaginatively called “Main Street”) traditionally dedicated to shopping, mercantile pursuits, and financial or professional services, and established in the pre-suburban heyday of business centrality, but now, in an era of social and economic dispersal and online shopping and services, threatened by disinvestment and in need of “re-purposing.” Such streets resemble museum dioramas portraying a life when social functions were more delineated, the public realm was more polite and convivial, banks were filled with actual cash, and majestic retailers, cornerstones of national identity, slugged it out across the street from each other.
Nostalgia really is ghostly.
Study the archival image of Douglas Street in the late 1940s below. Note the relaxed co-existence of pre-war cars, trolleys, well-dressed pedestrians. You can feel the street’s energy and social health, the coherence and common purpose. (And catch the red car making a right turn around the money temple up a two-way Yates Street.)
Like, what happened? Well, bookshelves of explanation abound, but in short and simple terms modernity took hold, a kind of atomization in which ‘we’ gave way to ‘me.’ I’ve heard it explained as diffusion and de-authorization—that is, an institutional, cultural, social and geographic deconstruction or reordering (take your pick)—allowing a more subjective, voluntary and perhaps authentic allegiance to social rules and norms. (Remember, it has also been a human rights revolution.) In no more than a two-generational eye blink, the idea that father knows best became preposterous, and the Heavenly Father, like the divine right of kings, was permanently re-assigned to the make-believe section. Vrooom!
Douglas Street, Chatham to Belleville, our ten-block stretch of yesterday, is unloved, energy-deficient, crappy-looking, edgy and slightly threatening. It is preparing now for the next stage in its economic and social devolution: from Main Street to Mean Street. A recent KPMG technology report claims that street-front banks will be gone in 20 years. Which means five. Douglas, home to the big, central branches of most of our financial institutions, has drawn another short straw in the game of urban change.
As the image makes clear, Douglas was once fully invested with life and social purpose. Now, civility seems diminished. Folks’ offshore limits feel wider, more defensive, and the public air has a more guarded tang. Douglas, a street of gradually evanescing purpose, is turning down-market.
Ironically, Douglas Street was the most expensive property in the 1982 version of Canadian Monopoly.
Let’s briefly journey from Douglas Street to the cosmos: According to the big bang theory—our best explanation for why space is expanding—everything exploded from nothing about 13.8 billion years ago. Cosmologists have been able to wind things back to within a tiny fraction of a second of this moment, but now they’re stuck. Acknowledging that science cannot explain the fact of everything from nothing, leave alone conjure a pre-nothing, Carlos Contaldi at Imperial College London suggests: “The rules we have simply don’t work in that regime.”
Mystery permeates every corner, and is the heart, of existence. I’m not being glib and I mean this quite seriously. To the cliché, “lost in space,” I would add “lost in time,” “lost in story,” “lost in purpose,” and, I suppose, “lost in Victoria.” Rule-making and rule-following reflect our understandable hunger for continuity, structure and order. But order is challenged at its essence because mystery—the chaotic and tumbling-dice unpredictability of flow—is baked into existence. Nothing comes with a guarantee, or a warranty. Where’d the Douglas Street of recent memory go? Really, where did it go? What happened?
Accepting the inevitability, inescapability and speed of flow, how do you re-purpose a main street? What plan or intention—and I don’t mean the synthetic promise of an architect’s gauzy, four-colour depiction—will pay off? Who leads? Commercial interests and the property-owning market? Shoppers and the public? The city government? A team of futurologists?
How and when does the city go about determining if some new civic narrative on Douglas Street is plausible to a significant majority of its citizens, and worth a major civic and private investment? What signs are required? Collapsing commercial rental rates, proliferating tents in darkened doorways, or when Burger King pulls up stakes ‘cause it can’t make a buck?
In the taut TV drama “Berlin Station” the CIA station chief, referencing some imminent ISIS-type terrorist threat, says to the head of German security: “Do you want to get ahead of it, or find out after it happens?”
In Douglas Street terms, do we take initiative in response to a clearly darkening tracery of worry lines (growing signs of “locational obsolescence,” in planner-ese), or wait for full implosion? Don’t give me an immediate answer. Take your time.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
A city's urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted.
IF YOU NEED FURTHER EVIDENCE purposeful forces govern the universe, there was Victoria City Councillor Pam Madoff at a June meeting hosted by the Fairfield-Gonzales Community Association in its space just uphill from Sir James Douglas School, near the corner of Fairfield Road and Moss Street.
Fix that intersection in your mind: the school on one corner, Fairfield United Church on another, and a bit of retail/commercial fungus on the other two.
The flyer attracting Fairfield people to the meeting was portentously captioned: What is happening to our Village? The village in question, however, was not the crossroads described above, but nearby Cook Street Village, whose welcome banner reads: “Cappuccino and a ricotta-quince brioche while we finish blessing your yoga mat?”
The association had invited two of the city’s senior planners—one with responsibility for the Official Community Plan (OCP), the other a planner for Fairfield. It was the usual interspecies encounter: vernacular but heartfelt questions and concerns from citizens, volumes of professional, well-intentioned explication from the planners.
More or less at the heart of the discussion was that evocative and elusive term village, defined by Wikipedia as “a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area.”
Omigod, village alert! Strike up the crumhorns! Violas da gamba, over here, please! Dancing milkmaids and blacksmiths, enter left!
Village, to the planners, unsurprisingly, appears to be part of an extensive urban nomenclature, somewhere mid-point on the scale between pasture and megalopolis. In the alphabetical glossary of terms in Victoria’s Official Community Plan, though, things jump village-lessly from “Urban Form” to “Visitor Accommodation.” Still, on page 47, the Official Community Plan captions the street view and perspective illustrated as a “Large Urban Village.” Some folks, looking at the visuals, might argue they were looking not at a village but at a highly compressive Downtown setting—Douglas Street at Fort, say—and ask: “If that’s a Large Urban Village, what’s Cook Street?” People!
I don’t by my tone mean to charge the planners at the meeting with ill will or disinterest. Quite the opposite. They were attentive listeners and their answers were generous. But, it struck me that the visions or sensibilities of the planners and those of the community attendees sailed past each other with barely a wave.
It’s really important to talk about why.
To understand the discussion in that small Fairfield meeting space, it was less important to listen to the voices of the planners or the residents than to look at the large shadows moving on the wall. Two great and opposing forces were battling that evening: put glibly, the Past against the Future; more evocatively, the “nostalgic” appeal of community with its heady promise of relationship, human scale and social sanity against the rational system of professional urban planning practice—the one, by its nature, approximate, subjective and, unfortunately, generally on the defensive; the other imposed, formalistic, simulated.
I can’t overstate the importance, the meaningfulness, of this urban design tussle and its outcome. On the surface, it appears to ask minute questions about land use; beneath, it asks what kind of world do we want.
Let’s step back for a moment and note a strange fictional quality to our post-modern and hyper-pluralistic life right now. It spices the air and none of us is missing it. Normally guided by our cultural memory and customs—our stories—we find current times delivering anything but the familiar. Instead, it’s a non-stop rush of chartless change and rapidly shifting cultural narratives. Disconcertingly, everything feels familiar, yet far away. It gives life a dreamlike edge. We just can’t get our feet under us, and can’t believe with certainty that our values and choices are anchored to social bedrock any longer.
We’re being run all around a surreal economic and social landscape like a pack of panting hounds. Yes, the times have also been emancipating, but it’s hard to know exactly what has been set free. Technology and automation are killing work, we’re killing the planet, the rich are grabbing all the marbles, and geopolitically it feels increasingly like Cold War II with a garnish of Middle East Dark Age. Are these the valid new stories, the new road maps? Oh-oh!
Social critic James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, who spoke in Victoria in 2006 at the first Gaining Ground Conference, calls our neighbour to the south “a nation of places not worth caring about...a tragic landscape of highway fast-food strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities.” In other writing, he extends this vision of cultural bankruptcy with fabulous if ominous hyperbole: “Most sickeningly you see it in a population of formerly earnest, hard-working, basically-educated people with hopes and dreams transformed into a hopeless moiling underclass of tattooed savages dressed in baby clothes devoting their leisure hours (i.e. all their time) to drug-seeking and the erasure of sexual boundaries.”
Victoria has, so far, kept that ripe doom at bay (or Bay, more relevantly), but threats to structure are always looming. People here would never invoke Kunstler’s imagery (this is Canada, this is Victoria), but social trends are airborne and some abstracted strain of what he writes about is, I think, the concern that residents at the Fairfield/Gonzalez meeting were trying to articulate to the planners.
Let’s make practically everybody angry with this observation: Believe it or not, Victoria isn’t only that thin, protective rind of wonderfulness—let’s call it what it is, a coastal crescent of trendy cultural liberalism and pricey real estate—running, notionally, from Esquimalt’s Saxe Point in the west, through Songhees and Vic West to downtown and the funky neighbourhoods that surround it, then following the coast through James Bay/Fairfield/Gonzales, taking in Oak Bay, and out to Ten-Mile Point and Queenswood.
Urbanized regional Victoria north of, let’s be generous, Paul’s Restaurant on Douglas, just a long spit past downtown, is mostly a vast, undifferentiated suburbs, a car-dominated Shitsville that could be Prince George, or Red Deer, or Timmins, or a thousand other places.
If all you want to do is dream-spin about community gardens, cool, fair-trade coffee shops, artisanal bakeries, heartbreakingly lovely, treed residential streets, buildings that foster social engagement, neighbourhoods with a strong sense of place, and village-scale good vibrations, that kind of “special” stops well south of Bay Street; and if you want to study reality for, at a guess, 75 percent of the regional population and a vast percentage of the developed regional land mass, plant yourself for a couple of sobering hours at Tillicum Mall, or Millstream Road at the Costco turnoff, or the Hillside/Shelbourne nexus.
This column began with a reference to Councillor Madoff, because if any local community leader’s spirit hovers over this entire battlefield, it is Pam Madoff’s. She has had an extraordinary public career spent in informed defense of Victoria’s urban character.
She draws mutters of frustration from the development industry for her interventions and, for a fact, she hasn’t batted a thousand, but she’s a careful thinker, an enemy of the bad, not the new, and a champion of good urban form and character. She personifies the axiom that you lose a city’s character and identity one bad building, one bad land use decision, at a time.
Offhandedly, we all say we’re here in Victoria for the lifestyle, the quality of life. Buried far beneath that banality are the complexities of sustaining and steering a civic society and retaining and replenishing civic identity. The blessings of a good location, good urban bones, strong civic culture—such assets always hang in the balance. Cities are social experiments: human arrangements, really, expressed as built environments. Their nature is fragile, and urban character and authenticity are never to be taken for granted.
Actually, I’m waiting for Victoria’s new mayor, Lisa Helps, to season enough to tackle the city’s Official Community Plan, which, in my opinion, needs a completely fresh strategy for “gentle density” in the neighbourhoods and appealing, area-wide residential intensification throughout Downtown to salvage (and transform) the commercial core—somewhat at risk, if shop vacancies and proliferating “for lease” signs are any indication (you might want to add industry buzzword “overstored” to your vocabulary).
Helps is a master of intelligent listening, a getter of both (or all) sides, and a profound thinker on her own terms. She may be the one mayor who can braid these challenges into a promising new vision; and given such complex demands, the voters should commend themselves for executing a brilliant hire in the last election.
Considering the concerns of this column, I’m drawn, in a complete non sequitur, to the content of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical and its memorable quote: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Columnist David Brooks, in a NY Times piece entitled “Fracking and the Franciscans”, faults Pope Francis for not being a “moral realist,” and adds remarkably: “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.”
And lost on the landscape, the rest of us ask: “Who does?”
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
If we're going to invest in a pricey new McKenzie Avenue intersection, let's charge commuters for stop-reduced driving.
TO PUT YOU IN THE MOOD, I’d like to unload some overwrought consumer trivia about the price of English muffins. On Saturday, last November 29, a bag of six Dempster’s English muffins at Thrifty’s was $4.19, or 70 cents each. At Oxford Foods on Cook Street, a bag of six (a competitive brand of equal quality) was $1.88, or 31 cents apiece. A jumbo-pak of 24 at Costco was $6.49, or 27 cents the muffin. A 12-pack at the Wholesale Club on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt (a find in every way, if you haven’t visited before) was $1.97, or 16.4 cents per. To flip this around, had you bought 24 muffins at each store, you would have paid, respectively, $16.76, $7.52, $6.49 and $3.94. And it’s not like the Thrifty’s muffins were produced to the sound of Pan-pipes with south-slope-grown, artisan-milled, first-pressing, cruelty-free wheat. Same damned English muffins.
And from teaching days, a lifetime ago, I remember an intellectually gifted student, Jeffrey, who, at 14, was endomorphically chubby, had an egg-shaped head, and wore thick glasses with one unhinged earpiece tenuously Scotch-taped to the lens frame. His nose ran constantly, and a bubbly archipelago of spittle sat perpetually at the corner of his mouth. He would laugh in noisy, otherworldly gulps at his own esoteric jokes. Classic bully bait, but the other kids loved him. What set him apart was not just these physical qualities, but also his tendency toward startlingly original expression. In his presence, you felt yourself a witness to the actual physical assembly, the coalescing architecture, of his thought. With no preamble, or any clue as to how long it had been in the making, or the why of it, out might come: “What if the bird in your hand is a sparrow, but the two in the bush are peacocks?” Such thoughts emerged from some tunnelling maze-work; were expressed with a precocious complexity; and, for a 14-year-old, bordered on the profound. It seemed an open question whether he would, in his adult life, go on to create the Z-Bomb or cure cancer.
Keeping Jeffrey and English muffin value-shopping in but at the edge of the frame, let’s ponder the notorious congestion at the Trans-Canada/McKenzie Avenue intersection and its alleviation.
The Times-Colonist’s Jack Knox acidly opened a November column: “It took 35 minutes to drive a 10-kilometre stretch of the Colwood Crawl on Wednesday morning.”
Which, incongruously, reminds me of the definition of a “kilomater”—five-eighths of a mom.
To call it the Colwood Crawl may evocatively title but mis-describe it—akin to calling a different collection of human behaviours “teen pregnancy” or “domestic violence.” That is, let’s not give the event a label without highlighting the choices—residential, lifestyle, mobility—of the people who are driving the many thousands of vehicles that actually cause the Colwood Crawl during each morning and evening commute.
Presently, the Trans-Canada/McKenzie intersection is the whipping boy, but if we spend something on the order of $80-100 million (provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s numbers) for a fix, only to move the bottleneck a half-mile south to the next traffic light at busy Douglas and Saanich Road beside Uptown, what then?
Let’s look at some creative responses other than big-dollar infrastructure spending.
For example, people could quit their government jobs and take up organic farming in their Langford front yards. Or stay home and telecommute. Or government commuters (a significant percentage of the on-road total) could work 2 pm to midnight and drive counter-flow.
Or we could take the view that it’s only a problem if you call it a problem. We don’t call gravity a problem, just a fact of life. What’s wrong with people having to devote 20-30 minutes of their day inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, not as some form of moral shaming (nothing wrong with that, of course), but as a simple expression of how choices have consequences? I mean, if you move to the middle of the desert and then petition the government to deliver water, expensively, to your door, no one shows any sympathy. Everyone thinks you’re crazy and selfish.
Remember the old-style car-wash through which your vehicle advanced on a creeping chain of casters? Maybe those could be installed in a one-mile stretch of the highway roadbed, north and south of the McKenzie intersection, thus providing a distraction from the crawl and freeing drivers’ minds and hands for texting, cell phone games, the crossword puzzle, masturbation, knitting, computer work, or reading Focus cover-to-cover.
Alternatively, if we’re going to invest in pricey infrastructure, let’s charge commuters for the pleasure of a stop-reduced driving experience. Every car has unique DNA—a license plate—and I assume some road-embedded plate-reader or other programmable whiz-bang technology exists. Buck a trip, one way. Half the cost of a Tim Horton’s coffee. $10/week times 50 weeks times 50,000 vehicles (80-90,000 is the current count, including non-commuters) comes to $25,000,000/year.
Your gas isn’t free, daily parking isn’t free, even the air in your tires isn’t free anymore; why should your trip be free? We don’t think of other car-related expenses as punishment or sin taxes, but simply the costs of driving. So, why distinguish?
Revenue could be used first to repay the interchange construction cost and after payout be re-directed toward eliminating regional homelessness, which it would do in jig time.
I’m getting excited about this idea! Here we are, possibly the luckiest people on Earth, in count-your-blessings Victoria. Via this revenue plan, we could produce a funding structure for thousands of the most needy and least employable people in the region, allowing them to survive less off unpredictable community good will, state largesse, and the limited and uncertain income flow from refundable beverage containers, and more off the income generated through such a program of—dare I call it—wealth redistribution?
The provincial Liberals would be all over this ideologically. It’s their kind of thing.
But if we go for pricey highway infrastructure upgrades, we have to discuss unintended consequences. A decade ago, you could quip about Victoria’s “rush minute” as cars streamed in and out of town during the commute. No longer true. Jim Hindson, a now-local semi-retired transportation and infrastructure professional who spent almost 30 years as traffic engineer and systems department head for the Hamilton region, has explained to me that while Ground Zero may appear to be the Trans-Canada/McKenzie nexus, under the same pressure is a much larger and highly stressed road “eco-system” featuring Saanich/Boleskine Road, Tillicum Road, Admirals Road/McKenzie Avenue, West Burnside/Interurban, Carey Road, Craigflower Road, and more. This whole system of roads is choked because in the morning people are coming from one road and, seeking shortcuts, going to many. And in the afternoon coming from many and going to one: the Trans-Canada Highway itself.
I learned the phrase “lane envy” from Hindson. He explains that if a road includes an underused transit/car pool lane, folks in the adjacent clogged lanes can barely control their frustration. They experience “lane envy” and they lane-hop, replacing morality with exigency—rules be damned and no mind the signage or the white painted diamonds. The empty transit lane takes on the persona of tone-deaf Marie Antoinette who, informed that the peasants have no bread, says, “Let them eat cake!”
Now, can we in essence package lane envy—that hatred of gridlock and love of the open road—and exploit and charge for it if we create expensive new infrastructure at the Trans-Canada/ McKenzie intersection?
As you consider appropriate infrastructure responses, bear in mind that the daily problem at the intersection is really two 90-minute one-way problems, morning and evening. At all other times, the existing road capacity and traffic signalling is adequate to meet traffic needs.
So, is there a three hour/five weekday solution? Would an Admirals/McKenzie overpass with ramps down to and up from the Trans-Canada in appropriate places make enough of a difference? Might there be an elevated reverse-direction two-laner running above the median of the Trans-Canada with ramps as needed that could, with signalling, allow inbound morning and outbound evening thru-traffic to utilize the same two lanes to cruise over the McKenzie intersection?
How about we add extra lanes on grade? As Easterners can tell us, that works extremely well on Toronto’s 401 and many other highways where traffic volume quickly expands to exceed the added road capacity. Oh, and as the spaghetti interchange “postcard” included with this column suggests, you could get really jiggy with an infrastructure response and bankrupt the region.
I close by acknowledging I’m not a transportation professional, so I can’t competently answer these questions. But Minister Stone, as you study and weigh various scenarios, I implore you to keep the masturbation option on the table.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Our newest tourist attraction may be one of the Seven Blunders of the World. More of the same are in the works.
LONG YEARS AGO, I experienced a recurring kid’s fantasy of being in an elevator whose cable snapped, sending the cab on a clattering rendezvous with destiny 20 storeys below. Just as the plummeting cab was about to hit bottom, I flexed and jumped in the air at the exact same speed as the dropping cage; and when, a split-second later, the cab finally stopped in a roar of torn metal, I landed cloudlike on the ruined deck, my feet crossed gracefully at the ankles (think Fred Astaire or Bruce Lee), and walked out completely unharmed.
Such reveries are the training wheels for adult magical thinking, like the sober belief that you’re gorgeous, a near-genius, unique, talented, sexually important, powerful, and headed for great things; and on a cultural level, how, when you flush the toilet or discard plastic in the garbage, a fairy carries the waste to faraway Planet Cesspoolia, or how your car alone emits not carbon-laced exhaust but orange-cranberry-scented oxygen with vitamin D to help grow strong bones.
Topping any list of magical ideas should be the one euphemistically named “Ironitis.” Having nothing to do with irony, it’s a social pathology common to engineers, project managers, consultants, ambitious bureaucrats and their corporate or political enablers, and characterized by the delusion that so long as the dough can be light-fingered out of abstracted taxpayers’ wallets, there can never be too many new bridges, highway overpasses, or other big infrastructure projects. For the so afflicted, hardware addresses all needs, solves all problems and sustains the entire project of modernity whose gleaming endpoint, where the horizon meets the dawn, is some sci-fi future filled with inter-galactic on-ramps.
Ironitis is social pathology because it shares with the sociopath a grandiosity; a conviction of rightness; the ability to experience counter-argument or doubt simply as Luddite noise; a belief in one’s own powers and abilities; the incapacity to experience remorse or guilt; great skill at transferring blame and responsibility, or rendering them ambiguous; and my two favourites: criminal or entrepreneurial versatility and a barely hidden desire to rule the world—in all, a form of hubris that co-indicts many of us because it’s made possible by our willing cooperation.
To mangle a folk aphorism: If you’re an engineer, everything looks like a bridge. And what do we do? We encourage the bastards!
I know: Why complain? Look, I get this is the good life, even with its cracks and flaws, and I don’t have problems with state authority—well, okay, some, but I’m not holed up in an East Sooke double-wide crammed with patriot-rage brochures, 200 cans of tuna fish, and an arsenal that would make the cops chitter with envy. I just look at some of this infrastructure, think about the limits of nature to absorb the human project, and wonder: What problems are we trying to solve?
Yes, like the airport turnoff. Traffic coming north from Victoria to the airport was occasionally stacking up along the left-turn lane of the Pat Bay Highway, creating a potential hazard for adjacent through-lane traffic.
Fine. Problem stated.
So, why not extend the duration of the left-turn green signal so another 30 cars could get through, or add a pressure-activated sensor under the left-turn lane to automatically change the lights if waiting cars back up past a certain point, and/or lengthen the left-turn lane, or convert that turn lane into a simple overpass crossing above the southbound lanes of the Pat Bay and dropping airport traffic onto the perfectly serviceable existing McTavish Road? Cost of any of these responses? A buck and two box-tops, not $24 million—an amount large enough to bring about world peace. But no, it was crucial to fulfill the Airport Authority manager’s masturbation fantasy while—bonus!—creating the world’s stupidest overpass and roundabout system. Stunning only is that no one has exploited the tourist attraction potential with big signs: “One Of The Seven Blunders Of The World!”
These engineering grandiosities need now to be seen as artifacts of a rapidly closing era of cheap oil and energy. Soon, society will not be able to dedicate shrinking economic resources to highway extravagances when energy supplies dwindle, price shocks hit, and some fundamental choices are forced upon us. I hope the post-apocalyptic mob remembers to hang a few politicians and some Urban Systems execs from the railing when gas hits $7/litre and the only things using the overpass are bicyclists and deer—both probably chased by zombies.
You might want to believe that no one staring the future in the eye, cold sober, could come to the rational conclusion that $24 million for a glorified overpass was a good use of resources. But big-ticket expenditures like this take place in a state of culturally induced sleepwalking, and are simply pieces in a dreamscape of ever-expanding abundance and ever-continuing well-being. As a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll learned, Americans feel that climate change will have extreme consequences, but just not in their lifetime. Really, where could you possibly place prudence on that game board?
The same $24 million invested in developing an improved system for local growing, production and marketing of food, say, would generate a liberating miracle for the Capital Region. Aw, doesn’t have the sex appeal of a highway overpass? Sorry.
It’s no mystery how such incredibly stupid, bad, ill-considered project ideas take on legitimacy and heft, and go the distance. These things are managed by a political ecology as self-regenerating and adaptive as anything you will find in nature. Inquiries and introductions are made. Exploratory ideas are floated. The airport dude talks with business dudes who talk with the MP dude and/or the MLA dude. Word snakes along invisible political conduits that “frosting” would be useful in the riding. Some money gets tossed in the pot. The consultants rev up. Reports are commissioned, confirming need and feasibility. At some point there’s a federal and/or provincial infrastructure funding incentive program and then the ready-made miracle is pulled out of a hat, and there’s an official announcement and maybe a speech or two, the whole thing reported by the media with a fanfare better reserved for the Second Coming. Utterly lost by then is the humble fact that three times a week, half a dozen cars hung out at the back of a left-turn lane on the Pat Bay Highway at McTavish.
In an interview, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky comments about his unmade film of the Frank Herbert book, Dune, and describes his design vision for the castle of the ruling bad guy, Baron Harkonnen: “The castle itself, a symbol of intemperance, exploitation, aggression and brutality, with a magical aura which has a negative effect on all the inhabitants.” The castle is a metaphysical expression of the control of crazed and foolish leaders: the head, with its magical (synthetic) authority over the body politic, pushing that citizen-body into negativity and a life of submissive consumption (anger and depression, transmuted locally into pickups and Costco).
Which takes us to Langford, where so many of these themes converge.
Back in the good old days, you could tell you were on the Langford side of the View Royal border from the mountains of rusting car bodies, their windows blown out by shotgun blasts; the dysgenic, one-eyed shufflers looking like living embodiments from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Persecutors of Christ,” spit-roasting squirrel or tearing at the haunch of a hapless Irish Setter whisked the night before from dewy Uplands lawns; hollow-eyed citizens with names like Tim-Bob and Duane, Raeneese and Suelene, all munching on doughnuts and packing lots of heat; recreationally fire-bombed bus shelters; t-shirts with the arrow aiming straight north, and the words in 300-point balloon type: “I’m With Stupid.”
But then two or three developers, over morning coffee at some local Grill ‘n’ Skillet, a dozen years ago, had a business idea and called it Langford. Now look at the place: ruined and character-less—from the hinterlands authenticity of “Dueling Banjos” to an invented landscape of “Picket Fences” in a decade. I was there last week, stopped a local and asked “Hey, where can I buy a pound of weed and place a bet for a cash-purse cage fight?” “I beg your pardon?” said the Langford stalwart, removing two tasteful Schonbek lamps from the deck of his 4x4 and sounding about as twee as anyone you might accost buying pain rustique at the Pure Vanilla Bakery in Oak Bay.
It’s a tale of cheap dirt, easy approvals and production housing, not the calculation of hidden energy consumption costs, or social costs, or regional dislocations, or impacts on other municipalities. It’s political ecology on a very grand scale. But hey, what’s another overpass between friends?
Elevator going down? All together now: flex your knees and shout: “Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire.”
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
DID YOU KNOW that in the City of Victoria, six of every ten dwellings are rental units and a rumoured seven of every ten people—especially in and around the city core—are renters? Look over there, 10 o’clock. For God’s sake, don’t look right at them! Yes, yes, right there: renters!
Humanity’s wiring diagram may have its mysteries, but there is no missing that property ownership (“a piece of the rock,” we say) is a desired status and an elevated form of tenure. It confers gravitas, true citizenship that reduces renters to a ghost-class—folks “just passing through.”
Actually, my interest in this has nothing to do with class issues; and jokes aside, I want to be careful not to convey the false idea that renting means a diminished engagement in community life.
No, my interest is on the urban design side and begins with the premise that every bad building in Victoria diminishes both the city and its people; that is, reduces citizen expression. People are citizens—active, engaged members of the public life—only to the extent that a place is worth caring about; and this requires an emotional stakehold—in a building, a neighbourhood, a civic community. If buildings isolate or alienate people, file and forget them, we shouldn’t be surprised if the atmosphere in the public realm starts to feel strange.
Allow me a calculated digression: the level of amenity at Victoria bus stops. The architecture of bus stop shelters—where shelters are even present—is a case of unambiguous Dickensian social messaging: “Public transit users, you are human refuse meant to suffer. However cold and wet it is here half the year, you don’t deserve protection, warmth or dignity. You don’t deserve the niceties of design. You are lumpen and powerless and deserve only a bench, not seating that would individuate you. Yours is a future of frustrated hopes and groundless expectation. Welcome to your shitty little life on the ‘loser cruiser.’”
When I was a kid, my parents and I and their friends Joe and Anne Braunstein were out one evening for dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen in Lower Manhattan. We were next up in the cafeteria-style sandwich line, and a slightly abstracted Anne was having trouble making up her mind. Joe, his eye on the impatient counterman, elaborately waved for the people standing behind us to go ahead. Anne apparently took this as criticism and disloyalty, and she fumed throughout a ruined dinner, complaining loudly to Joe, “That was an act of deliberate intent!” Joe kept denying it, claiming with theatrical innocence that he was just being polite to the couple behind, since Anne obviously needed more time to decide. The conflict was electric, and threw open the doors of adult disharmony—scandalous and thrilling to this nine-year-old: “acts of deliberate intent!”
Now, 60 years later, like Anne Braunstein, I see “acts of deliberate intent” in the design deficiencies of public transit amenities and in the barracks-like, soul-crushing presence of hundreds of both rental and owner-occupied apartment buildings in and around Victoria’s central area, regardless how their developers, architects, and the City’s urban land use policy folks may try to justify them.
There is no School of Developology. In a world where you can hardly make dinner without a professional credential, developers are un-obliged to demonstrate they understand what it takes to create buildings that people will enjoy being in and around. No formal part of a developer’s education bears on knowledge of a building’s impact on the human psyche, or its contribution to the city’s appearance and character.
This is a special irony in Victoria—a soul-stirring city whose entire reputation is built on the charm of its preserved architectural heritage—yesteryear’s sensibilities, really—and the accident of a fabulous physical setting. No one says to visitors: “Ah, I have to show you Bay and Blanshard, run you past the apartment blocks on Cook Street, and finish the tour at View Towers!” Victoria’s reputation hangs almost entirely on good urban character, too much of it inherited from earlier generations, too little of it created now.
I’m tempted to describe developers as the innocents (two words that normally repel each other like same-pole magnets). They create what policy tells them they may, or must. The City of Victoria’s rules and design guidelines are mute on the subjective and borderless topic of creating dramatic, handsome, surprising, warm and welcoming buildings, but endlessly chatty about view corridors, build-to lines, ground-floor commercial, shadowing, and other “measurables.”
Here’s an energy theory: Exhaustion is built into policy and regulation. Policy requires policing, and with every erg of planning department energy dedicated to applying the rules, there is almost none left over to insist on and negotiate for fabulous buildings (deserved applause here to Victoria Councillor Pam Madoff who has made this concern her mission).
No preamble in the City’s land use manual warns developers they don’t have the right to produce bad or nondescript buildings. Nothing in the approval process solemnly reminds them that buildings are public statements, and that bad ones diminish both occupants’ lives and Victoria’s soul and good looks.
Still, not every building is a “fail,” and there is room for praise. After all, developers are not vandals, and urban planners are not Sovietized. Leaving many unsung, I single out just-retired Heritage Planner Steve Barber (congratulations, Steve!) and Chris Gower, senior urban design planner, as two who, freed from workplace prohibitions, would likely deliver blistering reproach when presented with spiritless, utility-grade building designs.
On the market side, a well-earned shout-out to developer and tortured artist Don Charity and co-developer Fraser McColl, responsible for the Mosaic on Fort Street, the adjacent Jigsaw, the Reef in James Bay (across from David Butterfield’s iconic Shoal Point) and their imminent project, Jukebox, near Vancouver and View. Charity shares with all developers a love of opportunity and profit, but his imagination is fired by grand design visions, starting right at the front door.
Don’t you want developers to have design ego, fighting to outdo each other in producing distinctive, beautiful, livable buildings? The Jawls have done this with every project they have undertaken. Ian Gillespie (The Falls, Shutters, etc) clearly loves making flamboyant statements. Fred Rohanni and Bijan Neyestani have given us the graceful Aria and now the clever and referential Mondrian. Gordon and Chris Denford did wonders with the new Cherry Bank on Rupert Terrace and McClure Street. Chris LeFevre continues to expand his remarkable Railyards in Victoria West. David Price has produced the beautifully scaled Swallows Landing buildings on the Esquimalt waterfront, framing and facing the Inner Harbour. Ric Illich has painstakingly resurrected the empty Hudson’s Bay building, now The Hudson, and is building new residential at the rear. Pioneering Dave Chard at several downtown locations and Ken Mariash on the ridge above Songhees both have added quality to the Victoria skyline.
Given some good developers and successful projects, then, what brings fresh urgency to this matter?
You mean, you haven’t heard of the “silver tsunami?”
That’s downtown pub owner Matt MacNeil’s phrase for it. MacNeil believes there is an enormous wave of new retirees from Toronto and other eastern urban centres who are “tired of the cold, tired of shovelling” who will be moving here very soon. He contends that they’re urban, well-heeled, and don’t want the burbs or Oak Bay monoculture; they want stylish condo and apartment living close to Downtown with its shopping, services, amenities, good dining, cool coffee joints and energy. He tosses out the number 10,000 and envisions a “beltline” of buildings loosely ringing Downtown. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the economic and social transformation such numbers would bring to the core.
The math is this: 10,000 people would represent another 75 to 100 fairly hefty buildings shouldering the downtown core. That’s a lot of buildings! Few downtown streetscapes would remain unchanged; and promising though it might be economically and culturally, can you imagine the consequences and impacts to Victoria’s visual and social identity of getting the architecture and urbanism wrong?
Can you sense the potential for our laggard city (with the best of intentions, of course) to be locked into “my mouth says yes, but my eyes say no” mode, insanely policing the bonus density rules and regulations, when it needs instead to be setting the design terms and conditions for all these buildings, and planning and executing extensive public realm improvements?
Good as it would be to have so many new people calling Downtown their home, we must ensure that these newcomers are given not only Downtown living opportunities, but also legitimate grounds and an authentic social framework that will connect them to both the pleasures and responsibilities of city life here.
These concerns may seem hand-wringy and abstract, but it took a televised conversation last month between celebrated journalist and commentator Bill Moyers and David Simon, creator of The Wire and Treme, to help me to work out the human calculus. Said Simon, acidly reflecting on the state of the commons in these winner-take-all times, “There is no society; there’s just you.”
At its best, Victoria is a place where society and common cause still prevail. People often read Victoria’s social cues simply as charming architectural heritage coupled to a dozy lifestyle; but society, as Simon means the word, is actually our “secret sauce.”
Making the case for great buildings, I finish by invoking poetics: We can lose the charm of our city a building at a time, and insidiously lose its character in an even smaller increment: a citizen at a time.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Can Victoria move forward into the past and leave the past behind, all at the same time? Maybe.
YESTERDAY MORNING, some street guy beat up my car. I was leaving the Pandora Street McDonald’s with a large, three creams/two sugars. He was crossing south on Mason Street, heading obliquely toward McDonald’s. We kind of made eye contact. I steered a slow, wide, respectful, you-too-sit-on-a-branch-in-the-tree-of-life turn around him toward Vancouver Street, and then he spun, lurched back into the intersection and beat on the hood and windshield with his fists, yelling something incomprehensible.
Surprising and disturbing, but not consequential—for me, my car or, I suspect, the street guy...unless he was using his fists to drum a message about the sheer human outrage of unequally distributed opportunity in this crapshoot life, his disappointment with US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that Quantitative Easing would continue because of the still-weak American economy, and the immediate imperative that I practice personal import replacement by making local economic investments (shoe leather, I guess) instead of supporting the German automotive economy.
Mind, he was headed straight for McDonald’s. What a hypocrite!
Okay, just the evening before (October 1) I had attended a presentation by Michael Shuman, the enormously smart and entertaining economist/lawyer who is a champion of the local economy/import substitution movement. In fact, he is, along with Bainbridge Island-based David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World, The Great Turning) a founding director of the important and influential US-based grassroots organization BALLE—the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
The room at the Victoria Event Centre on Broad Street was packed with market lefties like me—good folks, “progressives,” people I love to talk, party and do good works with, though not the gang likely to join me for java at the Great Satan McDonald’s.
As I drove home with my coffee, the question I should have asked Shuman flashed into my adrenaline-quickened mind: “Michael (he’s one of those people with whom you are immediately on a first-name basis), it’s fine for you to give this pitch to the already converted and the ideologically susceptible, but what impact does your message have on the red meat crowd in business suits? Do they take you seriously? Do they find your arguments convincing?”
Clearly, Cameron A. Plommer, a reader who, on Amazon, gives Shuman’s Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age only two stars out of five, doesn’t. Plommer writes: “Economies of scale, comparative advantage, specialization? Shuman ignores all these things. There are gains from specialization and trade that most people can’t conceptualize, so they resort to fuzzy feeling concepts like sustainable commu- nities. Going Local is going backwards.”
This is what you invite when you start your presentations or books by noting that the dominant economic system is in decline. Shuman, in advocating local economic development based on the concept of import substitution—local stores and services, not chains or mega-stores; local investment through the choice of local banks and credit unions; promotion of the principle of greater community (or city) self-sufficiency in food, energy, job- and wealth-generation; and so on—is definitely pushing against the conventions we have all been fed as economic gospel, and have grown up taking for granted. Cherry tomatoes in January? Yum! Who cares where they come from, or the shipping costs? Oroweat Oatnut bread 3 for $9.50 at Costco? Gimme dat!
In describing the “false economy” promulgated and dominated by big-box and category-killer stores like Walmart, Costco, Chapters and the rest, Shuman explains that money directed to local spending means more local income, wealth and jobs, and that roughly three times more dough—wages, owner income, business profits, business spending on services—stays and re-circulates in the local economy. He reminds his audience that local businesses—he dubs them a “relationship-driven economy”—significantly outperform nationals and multinationals in local job-creation and retention. Every analysis and statistical study undertaken has confirmed these facts.
He tells an interesting story: “A hundred years ago, when you spent a dollar on food at the market, something like 40¢ went to the farmer. But now, when you spend a dollar, 7¢ cents goes to the farmer and 71¢ goes to marketing (refrigeration, advertising, middle people, packaging, warehousing, shipping and distribution). Even if you allow for really inefficient local farming so that the farmer’s share rises, say, to 14¢, if you get rid of much of those costs associated with a global food system, you can deliver cheaper food.”
Shuman, author, as well, of The Small-Mart Revolution, adds that we bring the sensibilities of big-box consumers not just to our daily purchases but also in our municipal and regional behaviour. He argues that the blind, roving quest and the laydown policy accommodations and de facto bribes (oh, sorry, I mean incentives) by economic development offices hoping to lure major corporations to come to town and set up shop is another example of utter misdirection. He invokes the poor record of corporate performance in producing lasting local economic generation, and reminds us of the fickle loyalties of multinationals when Korea, China or other Asian entrepots come whistling.
Remarkably, two evenings later, life was whistling harmony with Shuman—a timely downstroke to his ideas—when ThisIsVIC took over the lobby of the Atrium on Yates and Blanshard. A glorified business mixer and nosh-fest with lots of young person accou- trements (music, pulsing lights and a high ambient noise level), ThisIsVIC aimed to expunge Victoria’s “expired vision” as a somnolent, newly wed/nearly dead town. While many believe that the “little bit of Olde Inertia” thing is fading, others sense that a dead hand still holds things at half-throttle; and Victoria continues to carry a reputation as “a place bright ideas come to die,” and as a hard place to “get to yes.” (One of my scallywag friends thinks a “Welcome to Victoria. The answer is NO” sign would be an informative addition to the Centennial Square landscape.)
At a guess, 200 attended ThisIsVIC, and conning the room you might well have asked yourself: “This is VIC?” It was a young, casual crowd, sprinkled with a business suit here and there. No Canadian flag in the corner, no framed photograph of the Queen on the wall. No sit-down. No wallflowers. No mayoral wand-waving. No long speeches. And a dance party starting at 10 featuring DJ Murge.
Walter Wheeler, interviewed many years ago in his home north of Burlington, Vermont on the occasion of his 100th birthday, was asked whether he thought there was more sex now than when he was a young man. Walter responded: “No-o-o-o, I think it’s about the same, but there’s definitely a different crowd doing it.”
There was a different crowd doing it (and doing it differently) at ThisIsVIC, driving another nail into the coffin of proper Victoria. Business cards, email addresses, Facebook and Twitter handles were being swapped in a frenzy of happy noise. Roaming, I heard restaurant ideas, tech ideas, small-business startup ideas, food truck ideas, online game ideas, local food production and farming ideas, funding and capital formation ideas, green business ideas. Who knows how much of this will see daylight, but that’s not the point of a fizzy, collaborative brainstorm like ThisIsVIC which, in an information card, describes itself not as an event but a “movement,” and notes, perkily “We are super lucky to have some amazing people in the room with us tonight—including yourself!”
I’m a super-amazing old bastard who came to Victoria in 1970, aged 27 and believing, as I took the measure of the place, that me against everybody else was a fair fight. With that perspective, I took heart from Michael Shuman’s hopeful news that economic localism is undergoing a groundswell resurgence, and from a visceral demonstration of that truth as I looked across a sea of 27-year-old faces at ThisIsVIC.
Leaves me with a hopeful feeling that now in Victoria the answer is MAYBE.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Despite some foot-dragging, trends are pointing to a revitalized Downtown.
WHEN I DROVE BY on a mid-September Saturday morning, the crane truck was lifting the word “PUBLIC” into place above a steel-frame marquee at The Hudson, Townline Development’s residentially and commercially re-purposed Hudson’s Bay store. The next day, it had been flanked by the words “VICTORIA” and “MARKET.”
That Monday, the market opened formally to congratulatory speeches before a large, enthusiastic crowd of merchants and well-wishers. The opening followed years of speculation about the flickering possibility that a supermarket might occupy the cavernous ground-floor space (names like Thrifty’s, or a Market On Yates clone, and even Whole Foods had swirled through the Downtown rumour mill); and what made any of this gossip interesting was not only who the candidate would be, finally, but open questions about how and whether any full-scale supermarket could make the numbers work in such a location on the northern fringe of our small and far-from-populous Downtown. Supermarkets vote with their cash registers and require, if my information is current, about six thousand shoppers in their “capture zone.” Six thousand.
I guess the north end of Downtown isn’t near that number yet, but in a possible foretaste of the future for this area, including the 18-square-block Rock Bay bowl immediately to the north, the individually-owned shops that have opened up at the Public Market are light on dishwasher detergent and toilet paper, heavy on gluten-free baking, a global selection of olive oils, spices, cheese, charcuterie, seafood, pies, cakes, fresh produce, Indian food, Mexican food, tea and gelato, with more to come. You know what that foretells: young urban professionals. Circle the wagons! Millennials and Cultural Creatives on the ridge!
The “wagons,” I suppose, are the industrially-disposed stakeholders—businesses and property owners—in Rock Bay whose activity is supported by current industrial zoning and by popular sentiment. Consider: Who’s not for “real” industrial land use as opposed to opportunistic developers building condos for yuppies?
The City has its own reasons for foot-dragging—not just the political whiplash, but that it may have to put scarce taxpayer dollars (giant sucking sound coming from the Blue Bridge, Bay Street Bridge, firehall, Crystal Pool, etc) into new amenities, upgraded streets and subsurface infrastructure to replace ancient pipes and sewers if the Rock Bay area is redeveloped.
Also, it’s a mixed bag for landowners who know that Rock Bay has a long history of dirty industry which has in some key places left a toxic legacy—that is, their properties may be laced with costly-to-remove contaminants from the industrial bad old days, and this will require expensive mitigation and will impact property values and/or development costs if new land uses are contemplated. Industry gossip says that the landowner is spending something approaching $90 million to clean up the glow-in-the-dark mess behind that curtained ex-BC Hydro super-block on Government at Chatham.
I’ve written before about a possible future for Rock Bay in which lots of residential and new streetfront retail/commercial gradually fills up Rock Bay’s vacant lots and replaces some of the light industrial and service uses that operate, in many cases, out of one-storey structures surrounded by wide aprons of surface parking. But before you go to your corner on the (in some circles) touchy subject of land use in Rock Bay, it would pay you to actually walk the Rock Bay area—Chatham to the south side of Bay Street, Store Street to the west side of Blanshard—to take in the current realities of land use. A lot of folks assume the area is exclusively industrial, presumably because that’s an easy handle for this generally un-groomed frontier that most of us drive through, not to, with its still-operating asphalt plant at Store and Pembroke and a hodge-podge of service, commercial and light industrial uses, with a strong emphasis on automotive services and freight handling.
Remember though, that such uses share the neighbourhood, even now, with a dog-minding/walking service, Paul’s Restaurant and Motel, the White Spot, Capital Iron, Discovery Coffee, Club Phoenix fitness centre, H&R Block, a children’s gymnastics studio, Jordan’s Furniture, an Apple service store, and Cascadia Bakery and Sager’s Furniture a half-block south on Government Street. Up the side streets on Princess and Pembroke between Douglas and Blanshard there is even a small cluster of humble, occupied houses, some with modest heritage chops. The one chimney in the area, part of the ancient and long-disused BC Hydro power plant near Store Street and Pembroke, hasn’t smoked for a lifetime and is now worthy artifact, not working flue. The neighbourhood, you might say, is half service/commercial Rock Bay, half proto-Herald Street.
Worry does emanate from the heavy industrial operators along Bay Street who are involved in sand, gravel and cement production. Understandably, they have a variant of the “there goes the neighbourhood” fear that encroaching residential and retail uses will pressure them and crowd them out. But construction material activities are crucial to the city and will stay there as long as they are viable. That co-existence is possible is clearly demonstrated by Granville Island, home of a major cement production facility a thousand feet from “festival retail,” galleries, theatres and a toney boutique hotel.
When I first arrived in Victoria in 1970, Yates and Douglas was our city’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Classy stores (Miss Frith’s, Ingledew’s and Standard Furniture anyone?) and stolid banks framed the intersection and the 700-block of Yates. The old Carnegie Library at Yates and Blanshard (at whose footworn steps I was deposited the first day I came to town) was a busy place. People shopped Downtown, circuiting between the original Bay and the original Eaton’s, unless they were intent on stranded rural purposes like buying a dressed side of moose.
Once things slid Downtown, though, they stayed slidden; and to this day, through the cycle of a whole generation, the immediate locale of the Yates/Douglas intersection feels lost and cheesy, less epicentric than epidemic, a fallen angel of commerce looking for a fresh mission. A short block south (avert thine eyes from McDonald’s), things pick up nicely at the Bay Centre, and the blocks south of Fort have been progressively redeemed by new residential towers. Out-of-town developers—Townline’s Rick Illich, Bayview’s Ken and Patty Mariash, Westbank’s Ian Gillespie, Dave Chard of Chard Developments, Reliance Properties’ Jon Stovell, David Podmore of Concert Properties jump to mind—and a large number of locals, too, have sniffed the wind and caught the scent of Downtown/central area rebirth.
To the north, after hopscotching Douglas Street’s still-poisoned blocks from Yates to Fisgard (even that will start to change when the Jawls put up a sister building to the Atrium), The Hudson, and now a second Townline tower going up behind it, plus a surprising number of newly minted and emerging residential buildings (the Janion, the Union on Fisgard, 601 Herald, and many more), or venerable older buildings revitalized for residential and commercial uses are improving not just the feel (and real estate values) of Downtown’s north end but also Rock Bay’s prospects, and may, in not too many years, leave Whole Foods regretting a missed opportunity.
Mind, this isn’t unique to Victoria. Cities almost everywhere in North America are, to varying degrees, experiencing the same trends and rosy impacts. Jeff Speck, formerly a planner with DPZ (Duany Plater-Zyberk, the legendary Miami-based architectural firm) and co-author of Suburban Nation, notes in his 2012 book Walkable Cities that so-called millennials, cultural creatives, tech nerds and others in the younger generations are trading cars for shoe leather, and the ‘burbs for the urbs. He observes:
“It turns out that since the late ’90s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. The number of 19-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late ’70s, from 8 percent to 23 percent. This trend is seen as cultural, not economic, and fully 77 percent of college-educated millennials plan to live in America’s urban cores.”
Speck also notes that front-wave boomers, their commuter, child raising and backyard barbecue years behind them, are abandoning big, expensive-to-run, socially-isolating suburban homes for livable central areas that are more walkable, social and, frankly, more fun.
Victoria, then, is part of a larger trend: a North America-wide shift back to urban places. It’s something of an ironic confirmation of this shift that even suburban places are trying (unconvincingly, in my opinion) to become or appear more urban, to give identity, character and a borrowed authenticity to essentially placeless places. Go study the wannabe design of the Uptown shopping centre or Langford’s town centre on Goldstream Avenue. Both feel synthetic: vehicular destinations trying so hard to be what they’re not.
Cast your mind forward and imagine a vibrant and vigourous Downtown Victoria with a living population of 10-15,000—four times its current population, say. Imagine the street tone with pedestrians everywhere. Consider the financial health of Downtown businesses. Envision the size of the cultural audience. Picture the employment levels. Speculate with me about how many fig-and-herb-infused pork roasts the charcuterie at the Victoria Public Market would go through in a day.
Hey, leave some for me!
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Victoria just needs to turn itself inside-out to be ready for a great future.
I TURN—likely turned, by the time you read this—70 on August 2nd. Let me assure you, in this era of wishful and delusional thinking about graceful aging, that 70 is the new 70. Everything hurts or misfires a bit. Whatever noble or sexualized fantasies of remaining good looks I concoct as I strike poses at the bathroom mirror evaporate on the street when everyone under 40 walks by me like I’m wallpaper. I survive off my pension, refunds from deposit containers, petty crime in the bulk food aisle at Thrifty’s, surreptitious and profitable fast-change capers when the Sunday church donation plate comes by. Whatever its outrages, aging offers one consolation: the conquest of shame. Look for me next at Denny’s publicly taking out my dentures so I can gum a full stack.
An already porous memory is becoming more so. There are frequent moments in the day when “You know, the guy who also wrote that other book about, uh…” stands in for crystalline recall. I have an increasingly fictional relationship to my own past. Halfway through anecdotes, I think: Did this really happen, or am I making it up? I find I repeat myself more often. I find I repeat myself more often.
“Senior” meant some abstracted, white-haired, little old gent haltingly driving a 1950s Buick Roadmaster up Fort Street at 12 kph, braking at green lights. Not any more. And what’s the hurry?
When I got to Victoria in 1970 from New York via Prince Rupert (a manly summer at the Nelson Bros. salmon cannery), my head was buzzing with the rumour that Victoria was still “a little bit of Olde England.” I was not disappointed; this place was, in fact, thunderous with propriety. Queen Elizabeth would visit monthly, a gourd-like, liveried carriage sweeping her from the Royal Yacht in the harbour to Government House on Rockland Avenue. We would cheer and throw rose petals in her path, thrilled that our city was a jewel, if not the very centre-stone, in the Imperial crown. Back then, the help behaved themselves and didn’t court dreams of “doing their own thing.” We wore white gloves to dinner at the Empress Hotel. Salad was served after the Palm Court Orchestra played, and we sang, a rousing “Rule, Britannia!”
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And Guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!”
Gone, all gone.
The Imperium is ruined, lying on history’s scrapheap, and this place now sits, chinless and stupid, listening to its own fading echoes. Glory’s over, the lights are flickering. All that’s left is residue: a fortressed, waspish propriety led by the house-proud, thumbing local reno-porn and fussing with their 1912-ers.
Now, Victoria is post-historical, post-contextual, contemporary…like everywhere else, but with coastline and aging street trees. The story it tells itself (I mean here an agreed-to narrative, a commonly held sense of identity and purpose) and its brand are—I could be nice and say tarnished, but I mean—broken. City of Gardens? Appropriately, Victoria’s current image references a vegetative condition.
Someone tours me past a restyled house in Fairfield sporting a clever and tasteful second-storey side-deck that projects from the sloping roofline. I’m informed that “Fairfield now has a rule against such decks” because they enable intrusive overlook into neighbours’ rear yards. Amazing that second-storey windows aren’t verboten. Decorum our most important product, intrusion our greatest sin. Front page news in the daily? “Dog recovering from chilly night in car trunk,” or somesuch. The place has gone hyper-local, thuddingly dull, ditzy, Swiss—one of the last stages in a (once-important) city’s life cycle. Victoria behaves like cartoonist Saul Steinberg’s two duelists on the tongue of a crocodile.
The crocodile, by the way, is The Future, pulling in at Platform 3, any minute now.
Leaving macroeconomic, macropolitical, macrosocial trends and their local implications to the side for just a moment, it is so obvious that in the next few years, job-killing technology, work-at-home software, job-theft by the Westshore or capture by centrifugal Vancouver, outright provincial job-slashing in aid of a balanced budget—linked to a thinly veneered all-party hatred of this place (Victoria’s favourite wine? “We weren’t consulted!”)—will significantly chip away at the presence and sheer numbers of the civil service in Victoria’s central area, emptying out whole office buildings that will be a challenge to repurpose. Vertical mushroom farms, maybe. Or crash pads with elevator service for the shopping cart set.
A June conversation with Sage Baker, the city’s brand new economic development director, quickly (and understandably) turns from an enumeration of opportunity areas and initiatives (she had been on the job only about two weeks when we talked) to her views about the need to change the internal culture and to discover ways to make Victoria City Hall more responsive and helpful (read: less obdurate, obstructive and hostile) to enterprise interests, and less micromanagerial. You’re a quick study, Sage!
I wish Baker the best of luck (she is absolutely programmed for success, and if anyone can succeed, she will) but I’m not sure she appreciates, at the start of her two-year mandate, how long Victoria has been perfecting the Zen of dynamic inaction—something like a real-life version of the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (described as “not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous”). I’m reminded, when I talk with Baker, of the droll cartoon of a ballet master addressing a large stone: “Jeté!”
In an effort to help Baker, let’s be open-eyed and analytical about the City of Victoria’s strong suit. Also, let’s be modern—futuristic, even—in our thinking about where economies are headed. Things are roiling, ecologically and economically, in case you hadn’t noticed. Maybe instead of moaning about the economic drift to Westshore, we should realize that soon-to-explode energy costs will paralyze Arcadian stalags like Westhills and Bear Mountain, and should be asking ourselves: What does the world need that plays to Victoria’s assets and capabilities? When I answer my own question, I think: If we must be Swiss, let’s at least be the green Geneva.
We could be the world-leading green innovation capital—if only somebody with vision, entrepreneurial ambition and resources would see the remarkable business potential (David Black, say, with his compass reset from Kitimat oil refineries to something morally useful). Imagine Victoria’s future as an entrepot filled not with vapid visitor experiences but a green (in its broadest meanings) hub with consultants, world-class environmental expertise, research, workshops, discovery, invention, congresses, conferences, demonstration projects, global teaching and crucial green data services and information products.
The key, I think, is not to ask the stone to jump but to exploit creative, money-making expressions of what we so brilliantly are right now: our fuddle, our genius for inertia, our indecision and motion-tabling skills, our local-ness, our passion for and protective love of nature and environment, our hand-wringy-ness, our predilection for healing therapies, our yoga-ness, our alternative-ness, our squishiness and sensitivity, our insatiable intellectual appetite, our committee-ness, our love of talk, talk, talk over action, our idealism. Perversely, it’s all so ecological!
I have this revelation: it’s not that we have chosen removal from the wider streams of commerce but that we have failed to play to our own strengths. Maybe we just need to turn ourselves inside out.
Old Town property dabbler Michael Williams, in what I assume was a misdirected quest for immortality (promised him, I don’t doubt, by the insidious Martin Segger, UVic secret agent posing, years back, as a Victoria City Councillor and heritage building buff), bequeathed his large clutch of downtown heritage buildings to the university upon his death. For starters, in a wider strategy of repatriation of regional assets, I say raze the entire existing university campus tomorrow. Bulldozers, forward! Reduce it to rubble. Relocate the entire university downtown to occupy not just its own ill-gotten properties, but every other vacant square foot of downtown space. Convert its current campus into a site for regional wastewater treatment, garbage sorting and recycling. Or move the airport there.
What’s the urgency, you think? Trust me, this is not a time for folks to steeple their fingers and maunder about the long game. Go see World War Z (do it for Brad if you won’t do it for me). I’m sorry to remind you so often that zombie movies are an ominous, ecological metaphor whose message is we’re headed toward major self-harm and catastrophe. You can feel it. Media is seething with it. Global civilization simply cannot take this high level of environmental, economic and social stress.
Victoria, you have an important destiny in these latter times. Seize it. “Jeté!” This is a feeble, old man’s request, and I’ll continue to voice it as long as my brains still work. As long as my brains still work.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Why do we penalize those who are trying to densify the city core?
I’M TEMPTED TO DEVOTE THIS ENTIRE COLUMN to the news that while the McDonald’s on Pandora Avenue and Vancouver Street charges four cents less for a large coffee, the McDonald’s on Esquimalt Road near Esquimalt’s Archie Browning Recreation Centre is a masterpiece of tasteful, intimate restaurant decor, especially the leather armchairs and the booth seating. Yes, leather armchairs, booth seating.
The Pandora McDonald’s is straight out of the prison cafeteria riot school of interior design (the “lockdown” look), and evokes Agent Smith’s disgust in The Matrix when he describes humans as a disease, a virus. The beautifully furnished and finished Esquimalt restaurant, however, communicates trust, love of people, belief in the goodness of the human community, faith that someday we will overcome our differences and all be as—
Okay, sorry about that. But if you saw the place in Esquimalt you would rhapsodize, too.
I’m trying to get my arms around something elusive and chimerical this month: air and space—though these words may be just markers for the real subject: value. I referenced a few months back the City of Victoria’s roughly two-year-old policy that allows developers in selected downtown areas to buy additional project density from the City. Density, you’ll remember, is the ratio of building square footage to site square footage. Under this latest formulation, the developer gets added density above 3:1 to a cap of 6:1 and the City gets money.
As near as I can determine, the City’s case for this bonus density charge is that the City, in permitting densities of up to 6:1, is bestowing an unpaid-for benefit upon the developer (“bonus” says worlds about the City’s mindset); and in doing so, the City has the right to collect money because it functions like a secondary property owner—not of the “dirt,” but of a volume of space, up in the air. This renders the City the notional “owner” of a purely conceptual spatial volume and, in selling this development entitlement, the practitioner of an alchemy that the rest of us can only dream of: commodifying thin air.
If the value of land is determined by what you can build on it, then this makes the City’s ownership of a spatial volume, as expressed in its land use policies, a fascinating subject—legally, business-wise, and philosophically. If you don’t mind some smudges on your clothing, come on down the rabbit hole with me.
Cities evolved from simple crossroads origins to become towns and city-states ruled by an aristocracy and, in time, rough-cut administrative units run at first by powerful bosses and mayors. Eventually, a more democratically constrained elected leadership emerged. (The phrase “You can’t fight city hall” is believed to have originated in the US in the mid-1800s.)
Cities exist to frame and manage the very complex living arrangements of a human community occupying a tightly-bounded geography; to foster opportunity; be the promoters of urban well-being; and behave as stewards of the future.
In such pursuits, cities make budgetary and policy decisions based either on common sense; or support for the community’s mood and values; or the ghost-lit pursuit of some civic intention or aspiration. Here are some examples of each: Management of a water supply or charging for downtown parking or installing traffic controls at intersections are common sense. Detaining public troublemakers and preserving public parkland reflect community values. Licensing cats or charging for downtown density over 3:1 are batshit nutty.
Oh, sorry, I’m breaking the writer’s omerta by not saving the crazy for later.
So, here’s the thought: Why doesn’t the City zone everything 1:1 and charge for all additional density? Why not zone residential neighbourhoods one-storey and charge for the second storey on two-level homes? And you say: “Those are the silliest and most preposterous things I ever heard!” Oh, and charging for density above 3:1 is what? Solomonic?
3:1 says to developers “You can build three times your site area.” 6:1 says to developers “You can build six times your site area.” 6:1 with a density bonus charge says “Please, don’t build in Victoria.”
Presumably, logic and desire led the City to say okay in the first place to greater densities. In other words, somebody thought it was a good idea for some reason, just as other somebodies thought 3:1 was a good idea at previous times. Though right here might be a good place to remind ourselves that there are a number of pension-age downtown buildings—the Central Building, 612 View, Belmont Building, Dogwood Building, Sayward Building and the Yarrow Building, for example—with densities approaching and in some cases exceeding 6:1, all of which were put up umpteen years ago without bonus density charges, and all of which were seen in their day to be making a positive contribution to the downtown. In spite of these historic precedents, wise heads in today’s Victoria believe that a density of 6:1 is a developer’s windfall, and that the City is entitled to capture most of it. What it says as social subtext is that developers are sociopathic and criminally insane and must be punished for their ambitions.
Let’s turn to an obvious but as-yet-unasked question: Why did the City raise the density cap to 6:1 in the first place? Surely, the City concluded that higher density buildings might result in more people working and living in and around downtown—a good thing. If this was the City’s principal motivation, why aren’t those presumed beneficial economic and social outcomes (and downstream property tax revenue) quid pro quo enough? And why wouldn’t the City turn a blind eye to a developer windfall (more theoretical than real, anyway) to get developer juices flowing?
The City was for several years getting a strong message from the development industry that given downtown Victoria’s high land costs, densities greater than 3:1 would enhance project viability. The City was also aware that many developers of downtown projects were using the cumbersome rezoning process to achieve densities in the range of 5:1; and that downtown area property owners were pricing their property on the assumption that 5:1 was a slam-dunk via rezoning. Old expectations of value die hard, of course, and even with the City’s new bonus density policy, property owners have hardly backed off their earlier asking prices. So, when the City stacks bonus density charges on top of a property owner’s price expectations, the essential rationale for greater density falls apart and turns into an invitation principally to take on the greater risks of attempting to sell or lease bigger buildings.
And last, there is an argument floating around out there that the City needs to charge this bonus simply as a “gimme” because it needs new Downtown amenities; and our underground infrastructure is old and at capacity; and greater density puts more pressure on infrastructure, so developers should make a contribution to improving/increasing that capacity. Leaving aside the mind-bending circularity of that thinking, why then wouldn’t the City make any and every new development pay a bonus, regardless of density, since every development adds pressure; and further, isn’t infrastructure-upgrading precisely what the City is supposed to be doing within its franchise, with its normal tax revenues through the annual budgeting process?
In consideration of all of these circumstances, what exactly explains the City mordida from new projects seeking densities greater than 3:1? Well, first, the present bonus density payment program is meant to rationalize a previous horse-trading system in which developers exchanged affordable housing units, public art or contributions to the City’s affordable housing fund for greater density. Folks thought that system lacked transparency and was open to developer abuse. (Can you believe that?) Second, other cities do it—justifying such charges against high civic processing costs, when in fact it’s just the City saying to developers: “Hey, if you’re trying to max your building density, we must be doing something right, so share.” Third, the City needs the dough, and it’s cheaper for the industry to pay than take the City to court.
Of course, this is Victoria, so there are also “dark side” explanations for the bonus density policy: first, that it picks up on strong anti-density/anti-height sentiment in Victoria and by “punishing” developers with a surcharge tosses a bone to the folks who believe those higher densities threaten Victoria’s character and really should not be permitted under any circumstances; second, that by imposing bonus density costs, the City plays to the values of the single-family house-owning “urban aristocracies” of James Bay, Fairfield and elsewhere. Such values—call it the “Victoria lifestyle premium”—percolate into City land use policy and drive up property and housing costs in the core.
Funny how Victoria’s land use policies are trapped in this murk of living contradiction, a dreamscape, a social mystery in which the amenities and nostalgic charm of an intransigent past and the needs and imperatives of an urgent present battle for validation.
Maybe we should modify the old axiom to give it local relevance: “You can’t comprehend city hall.”
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
White and curvaceous, Shutters flaunts Victoria's unwritten cultural code.
SHUTTERS, THE IMPROBABLY-WHITE and unexpectedly-sinuous condominium building in Songhees, is not so much a building as a sculpture people live in. Proper buildings, after all, are squared up and have right angles. Everyone knows that. And they’re brick-y red, not wedding-cake white. So, let’s study this one-off that flaunts all of Victoria’s unwritten cultural code regarding colour and shape of buildings, and that seems not so much to have been built as to have landed.
I was led to consider Shutters after I sat in one of the city’s coffee shops frequented by the double latte crowd, and overheard an artist/philosopher-in-residence explaining to the tattooed bunny at his table that white was not a colour but a concept, an idea.
White an artifice? My view is, if you can buy a can of it in a paint store, it’s a colour. I typed “Is white a colour?” into Google, hoping for Wikipedia solidarity, like: “Hey, stupid, do fish swim?” No such luck. I was immediately swept up into light theory, pigmentation theory, molecular theory. In a tactical retreat I plodded to the basement and dragged out the voluminous Benjamin Moore Designer’s Kit—the “Good Book” of colour. A whole fan of colour chips was labelled “Whites.” I rest my case.
But not in Victoria, architecturally. We may be mostly a white-people city, but not a white-building city. We’re much more in the shrubby palette: pomes, mustards, duns, beiges, greys, yam skin maroons…proper, serious, rooted colours. White buildings here stand out like college pranks involving lots of toilet paper. White’s about an endless faith in blue skies, and such faith is in short supply here on the raincoast. White’s sybaritic, Mediterranean—not Scottish, disapproving and hellfire.
Hold on: white is also an aspirational colour, and it inspires the same meanings in many cultures. Think of how germs flee before a white starched nurse’s uniform, or how a tunnel of bright white light guides us to the afterlife, or how the good witch wears white.
If you take white to this level of metaphor, Shutters is the one Victoria residential building that forces us to think about what white means expressively. Shutters was undertaken by Ian Gillespie’s Westbank Developments in Songhees, and designed by Vancouver architect James Cheng. It is the most architecturally flamboyant building in Victoria, all nerve, curve, brazen performance and exhibitionism.
Shutters is entirely sun-loving, carefree and sea-cruise, and has taken its cues from Miami Beach, cribbing some of its design pedigree from architect Morris Lapidus’ Fountainbleu Hotel. I take slight liberties in describing it as a mismatched pair of single-loaded (units extend fully across the building) punctuation marks—a nine-storey comma and a six-storey parenthesis—on a roughly two-acre site in Songhees—to date, the only building “over there” to suggest that it might actually be fun to live at the edge of the ocean. The buildings share in common a resort-size pool that sits almost invisibly on an elevated patio space. Overall, the project scandalizes its grumpy, beige-painted or red shingle-hatted neighbours, and colour and shape-wise in Songhees comes off like a unicorn picking its way through a chivvying herd of hippos.
It’s an impossibly jazzy and sexy development, as dazzling, distracting and disconcerting as Marilyn Monroe captured by Cecil Beaton’s camera in gauzy white petticoats, or Marilyn standing on a windy grate, her white dress billowing sculpturally in the updraft—and enjoying it!
Shutters’ two building curves have been set on axes roughly at right angles to each other, and as you walk around the site, more of one building is revealed as the curve of the other recedes—a photographer’s dream and an urban aesthete’s delight. It’s interesting that in a city whose developers and builders will swear that every angle, jut-out, and deviation from the geometry of four straight walls spells financial ruin for the project, Shutters is nothing but circumference.
The building is called Shutters because of a repeated design motif of quartets of white-painted louvered shutters that have been staggered from one floor to the next on the exterior walkways of each storey. Funny, actually, to have named so glassy and transparent a building after an object intended for opacity and privacy. Shutters wears all of its circulation systems on the outside: Glass columns enclose its numerous elevators and stairs; and its wide exterior entrance corridor makes occupants visible when they leave their front doors. The slightly hypnotic and spacey effect as people pop out of their homes, walk the corridors and visibly descend in glass-walled elevators is a bit like watching something from Second Life or a video animation.
A friend who lives in the building informs me that short bridges cross a narrow void between the elevators and the curving walkways that lead to front doors. He suggests that the act of crossing over is a profound and dramatic event, akin to stepping across the gangway between dock and cruise ship: You leave one world behind and step into a new one.
With room to burn, the building sports a graceful and remarkably spacious lobby filled with designer-istically geometric, furniture showroom-like white-and-chrome seating and table arrangements, bathed in a faint aqua glow from its glass walls. I note this because so many of our recent buildings, facing both cost and security concerns, seem to have opted for a penitentiary aesthetic featuring miserly lobby spaces and the lockdown look.
On its lower south-facing side, Shutters rises glassily out of a low cliff of raw Songhees rock, emphasizing its crystalline grace. The landscape designer has lopsidedly dropped in a copse of white birches to one side of the main building entrance. Nice! In its totality the building must leave occupants happily confused about whether life’s a bummer or a vacation, and humming along with Tony Bennett, “Where am I? I’m a stranger in Paradise.”
In that vein, Victoria’s countless thousands of urban critics habitually bemoan how ego and idiosyncrasy invariably get boiled out of major developments because in the development field flamboyance is equated with cost and risk, if not outright mental imbalance. Westbank is a major developer, yet Ian Gillespie, the company’s president, presumably with his banker’s and investor’s approbation, has installed something eccentric and unexpected in virtually every one of Westbank’s buildings, often with great success—notably, the beautifully controlled The Falls on Douglas Street and his many projects in Vancouver including the Flatiron Building-like Woodwards tower in Gastown, the Fairmont Pacific Hotel and condominium tower near the new harbourfront convention centre, and the planned Beach and Howe Tower by BIG (the very hot Dutch architects Bjarke Ingles Group), a completely insane architectural tour-de-force that will rise between some of the Granville Street Bridge on-ramps and that looks in renderings, unnervingly, like it will fall over in a strong breeze or a tremor.
While the Bay building re-purposed as The Hudson stands in creamy, off-white splendour, and smaller white buildings, homes and such, dot the Victoria landscape, Shutters and the tower portion of the eponymously named The 834 at 834 Johnson Street remain the city’s two major residential studies in white. Not enough to nudge our city toward Mediterranean bliss. We may have to wait for the full-on local effects of global warming (tropical palms, a hot sun, blondes in bathing suits) before we shake off Edinburgh and embrace Miami.
Can Shutters be faulted for not respecting its context? Probably not. Ex-industrial Songhees itself has been a-historical—Victoria’s “wild west” where almost anything goes (and has gone). No reminders of our civic history excepting the nearby railroad roundhouse, car barns, assorted stores buildings and rusting railyard tracks remain to be offended.
Can it be faulted for being capricious, or overly self-congratulatory about its daring curves and good looks? These are hard questions to answer without tumbling down the rabbit hole into a swamp of architectural semiotics. Last time I tried, I broke my leg and almost drowned. What I sense—without knowing the mind of its developer—is that Shutters and Gillespie’s other clever and playful projects are not at all synthetic, Las Vegas products (Egyptian pyramids, castles, faux villas, etc.) but serious attempts to express a new architectural language—a mix of technical daring and design brio intended to bring character to large and tall buildings, and not just the iconic skyscrapers, but all.
Last, can Shutters be faulted for being too curvaceous, provocative and white in a city of well-behaved, soberly coloured cubes?
Hey, do fish walk?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
The City of Victoria is robbing the future to pay for today.
I WANT TO ENLIST YOUR HELP in fleshing out an idea for the City of Victoria and in designing a strategy for its implementation. I’m proposing that together we generate some innovative thinking directed at our downtown and, by extension, the city’s problematic economy. In doing this we’ll not only open new ground in citizen innovation and city/citizen collaboration, but assist the city we love—a place that has clearly found itself overwhelmed and temporarily out of ideas. We can do this on the pages of Focus (send in your thoughts as letters or emails); or around a table in a coffee shop (call or write me); maybe it wants to be a small conference or workshop. Possibly all.
As framing, let me quickly invoke Paul Krugman, economist and New York Times columnist, who in the context of the current US recession debate recalls the “utter impenetrability of the elite [Bush-era] pro-Iraq-war consensus”:
Now, as then, this consensus has seemed impenetrable to counterarguments, and its leaders regarded as credible even though they’ve been wrong about everything, while critics of the consensus are regarded as foolish hippies even though all their predictions — about interest rates, about inflation, about the dire effects of austerity — have come true.
My local take-away from Krugman is this: the current mis-ordering of importances by our political leadership and civic management is driving this city to its knees financially. Believe me: right at the very borders of calamity, these folks are perpetuating a ruinous and fatal approach to the city’s economic strategy.
Here in Victoria, Council and key staff have for months been wrestling with a budget so tight that the effort to boil a mere $1.6 million out of it (less than 1 percent) has produced major brain damage in city hall and bizarre, funny-if-they-weren’t-so-tragic proposals like switching from annuals to perennials in some of the city’s flower beds. And all of this Herculean effort is in aid of tabling a budget for the following three years not with a zero increase, but one that will continue to increase by 3.25 percent a year—an 11 percent cumulative jump, presumably with further rises likely beyond that.
No portrait of Victoria’s present political and administrative leadership will be complete or accurate without making this simple fact clear: the city is robbing the future to pay for today. The blue bridge—a subject exhaustively discussed on the pages of Focus Magazine—is a lucid illustration of stealing from the future. In the city’s deal with the devil to keep the replacement bridge ‘within budget,’ the structure’s engineering standards have been relaxed, shaving not just amenities but two-and-a-half decades (25 percent) off its functional 100-year life—a clear case of the city essentially crapping in tomorrowland. It’s not just the bridge, it’s a pattern: the city is under-allocating incoming revenue to its capital account (the money needed to repair, upgrade, replace or add infrastructure), in favour of its operating account (what it spends today). As an example of city duress, the city recently required Chard Developments (and others, I imagine) to build wastewater holding tanks into its recent condo project at 834 Johnson Street to facilitate overnight, lower-volume discharge: the sewers are so old they lack the capacity to handle a growing downtown.
None of this is sustainable and it’s going to get us into even more trouble down the road.
Ask yourself: How do these things happen, how did it come to this? The answer is that, as with personal behaviour, institutional behaviour follows the laws of circumstance and consequences—essentially, an ecological principle. Smoke for thirty years, you get cancer or lung disease. Leach the soil of nutrients season after season, eventually the crops fail. Spew a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for a half-century, the glaciers melt and the global weather roils.
In this vein, the city’s current budget dilemma didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been years in the making and is best understood as a long-brewing, slowly evolving set of political and managerial miscalculations and missteps moving us toward the inevitability of consequences. Some of those consequences are here now; others are quickly approaching. The miscalculations span successive mayoral leaderships, beginning somewhere in the political dry gulch of the post-Pollen years, and speak to the ever-expanding fuddle culture at the city. The current challenge of boiling $1.6 million or so out of the budget? Believe me, just a symptom and not the disease.
Honestly, if you really imagine the solution to Victoria’s economic problems lies in switching from annuals to perennials in city flower beds, automating payment at the city’s five parkades, freezing a few pay packages here and there, and eliminating free egg salad sandwiches at committee meetings, you should stop reading this piece now.
Consider leaky boat syndrome: Water’s coming in through a dozen holes! You can’t bail fast enough! The boat is getting heavier and less maneuverable! The tide’s pushing you away from the shore! Big, swamping waves are approaching! Oh-oh! As things deteriorate, all options are compromised.
The city is trying desperately to reduce the budget (essentially, a 4.25 percent increase) by a mere 1 percent and clearly not having an easy time of it. But much bigger rollers are just offshore, and the city is under-equipped for an economic event-horizon likely to feature:
• a regional sewage treatment levy imposed on taxpayers;
• the growing drag of three-quarter-billion dollars in unfunded city infrastructure projects including underground systems, streets, parks, facilities and community amenities;
• potential cost overruns (in any event) on that embarrassment of a blue bridge replacement, coupled to the prospect of a legal challenge of the city for betraying the terms of the spending referendum approved by voters;
• continued softening of the real estate market with drops in assessments and the need for compensatory mill rate increases (a bigger bite into home and commercial property owner equity value);
• relentless commercial predation from the ‘burbs and accelerated erosion of downtown retail and service/office assets, prompting all kinds of bad consequences;
• financial challenges to the sustainability/viability of various city recreational and cultural assets;
• an emptying piggy bank, hampering the city’s ability to mount new initiatives, exploit emergent opportunities, respond to rainy-day conditions, or compete aggressively in the face of regional economic challenges in the far-from-rosy near-future.
These prospects point to an enfeebled city less and less able to invest in its own well-being. Our well-being.
Here’s something that happened in the last two years that brings a fine point to understanding the city’s dilemma. Under its new land use policies, the city telegraphed that it was prepared to allow densities of up to 6:1 (total building square footage six times the site square footage) in certain areas in and around the core. With guidance from an out-of-town consultant who demonstrated little intuitive understanding of either the competitive regional economic condition or local business culture, the city came up with a bonus density policy that said to developers: “Okay, you can build up to 6:1, but we’re going to charge you a ‘density bonus’ for every square foot over 3:1.” In other words: “No problem, we acknowledge that you can build at densities up to 6:1, but we’re going to punish you with a significant financial disincentive if you try.” As business messaging, this is perverse and anti-market, contradictory and un-partnerlike. It builds neither trust nor confidence within industry. It doesn’t say to industry: “Let’s build this city together!”
Why this push-pull insanity? It’s three-pronged. The simple answer is that the city desperately needs the dough. Driven by that need, it literally cannot afford the costs of acting more entrepreneurially. Next answer, there is an extremely murky social and political mindset in Victoria—sniffy, contemptuous and distrusting of business and enterprise, neurasthenic and carry-over colonial, second-rate in its business skills and energies. Final answer: The city doesn’t see itself as a partner in or facilitator of successful business outcomes, just as an administrator and regulator.
And here, I believe, is where the invitation to crowd-source needs to come in. As a citizen and taxpayer, I don’t like seeing my city and my downtown at risk. And as an investor in real estate—essentially, my home—I don’t like chilly reminders that no law prevents Victoria real estate values from tumbling if this place loses its lustre. Addicted to the hoped- (and prayed-) for constancy of provincial civil service presence in and around downtown (a crapshoot), and the sugar-high of seasonal tourism, Victoria coupon-clips as if these conditions were ordained, or written in fire. As downtown retail vacancy and the city’s budget challenges demonstrate, they’re not.
I’ve noted in a recent column (“Heart Warming,” January 2013), that if all the central area condos and rental units under construction or somewhere in the pipeline come on to the market in the coming years, it will add to the central area about 2,000 additional residential units trolling for roughly three thousand occupants. Take my word for it: Three thousand additional residents living and shopping and, with luck and effort, working in and near downtown would profoundly improve the economy and the street tone of the city.
However, downtown commercial rental vacancies are gradually rising, nudging 8 percent. Suburban retail is eating downtown’s lunch; and under current circumstances and trends, a lot more downtown retail is at risk of falling below the threshold of business viability—with all due respect to comic book shops, tattoo joints and specialty tea stores, which are great but not exactly cornerstone enterprises in today’s urban economy.
To the extent that it’s possible to divine city thinking on the subject, the only city strategy operating right now is to try to woo suburban shoppers downtown by dangling the ‘specialness’ of the place: fizzy bribes like parades, festivals, fireworks, unique ‘character,’ and so on. This will not work to any appreciable degree. Car culture finds its own level and trust me, the Market On Millstream makes the Market On Yates (though profitable, I’m sure) look like a lemonade stand. My guess is that the downtown public realm—streets and other public spaces—probably needs a serious $20 million fluff-up. And a mobility strategy designed to whisk people (and their shopping dollars) downtown cost-free from James Bay, Fairfield, Fernwood, Gorge-Burnside and Vic West hasn’t even been conceived, leave alone priced.
Not surprisingly, a downtown jobs/living paradigm hasn’t been formulated either. Not by anyone. The vision of an emerging downtown, as expressed in planning documents and policies, as articulated and ratified by mayor and council, is un-dreaming, unsure, underwhelming, un-strategic. In fact, with the exception of the usual high-minded flapdoodle on the preamble pages of the new Downtown Plan, there isn’t any ‘how’ there at all.
Meanwhile, too many of the city’s condominium projects—from the towers in Humboldt Valley to those in Songhees—are not living buildings but dark-windowed, tombstone investments by prairie folk planning to ‘sunset’ in Victoria.
Years and years of inattention and neglect—the result of hubris, complacency, budgetary botch and mis-investment—have taken us to this place. It really is time for a local political revolution, which is to say it’s time for public (voter) outrage and action. It’s also time for a new crop of political hopefuls who can articulate vision, intention, substance and a detailed plan—before this city goes smelly with rot.
That said, changing the multifarious habits—the culture, really—of this place is going to be exhausting and nearly thankless. It starts with the need to replace conceits about how downtown is the “centre of it all” for the region with a muscular plan to actually re-make the centre as the centre—on its own terms. The only shopping carts I see in and around downtown are filled with beer and wine empties and the scant possessions of the marginal, not food or merchandise. By contrast, Greater Victoria’s suburbs are almost totally self-sufficient—economically, culturally, recreationally, socially; so the continuing effort to invite suburbanites to live their economic lives downtown must be acknowledged as an ever-more-thready and pointless undertaking.
Instead, how to ensure that an eventual 10,000-15,000 new residents are able to live, work and function south of Bay Street, west of Cook is, in my view, the city’s job #1. Our job as citizens and voters is to send the city that message, as quickly as possible.
Funny, but obscured by our dewy love of the old Victoria—mostly, the buildings downhill of Government Street—is the realization that they were shoulder-to-shoulder commercial structures created largely by a bumptious merchant class—people who were confident about the city’s economic future and their opportunity to make dough.
The buildings weren’t an earlier generation’s idea of a legacy heritage project. The structures—and the merchant dreams that founded them—are at their centenary. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate old bricks than with new plans for economic regeneration.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Is there an app for zapping bad buildings?
TWENTY YEARS OR SO AGO, I was for a while a development consultant or, as I called myself in private moments of searing candour, a “developer’s finger puppet.” I was paid on a performance basis (“employed by the outcome,” was my trippingly elegant phrase for it), and was of course highly motivated to succeed. As I made the rounds door-knocking in various neighbourhoods and attending countless public meetings, I would listen to a predictable and repetitious litany of neighbours’ concerns: too high, too big, too dense, too close, too much traffic, too much shadowing, loss of privacy, and my favourite change-up: “I support density, just not here.” I knew this repertoire was code for something else, something much more emotionally raw and elemental, like: “I don’t want that monstrosity, that death star, anywhere near me! If it goes up, I’m going to hate my life every day!”
Things could be otherwise. For a clue as to why they are not, type into Google any of these: “Creating beautiful apartment buildings,” “The art of multifamily buildings,” “Designing beautiful apartment buildings,” and be prepared to learn about “The art of thermal mass modelling for multifamily,” or “Miami apartment buildings for sale,” or “Multi-family millions: how anyone can reposition for big profits.” In other words, join me in the stunning discovery that creating beautiful apartment buildings is not as compelling an online topic as, say, the colour of Anne Hathaway’s undies.
I blame Cook Street.
Why exactly do apartment buildings belong on arterial streets, which is where we seem to like to stick ‘em? Everyone gets the cultural message, which is: “If you live in a multifamily building, you deserve traffic noise, alienating architecture and a place-less environment when you come out of the building.” If you ask planners you’ll get a flat-footed retreat into professional-ese like “concentrating density” or “improving the car/street interface” or “clustering” or “neighbourhood hierarchy” or “choosing density-appropriate locations and preserving neighbourhood integrity.” (The last of these has at least a whiff of covert honesty.) Streets like Cook and other so-called “arterials” make it easy for planners to rationalize density, while everyone else (including developers) instinctively understands that it’s simply a green light for creating human storage lockers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I made a risky pledge at the end of last month’s column to lay out some ideas that would assist apartment buildings to look and function not like human warehousing but homes, and not like vacuums or black holes in the streetscape but places of energetic human presence and/or visual delight.
First, this note: By “apartment building” I mean “multifamily”—that is, the building form, not the tenure; so, while respecting the Scriptural principle that renters are scum, house-dwellers are the Lord’s Chosen, and condo owners could go either way, this writing considers rental and condominium buildings interchangeably.
Apartment buildings are not large houses any more than buses are large cars. While they may share a neighbourhood, houses and apartment buildings have different social identities, emotional resonances, positions in the community hierarchy, and principles of social governance. It’s not unlike the grazing protocols of animals in the wild. And as with lions, elephants, water buffalo, and zebras on the African veldt, it’s also useful in housing to acknowledge uneasy relationships, territoriality, uncomfortable adjacencies and the certainty of chivvying. (For fun, check if any, or how many, of the members of your community association’s land use committee live in apartments.)
Multi-family buildings don’t get any sympathy. In the complex and nuanced world of land use, they are the predator, not the predatee; the wicked witch, not the good fairy. People, including the occupants (considered culturally as either aspiring or lapsed house-owners), lend them no more feeling than we give to rental cars. Something about multi-family buildings deeply threatens the core values and elemental beliefs of single-family residents. Barring deep cultural study, I’m not sure why, but the prospect of a multifamily building next door, or down the block, or in the neighbourhood saddens, threatens, frightens and angers single-family house-owners. It’s not exactly a class issue, but you can’t miss the reek of threat—something that exposes the ideal of “home” to the roiling imperfections of the living human mass.
For purposes of discovery, then, let’s think of multifamily buildings not only as physical structures, but also as social messaging. That’s the only way to get to a whole-system understanding of these buildings, and to propose some changes that might result in a more salubrious outcome.
From the perspective of social messaging, appearances suggest that as long as apartment buildings meet building code standards, nobody cares beyond that. There is nothing aspirational or warm-blooded about the design results. They rarely project developer ego, for the most part read as “product,” and in a hundred subtle ways convey more about the project’s pro forma and return on investment than about designing for successful human community.
To get away from this, you have first to believe, as a form of casus belli, that building design and site use strongly impact the resident’s sense of community belonging. In other words, bad buildings foster bad citizenship. It’s nearly pointless simply to want better buildings from developers. You also have to be a keen student of the building code, of the actual intentions of policy and the contents of zoning bylaws, of development costs, and even of strata laws and property management culture. You have to be able to make the economic case for more creative site use, improved design and the singularity of buildings.
In its recently approved Official Community Plan, the planning professionals advanced only an anodyne response by green-lighting multifamily anywhere along the city’s arterials and in very tightly defined “village centres.” Better than nothing, but still redlining and setting the stage for more crud. Here are some additional specific proposals.
Apartment buildings in earlier years were better integrated within single-family areas and built generally on corners—not, I suspect because of the zoning of the day, but because community-makers intuited that corner locations would allow multifamily buildings to push up to the two sidewalk property lines and farther away from adjacent single-family houses on either street or from contiguous rear yards. If you take some time to nose around the core neighbourhoods, including Fairfield and James Bay, I think you will agree that generally it’s not a bad fit and that the city could almost universally apply a corner lot zone, maybe with a two-lot maximum to ensure protection of the neighbourhood scale.
The city would also benefit from a formal study (with design and development industry professionals) of architect Eric Barker’s two deconstructions at 948 North Park and 22-24 Songhees Road. Both offer nourishing food for thought about alternatives to the conventional apartment block plunked in the middle of its site and disconnected entirely from the larger neighbourhood context.
There need to be rewards for even modestly inspired architecture. In a perfect world, these would come from a discriminating market rejecting bad buildings. Realistically, community associations and advisory design panels have to pound the message home that design and appearance matter; that people and neighbourhoods require idiosyncracy, individuation, character; and that these examples should be treated with some form of regulatory lenience or tax generosity.
Multiple entrances served by multiple elevators would help to de-anonymize buildings. Consider: a single elevator, opening front and rear can, in a four-storey building, serve up to 32 apartment doors—four forward, four back. Instead of long penitentiary corridors which carry financial (building efficiency) and social costs, such elevators could open on small, somewhat individuated vestibules serving up to four apartment doors and improving the sense of place within a large building.
Walk Southgate Street between Vancouver and Cook Streets, paying particular and careful attention to the house-like structures. Count mailboxes (prepare to be stunned, in some cases) and then ask yourself if there might not be potential for an innovative form of new-built, house-like apartment building designed to fit on single lots almost anywhere in the city.
To their credit, Victorians are conscionable about the need for density, inclusion, and affordability. Communities continue to wrestle with the challenge and, in my view, remain open to ideas and models that will encourage the benefits of density while keeping negative impacts at a minimum. Surely, policy, design and pricing innovation is the way around the siege-and-fortress dynamic that currently describes land use events in Victoria. So, maybe it’s time for the city, industry and the community associations to co-host some form of creative workshop. This developer’s finger puppet will gladly spring for the refreshments.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Why don't more multi-family buildings in Victoria pass the sniff test?
IN A RECENT WEEKEND FEVER DREAM, I was trapped in a maze of walled rooms filled with a vast selection of coffee beans in sacks and hundreds of different grass outfits that hung in thin air; and the only way to advance toward an exit was to grind a pound of coffee and to wear a straw clothing outfit in just the right combination. If I got the coffee/straw suit combination right, walls would reluctantly part just enough for me to squeeze through to the next room, where I faced the same task again. Plus, every room featured its own distracting adventure or sub-dream.
Monday, happily, brought bracing news about English daredevil Ian Rothwell, who recently consumed at Bindi Restaurant a chili-laden curry named “The Widower,” so hot that it’s prepared by a chef wearing goggles and face mask. A media source stated “Rothwell took about an hour, but that included a 10-minute walk outside during which he began hallucinating.” No details were provided about his hallucinations, beside a hint that he saw hell firsthand.
Ian, real hell is grinding coffee and wearing straw clothing.
I had set myself a less risky if more ambiguous task for the week: to unlock the messaging and social mysteries of the (generally four-storey) apartment building. I’ve been pondering this for a while on walks around town, noticing how on mixed-form streets the houses say “Home” and the apartment buildings, rental or condominium, say “Product.”
Why don’t more multi-family buildings pass the sniff test? With the cold charm of filing cabinets and an aesthetic borrowed from highway motels, how did they get here? Do their deficiencies reveal some subtle disapproval—a kind of social punishment—built into the very form and design?
Here we are, living in a city that richly demonstrates the spirit-essence of home and the art of creating appealing streets and neighbourhoods; so, bearing on apartment buildings, why hasn’t more of that culture rubbed off on civic leadership, municipal planners, developers, builders, architects and, for that matter, buyers and tenants? Why hasn’t it been bottled—codified in policy and design practice? Or is that an impossible task because we have a cultural predilection toward houses? It’s telling that our one art form is the conversion of large, older homes into suites. And it says something about our city that what could have been the genius of the place—the design and creation of hundreds of remarkable apartment buildings—has instead found its voice mostly as a patented neurasthenia any time the status quo is threatened.
There are no accidents or unimportant details in architecture. Nothing is extraneous, everything is choice, every detail has an impact. Here I take cues from a line in John Bird’s biography of composer Percy Grainger: “Arnold Schoenberg once said that nothing about a great composer is irrelevant and that it would have been a pleasure for him to have observed Mahler putting on his necktie.”
Scattered here and there in Victoria are Mahler’s neckties: multi-family buildings—some vintage, some contemporary, some short, others tall—that suggest or outright demonstrate the potential of multiunit building form. There’s the Mosaic on Fort Street and the Reef in James Bay, co-executed by tortured creative/nail-banger-turned-developer Don Charity and would-be artist forced to manage his family’s trillions Fraser McColl Jr.
The Reef, of course, is neighbours with Shoal Point, David Butterfield’s exceptional, monumental, sculpture-bedecked confection beside Fisherman’s Wharf.
Then there are the city’s two authentic art deco masterpieces, Tweedsmuir Mansions on Park Boulevard and 895 Academy Close, both purpose-built apartment buildings (full disclosure: I live in Tweedsmuir). And nearby is stately Hampton Court at 159 Cook Street, south of the village.
On the James Bay side of Beacon Hill Park, across the street from Mile Zero, is the Coté family’s eccentric but inspired three connected houses, converted corner ex-motel and townhouses.
Also, there are the new-built Aria behind the Crystal Gardens and Swallows Landing high above the Esquimalt end of the Inner Harbour—the first influenced, the second designed, by Paul Merrick.
Songhees may be the locale everyone loves to hate, but no one should overlook the Fountainbleu-esque Shutters in Songhees, or architect Eric Barker’s understated but architecturally important deconstruction of a standard residential cube at 27-33 Songhees Road, beside the Delta Ocean Pointe.
An even more imaginative example of Barker’s sits at 940 North Park, and is worth a walk-around and serious study. Almost single-handedly among Victoria architects, Barker stands out for creatively deconstructing the four-storey apartment building, pushing its conventionally centred mass all over the place: to the front, sides or rear of the site, distributing parts of its usual block-y volume in the form of two-storey townhouses or three-storey mini-blocks close to the sidewalk, and creating semiprivate landscaped voids in the centre—that is, voids in the very space where the entire building would normally sit.
And last, there is a two-storey-plus-dormer masterpiece that sits on a single lot, a humble gem of a building—white with grey window frames and black doors—at 427/429 Chester Avenue and 1133/1135 Hilda Street in Fairfield. Well, you have to check it out to understand the complexity and accomplishment of this building.
This is a partial list, and I’m sorry if I haven’t mentioned your favourites. But to understand why there are so many disappointing buildings, let me take you through the essential conditions of multi-family development.
First, remember that while many other professions are credentialled, developers aren’t required as a condition of practice to formally study history, architectural aesthetics, story of place, design for human comfort, authenticity, or any other discipline related to successful habitation and community-building. That said, the fickle marketplace and high stakes do force developers to be keen students at the School of Risk Management. Show me a successful developer, and I’ll show you a coward, if you take my meaning.
Land ownership is highly fractured and land costs in our region are stratospheric, and this pushes developers in the direction of the greatest saleable density, and away from capriciousness about volumes and space use. There are economies in repetition: It’s easiest for the trades and it saves money. Slice and dice, baby!
There is a problematic regulatory landscape. Zoning bylaws can be highly prescriptive, unfriendly toward creative response, and strong determinants of the character and morphology of apartment buildings. For example, bylaws generally ask multi-family buildings to maintain front yard setbacks as if to mimic the “propriety” of adjacent single-family houses. Ironically, the front yard is an increasingly vestigial feature of functional living for single-family homeowners; though, of course, it retains powerful cultural meanings.
Price sensitivities in a competitive environment (and fears of excluding parts of the market) tend to force developers away from idiosyncrasy, amenity and costly design conceits. In addition, the pressure to achieve high building efficiency (net saleable square footage) and the technology of double-loading (units facing front, units facing back) combine to produce penitentiary-like corridors and no-man’s-land lobbies and common areas. Security issues make buildings hermetic and impregnable-looking (though rarely impregnable).
On-site parking requirements mean that the entire property must be undergirded with a big concrete box, which leads to unimaginative cosmetic planting managed by landscaping companies.
And ownership or tenure itself unwittingly creates obstacles. You own or rent no further than your suite’s front door, and common areas are kept free of the slightest hint of human presence. Apartment buildings (rental and condo) are professionally managed and rule-heavy. They are not places of carefree personal indulgence. You can’t leave things lying around. Of course, you can always hang a Peace sign in your window.
Given so extensive a catalogue of conditions working against imbuing apartment buildings with character and idiosyncrasy, is it reasonable to say, simply, that if you want homey things, live in a house?
Could be. Still, in the face of all the challenges I’ve piled up, there are apartment buildings old and new in our city that show character, appeal and singularity, which makes one wonder: What are the characteristics and qualities—the DNA—shared by successful apartment buildings—buildings that contribute to the street and to the living quality of their residents? What conditions might be created to make standout buildings the rule and not the exception?
No treatise has been written to address this question, as far as I know. But let’s assume that study of this issue will unearth all the usual complexities, contradictions and counter-intuitions that plague even apparently simple questions. Going beyond a friend’s unhelpful suggestion: “Make developers live in their own buildings for a year,” I promise to devote the next column to exactly this question: What would it take to substantially improve the looks, functioning life and citizenship of apartment buildings?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Close to 3000 new Downtown residences are under construction or in the development pipeline. Only 22,000 to go.
WITH THE HEADLINE “Alligators Guard Pot in Stripper’s Home,” the Huffington Post recently created an informational dilemma: file under pets, home security, agriculture, careers, or real estate?
But in a more locally relevant wildlife story, the cranes are returning to Victoria. No, not the stately birds, but the ones that augur construction activity. Really, it’s an extensive list of downtown and shoulder-area projects marked by excavations with cranes sprouting or soon to sprout, projects poised to begin construction, others currently in the development approval pipeline, and projects planned if not yet detailed. If you do the math—economic energy embedded in potential dwellings and commercial space (more people, more businesses, more jobs)—it’s an impressive amount of activity, and it promises to improve prospects in and around downtown. So, let’s enumerate downtown’s hopes and blessings:
Union, under construction in Chinatown, spanning Fisgard Street and Pandora Avenue, will have 133 units of residential and commercial frontage.
The Mondrian, an almost 100-unit, 10-storey residential building with commercial frontage, is well along in construction on Johnson Street at Cook.
Era, a 15-storey, 150-unit residential and commercial project, is just starting in the 700-block of Yates Street, immediately west of the Odeon Theatre.
819 Yates is a Chard Development project targeted for the surface parking lot stretching from Yates to View, immediately behind the renamed but still architecturally monstrous Famous Players/Capital 6 theatre. By the time plans are made final, Chard’s vision may expand to encompass both the parking lot and the theatre property, emerging as a larger residential/office/commercial project of 16-17 storeys and, rumours be true, including a supermarket.
The St Andrew’s School site on Pandora Avenue at Vancouver Street, across from McDonald’s, has been purchased. The site, which backs on the narrow, lovely and fragile Mason Street, is likely to feature residential units (I hear rental) and given the enormity of the property, 200 or more suites would be a reasonable guess. I gather that there is some possibility of a new supermarket as part of the development.
Hudson Mews, a 12-storey, 120-unit market rental development by Townline, is emerging behind the old Bay building, itself residentially repurposed as the Hudson condos.
Jukebox, a 200-unit, 8-storey small-suite project, will occupy the long-vacant lot on View Street just east of Vancouver Street. On hold for now, pending improved market conditions, it is being developed by Don Charity and Fraser McColl, the same team who brought the nearby trendsetting Mosaic on Fort Street and The Reef in James Bay to life.
On the heels of their success with the Atrium, new home of BC Ferries and a ground-floor strip of very successful commercial businesses bracketed by Zambri’s and Pig restaurants, the Jawls have acquired the site on Douglas Street across from City Hall, encompassing a thin line of now-threadbare retail/commercial on Douglas and several surface parking lots behind, running from Pandora Avenue to Cormorant Street. Presumably, the site is slated for a significant office and commercial development.
Promontory, Bosa Developments’ 21-storey residential highrise, is coming out of the ground in Songhees, beside Esquimalt Road. It’s the first in a multi-tower project slated to provide hundreds of residential units along with a public market (“festival retail,” to use the industry term) that will emerge at the car barn, roundhouse and stores buildings of the former CN Rail property.
The Sovereign, an 11-storey, 36-unit residential condominium project with commercial frontage, is going up on Broughton Street between Government and Broad Streets.
Northern Junk, the two rubble-and-brick buildings that frame the curving southern exit from the Johnson Street Bridge, are poised for heritage rehabilitation as part of an additional five-storey residential and commercial redevelopment.
Janion, the long-suffering and gradually decrepitating brick pile immediately north of the downtown-side approaches to the Johnson Street Bridge, is soon to be developed as 100 micro suites. A large banner hangs from the wall of the building with the ironic and iconic message: “Finally.”
200 Douglas, six storeys—38 condominiums—across from Beacon Hill Park, is in sales mode as I write.
Duet, another of the busy Dave Chard’s projects at 640 Michigan, beside the James Bay firehall, is a go. The two-building, eight- and four-storey residential project will have 90 units.
Jack Julseth’s Sawyer Sewing Centre Building, a combination of renovation and new construction slated to create about 40 new small suites in the 800-block of Fort Street.
257 Belleville, currently the site of the Admiral Inn Motel, is approved for an eight-storey residential project.
Westbank, one of these days, will dust off its plan for the redevelopment of the boarded-up City Centre Motel on Belleville, across the street from the bowling green.
There are rumbles these days about plans to redevelop the surface parking lot at the bottom of Fisgard Street, with extensive frontage on Store and Herald Streets. As well, rumours, but no details, circulate concerning the former BCAA site at Cook and Pandora, and diagonally across Cook Street, the surface parking lot adjacent to the Medical Arts Building.
This is by no means a complete list. There’s also a vacant development site on Fort Street, just up from Birk’s, across from the Bay Centre, slated for office/commercial redevelopment; the Fort-to-View Street surface parking lot just east of Lund’s Auctioneers; the someday-to-be-developed Gateway Green on Blanshard and Fisgard; the big hole in the ground immediately north of the Jack Davis provincial office building at 1810 Blanshard intersecting Herald Street, diagonally across from the arena, planned for a wood-frame rental project by Townline, developers of The Hudson; the vacant properties on the corner of Vancouver and View (next to the ex-bottle depot); the commercial strip on the southeast corner of Fort and Cook; the voluminous Price’s Locks property on Fort and Quadra; the balance of Dockside on the west side of the harbour (rumours of a play in the making on this one). Oh, and did I mention the roughly 18 square blocks of Rock Bay?
If you add the numbers, even leaving the new commercial and office components aside, this could represent upwards of, if not well over, 2000 new residential units, and easily 3000 new downtown-area residents. This is staggering! If all of this development takes place, and assuming successful market absorption, it will result, within the next five years—a decade at the outset—in 3000 or so new people buying food every day, getting their shoes repaired, acquiring mirrors and lamps, requiring tattoos, guzzling lattes, purchasing Spandex and Windex…in and around downtown!
While these numbers are significant, they are a small fraction of what the downtown area needs, and can handle. That number is closer to 25,000. Going back to the days of the Downtown 2020 Conferences several years ago, knowledgeable urbanists have been arguing that the City of Victoria needs to aggressively pursue a replacement strategy to offset residential and commercial flows out of the central area toward Saanich and the Westshore.
The fact is that businesses follows buyers, and it’s almost a complete waste of time for the City to court suburbanites who have organized their lives around automobile culture and rhythms, and who are served by a full range of suburban shops, services and amenities close at hand, offering car-based convenience. Rather, the City needs programs and policies (including an innovative, as-yet-unimagined, around-town mobility strategy) designed to encourage the growth of jobs and the steady expansion of the urban population—folks for whom downtown commercial, recreational and cultural activity will be convenient and reflex.
And you say: well, duh.
Of course, if it were easy, it would be easy. Standing as testament to the challenge of mounting such urban countertrends are the hundreds of North American cities and towns whose quiescent centres are struggling dead zones doughnutted by and largely irrelevant to self-sufficient, prosperous, safe suburbs. Compared to all of these, even as things are, Victoria ain’t doing so bad. Unfortunately, nobody has developed the fine-grained measurement tool, the heart monitor, to help cities (including our own) keep their fingertips on the urban pulse; and cities often discover they’re in big trouble only long after the trend lines have grooved deep channels. The risk, in other words, very much as with global warming, is that by the time people observe that there’s trouble in River City, the disinvestment and damage are ingrained and a very long time reversing.
It’s an unromantic formulation, but cities are an expression of social and economic arrangements: how we want to interact; how much energy we wish to (or believe we can) use; what styles of commerce we favour; what ideas of pleasure, well-being, status and comfort we value; what ideas of community, mutuality, memory and interaction, and opportunities for privacy and personal autonomy we think are best. These are the invisible principles that receive ceremonial re-enactment every time folks living on a single-family street fight a multifamily development proposal. Or when defenders rush to the barricades if a heritage structure is threatened. Or when people flee pricey neighbourhoods and buy in more affordable ones.
For a moment, view our city-region as a place in which an evolutionary, ever-morphing board game is being played, expressed through land use rules, opportunities and economic behaviour; and as endless skirmishes mediated by regulation-bound bureaucracies and twitchy politicians; but also as an arena in which rot meets the future, and outdated uses succumb.
As an urban population, we’re always straddling the restless border between the comforts of changeless streets and neighbourhoods, and the liberating energies of novelty and change. “Any place you don’t leave is a prison,” says a character in the movie Liberal Arts; but some of those prisons can be pretty appealing.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
City Hall seems tone-deaf to the urgency of looming fiscal concerns.
REMEMBER WHEN Langford and Colwood—now backbones of the recently re-branded “Westshore”—were known as Dogpatch?
Seems like that page turned.
Now there’s an embedded impression that you can have a house and small yard in Langford for the price of a condo in Victoria; and in spite of the occasional rumblings in the national media about a coming major correction in real estate prices, nobody who’s selling in pricey Fairfield, James Bay, or the other central area blue-chip neighbourhoods has received the memo.
Years back, hearing that we could buy a three-bedroom home in Moose Jaw for $65,000, we could, while sitting in our restored Moss Street 1912-ers say between sips of ruby-toned Shiraz, “Be my guest.” The prices have changed (even the Shiraz is more expensive), and the facts are that the housing cost differential between Westshore and the rest of Victoria is less noticeable, but the market perception now favours the idea that Moose Jaw is just twenty minutes up the Island Highway.
All of this speaks to the roiling tectonics in our region’s economy, changes complex and far-reaching; and because we’re all standing in the river as it carves a new course, nobody can be sure where this is headed. But studying the trend lines, would it be too blunt to ask: What are the odds of Victoria waking up dead?
Worries that the region’s economic centre-point is moving away from downtown are, unfortunately, just one layer in a shit sandwich that also includes an ever-expanding list of major capital projects for which Victoria has almost no money or plan, and a weak and risk-laden world economy (Victoria is not immune). The Canadian Press recently noted: “A report from Accenture said demands for public services will outpace Canada’s economic growth over the next 13 years, leaving all levels of government unable to provide public services at present-day standards.”
As a local taxpayer, businessperson, engaged citizen, ask yourself: do the words caution, discipline and reinvention have any relevance in this conversation?
Infrastructure. Yes, this is a thudding, dull topic, but the point is, the stuff ages and wears out. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the plumbing, cabinets, floor coverings or appliances in your home or city drains, pavement, sewers, firehalls, community centres and swimming pools…or blue bridges, for that matter. So, here’s the poser: What does it mean to say that the City of Victoria—a city with an annual budget approaching $200 million—has at least three-quarters of a billion dollars in unfunded capital projects? More pointedly, so this doesn’t seem too abstract, where’s the money going to come from for that seismic upgrading of the Yates Street firehall at a cost of $15-17 million? Or renovation/retrofitting of the Crystal Pool at $22.5 million; or the Johnson Street Bridge replacement at $90-100 million (even with $37.5 million from the Feds and gas tax funds); or a new wastewater treatment system requiring the City’s share of $800 million; or a $60 million new central library? Or seismic and functional upgrades of City-owned buildings at $40-50 million? Or renovation of parkades? Or?
Since the City, which funds its annual budget largely from property taxes and various fees and transfers, spends almost all of its annual income on day-to-day operating costs, how much long-term borrowing to cover the costs of the big capital items can be heaped on taxpayers? Or to ask the same question more uncomfortably, is it possible, as the regional economy shifts and if the city’s economy softens, that the scale of municipal services and the level of amenities we’re accustomed to can no longer be afforded? Or alternatively, that a lot of maintenance and renovation will have to be deferred, pushing the City increasingly into a position of lurching from crisis to trouble-spot to imperative? Blue Bridge is falling down. Oops! (A little birdie tells me you can kiss the Crystal Pool good-bye, by the way.)
Is it a reasonable line of thought, then, that current service and amenity levels in Victoria may have developed during times and economic conditions that simply no longer exist? And if this is true, what does the City do? During the so-called Great Recession that began in 2007, many US cities, faced with looming financial crises, eliminated amenities and drastically curtailed services, even essential ones. They cut to the bone with a chain saw. Some cities went bankrupt. Life in such places has become kind of nasty. Clearly, diminution, contraction at the city level is not the stuff of myth. It happens in the here and now.
It isn’t easy to assemble definitive information about the state of Victoria’s fiscal health. A lot depends on interpretation and nuance, and the believability of various financial snapshots and projections. Remember, the recipe for most performance projections is equal parts data, spin and prayer.
I’ve reviewed data that states that Victoria will of all municipalities in the region be the highest in debt per capita when the new Johnson Street Bridge debt is added. But the real story, I’m informed, is that not only are we facing skyrocketing debt, but that the municipality is not required to know its infrastructure/deficit liability, report on it, or prepare plans to address it. One commenter calls it the “sleeping disaster;” another described it as a “set of land mines.”
An asset management plan has been a Victoria Council priority since 2009, but no substantial progress has been made to-date. It appears instead that the City is handling its major capital challenges as one-off “squeaky wheel” projects, meaning that attention to needs is being delivered in a vacuum, or a series of silos—something analogous to moving the dimples around an under-inflated volleyball.
Obliged to align its new Official Community Plan with a five-year plan for asset management, Victoria appears to have treated the requirement as little more than a formality. Ironically, the new OCP is intended to shepherd land use planning for 30 years, not 5.
You will search the pages of this recently minted Official Community Plan in vain in an effort to find extensive, comprehensive, rigorous, long-range thinking and strategizing about the City as an economic entity, compared to a land-use entity. The document leaves you with the impression that “planning” is largely taken by the City to mean where the next park or 15-storey building will go. And you may then want to ponder a really obvious question: How could the City, in mounting and funding a nearly four-year planning process, invest so much of its (and our) resources—time, energy, money and social capacity—in land-use thinking with so little attention, effort, and expertise dedicated to the study of our financial prospects and future, even though this will powerfully influence land-use potentials, the City’s ability to deliver services, the range and condition of amenities and, of course, taxes?
The costs of the gold-plated “iconic” bridge—and the associated size of the taxpayer burden—are still unknown. Pricey renovations to City Hall continue. And both the costs and cost-handling strategy of the stormwater (not wastewater) utility and much more remain both uncertain and un-strategized.
By any measure, the City has done a poor job of initiating a candid and informed conversation with citizens and economic stakeholders—likely because the City itself doesn’t have a holistic or integrated picture of the challenge, or a coherent response, and because there is a substantial amount of political whistling in the dark going on. Evidence suggests that the City is nowhere near integrating all of these needs, setting priorities within affordable limits, or proposing a strategy for funding massive capital undertakings.
Rumours tumble out of City Hall both that senior staff is stalling or sugar-coating the reality of capital requirements, or baffling council with bullshit, and that much of council itself has remained tone-deaf to the urgency of these looming fiscal concerns. Consequently, citizens and stakeholders have no way of understanding the City’s assumptions; and if it can be said that council is elected in part to be a steward of the future, it’s a mystery at the moment as to what future Victoria City council envisions.
Is it possible that the City has been neither skillful nor strategic concerning municipal finance? Let’s ask: Will the city’s economy be robust? Will property values (and assessments) remain stable? Are downtown businesses optimistic or planning to cut, run or fold? (Chapters Books, by the way, will not be renewing its lease on Douglas Street and, if rumours are true, will be heading to Uptown Shopping Centre). Will provincial employment levels fall as “virtual government” expands? Are the city’s seniors (higher than the regional average) financially resilient, or clipping coupons? What are the implications as the city’s stock of rental housing ages (60 percent of Victorians rent)? Will senior governments be able to sustain financial partnerships, or will there be more walkaways and downloading? Will there be a continued shift of economic energy to the suburbs? If yes, then with what consequences? Can tourism be sustained, given the crappy global economy?
Answers and even advised best guesses to these and other questions need to be woven into a macroeconomic Victoria narrative that people can understand, and without the jive and body English made famous by the City’s legendary “consultations.” The City’s future literally depends on it.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
SNC-Lavalin's "zero tolerance" for unethical behaviour apparently doesn't include a billion-dollar overstatement of the benefits of a proposed LRT for Victoria.
1. Lucky Sevens
The prospect of criminal prosecution is keeping the news alive that England’s Barclays Bank, with the likely cooperation of JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, UBS, Canada’s Royal Bank and others, has for years been manipulating the London interbank offer rate (Libor) so as to sweep a few additional hundred million crumbs into its lap.
To memorialize such cupidity and moral squalor it might be timely to undertake a meditation on the dna of gambling—risk in hope of a win—in all its expressions (casinos, raffles, lotteries, the stock market, faith-based belief in a heavenly reward, armed robbery, ponzi schemes, price-fixing, payola, corporate self-generosity, and so on). To do so, you have to plunge into the dark and subterranean subjects of appetite and greed; the mysterious, energetic attraction of winning and getting something for nothing, or a lot for a little; the corrosive appeal of luck on the spirit; and risk, which I define as the willingness to test the frontiers of undesirable outcomes. You will note that the concept of venality keeps a hovering eye above all of this.
Think about it: what, exactly, drives this body of impulses and conditions? I speculate it’s cellular, hard-wired into our consciousness, connected to the original crapshoot of natural selection—in other words, that the conditions of life itself are the essential gamble—and also to our greatest existential dilemma: the paradox of biological finality (death), when everything in our imaginations tells us that we should live forever. It helps to explain two fundamentally opposing ideas that in my view are actually faces of the same coin: the heavenly belief that suffering in this life will be redeemed for pleasure and release in the next (a perfected life after this life featuring milk, honey and virgins) and the urgent desire for pleasure now (this is the first, last and only life, so take what you can get, and get it while you can).
Both share an essential belief in temporal reward, differing principally on timing. Both also agree that good luck opens the future, makes it rosier. Everyone understands that. Everyone wants it. Most of us want it now—heaven on earth, so to speak.
The genesis and consequences of risk-taking, the arc of risk, is a much-explored topic in our cultural storytelling; and the higher and longer the arc, the more transfixed we are by the story. Outside the world of hip irony, you never see headlines like “10-inch wave destroys sand castle.” Our fascination with bigness and our preoccupation with the out-sized—notably, the self-indulgences of the wealthy and powerful—play into the theme of risk and reward, and are intriguing subjects of cultural study. I’m not a polymath and don’t have the intellectual wattage to join all the dots, but I sense there is a vital connection between both our drive for acquisition and love of excess and our in-built desperation to prolong life and forestall, gain advantage over, death. Even at the biological level, our cells are designed—instructed, you might say—for repair and regeneratiion.
Maybe this is why we love and are drawn to largeness and quantity as if size itself held some inherent magic and potency, was itself talismanic. Donald Trump is an acquisitive, attention-craving asshole, but that doesn’t diminish our intense cultural interest in his quest for immortality or, at least, his desire to be buried with all of his toys.
As a reviewer of Ray Kurzweil’s disturbing book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, puts it: “In essence, Kurzweil conflates the wholesale transformation of the species [via emerging technology] with ‘immortality,’ for which read a repeal of human limit.”
Talk about tearing down the fourth wall! Maybe that’s where all of this hunger and appetite is headed. It’s interesting that the definition of greed is “the inordinate [the word means boundless] desire to possess wealth, goods, or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one's self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort.”
Camille Seaman, the iceberg photographer, notes: “As I was walking across the ice, I had an experience in which I understood that I was on my planet, that I was made of its material, and that in the scheme of things I meant nothing, but the fact that I could even stand there and think about it was a miracle.” This ability to wonder about ourselves, also named consciousness or self-awareness…. The itch that keeps us scratching.
The Beatitudes are teachings by Jesus that are expressed as a set of blessings in the Sermon on the Mount in The Book of Matthew. Together, they provide a cluster of Christian ideas that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction. They echo the highest ideals of the teachings of Jesus on mercy, spirituality and compassion. Here, are the best-known two:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
2. Win, Place, Show
Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin is not the largest global engineering/ construction/project management firm. Currently that honour goes to French-based Vinci with about 180,000 employees. SNC-Lavalin, though, is Canada’s largest engineering firm, and this giant does business in a hundred countries and employs about 30,000 globally. Were they all our nationals, the company would write paycheques to almost one out of every five hundred employed Canadians. In its last reporting year, 2011, the company earned gross revenues of $7.2 billion. In 2011, the entire Province of British Columbia anticipated revenues of $41 billion, a bit less than six times SNC-Lavalin’s. Not bad yardsticks for understanding the scale and scope of SNC-Lavalin’s operations.
Companies like SNC-Lavalin feed globally on infrastructure projects—airports, dams, urban transportation systems, water systems and power generation plants, manufacturing facilities, ports and harbours, entire new cities, major energy installations, tunnels. Any city or country with dreams of economic renewal, systems improvement or expansion is a place of opportunity, a market, for these companies. Replacing the weather seal on your garage door is not defined by such companies as a business opportunity. Delivering a finished, functioning airport is. This is to say, the stakes and the budgets are enormous.
As you might imagine, there is a global intelligence network that allows SNC-Lavalin and its competitors to be aware of business opportunities at the earliest possible moment—often when they are just errant dreams or mere flickers of possibility. Embedded in such a process are years of relationship-building, opportunity-cultivation, strategic investment, and various and often nuanced forms of business courtship. A lot of paycheques and bonuses are riding on successful outcomes.
SNC-Lavalin was described this spring in the Montreal Gazette as “the embattled engineering giant” after the company was rocked by revelations about $35 million in “misallocated payments” in its Libya operation. The business drama even swept up Canada’s now-ex-ambassador to Libya, Sandra McCardell, and her husband, Edis Zagorac. The Gazette writes:
“According to the Globe and Mail report, Zagorac was involved in the Executing Agency of the Libyan Corps of Engineers, a civilian and military company with ties to Quebec-based engineering company SNC Lavalin and chaired by Saadi Gadhafi.
“The reports raised concerns that McCardell's role in Libya would be affected by her husband’s ties to the ousted [Muammar Gaddafi] regime.
“According to the Globe report, Zagorac was an operations manager and later a managing director at the Executing Agency.
“The agency was a construction company with designs on building a massive desert city as well as a prison. The company was created by Saadi Gaddafi and Riadh Ben Aissa, a former SNC Lavalin vice-president, the report says.”
Unstated but implied is not that McCardell’s husband did anything inherently wrong, just that he carelessly rode the wrong horse.
Tarred by this concatenating embarrassment, long-time SNC-Lavalin CEO Pierre Duhaime resigned in March, and the company said that it will implement "recommendations… directed primarily at reinforcing standards of conduct, strengthening and improving internal controls and processes, and reviewing the compliance environment." The Gazette quotes a company spokesman who notes that SNC-Lavalin has “zero tolerance” for ethical misdeeds. I’m personally confident that SNC-Lavalin is not alone amongst global engineering firms—global firms of any kind, in fact—who have zero tolerance for ethical misdeeds.
Zero. The biggest number.
3. Jiminy Cricket Has Left the Building
Under the headline “The Spreading Scourge of Corporate Corruption,” Eduardo Porter in the NY Times writes:
Trust in big business overall is declining. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread across corporate America. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, nearly three in four Americans believe that corruption has increased over the last three years. Have corporations lost whatever ethical compass they once had?
Company executives are paid to maximize profits, not to behave ethically. Evidence suggests that they behave as corruptly as they can, within whatever constraints are imposed by law and reputation.
Bigger markets allow bigger frauds. Bigger companies, with more complex balance sheets, have more places to hide them.
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi reports in Harper’s Magazine that nations with a more prevalent belief in Heaven have higher crime rates, and those with a more prevalent belief in Hell have lower rates. While some might take this as a reason to bring back the strap, I consider it to be a strong argument in favour of government regulation.
Porter’s point and Kroll-Zaidi’s (obliquely) speak to the little-studied and dark fact that when a dollar changes hands, something explosive and seismic happens. That is, there is a hidden energetic, a plus-ing and minus-ing, a violence, almost, built into economic transaction—buying and selling, accumulating and divesting, profiting and losing. Why else would ‘squander’ be understood by everyone to represent a loss of power?
4. Square Wheels
Welcome to the Smoking Gun Cafe, here in the beautiful Capital Region. Let me show you around, introduce you to a few people.
Kevin Mahoney is the Chairman of the Board of BC Transit, which oversees transit projects and services throughout the province, and which ultimately reports to Provincial Cabinet via the minister responsible. A likeable and competent guy, Kev, beside other corporate chairmanships, is also Chair of InTransit Ltd., described by BC Transit as “the private sector concessionaire [35-year operating contract] for the Canada Line,” Vancouver’s airport-to-downtown rail connection.
Who owns InTransit Ltd? It’s owned in thirds by Caisse de Depot, the Quebec-based institutional investor (pension and insurance fund money); BC Investment Management Corporation, investment manager for public trust funds and employee pension funds in our province; and...SNC-Lavalin.
Pacific Liaicon and Associates “specializes in project and construction management and management consulting.” The highly successful company was founded by Henry Wakabayashi in 1970, initially to address BC forest industry needs and opportunities.
In 2001, Wakabayashi sold Pacific Liaicon lock, stock and barrel to…SNC-Lavalin and has since then been a Senior Advisor of Business Development in the SNC-Lavalin Transportation Division.
Currently, Wakabayashi also “provides senior advisory services” to BC Transit. Pacific Liaicon has a diversified portfolio of project management work, including management of the initial study stages of LRT feasibility in Victoria—work for which it has received just north of $4,000,000, so far.
The bullet-headed guy? That’s Gwyn Morgan, a name that you may already know. Former CEO of EnCana, Morgan has made a name for himself as a right-wing ideologue, generous donor to the Fraser Institute, climate-denying scary monster in environmentalist circles and, in the wake of Gordon Campbell’s exit, a key advisor to BC Premier Christy Clark. He is now a local boy, with a spread out on the Saanich Peninsula. Fracturing the laws of coincidence, Morgan is currently Chairman of the Board of... SNC-Lavalin.
I’m reminded at this moment of the unnamed sage who noted: “If you shake the branch, all the leaves rustle.”
5. Corpse in the Study
Actions and meanings: when Obama straightens his necktie, is he telling ghetto youth to get it together, or sending the Iraqi leadership a message they’re all gonna hang, or fidgeting, or just straightening his tie?
Probably no one has more carefully studied—or been so motivated to study—the reports emanating from the various entities involved in transit decision-making than Jim Hindson, Executive Director and intrepid researcher of the citizen group CRD Business and Residential Taxpayers’ Association. Hindson, a semi-retired public-sector transportation engineer and municipal information systems manager, has spent a professional lifetime planning and assessing projects, and evaluating systems efficiencies. He comes to his current role equipped with a penchant for forensic review and an ability to hold up all the jargon-loaded reports and executive summaries so bright sunlight shines through them.
For the last few years, he has been playing Inspector Morse on our regional transportation file. As in a drawing room murder mystery, there are complicated relationships, fingerprints on wineglasses, blind alleys, tantalizing hints found in unlikely corners, connections to be uncovered and understood.
Hindson has reviewed all materials available publicly and has filed over a dozen freedom of information (FOI) requests on behalf of the Association. He has been trying to piece together a puzzle of conflicting and erroneous information in an effort to understand why, how, and on what basis the decision was made to pursue the LRT option instead of other more viable options such as HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane dedication. Why, he wonders, was the decision made so hastily and apparently with little professional regard for standard decision-making protocols? Sheer incompetence? Gaming the system?
The HDR Corporation, an engineering consulting firm retained (and paid) by Pacific Liaicon to undertake data modeling (cost/benefit scenarios) in support of the LRT option, noted in its July, 2011 Draft Final Report: “Many inputs and assumptions used in the model and presented in the report herein have been provided to HDR by BC Transit. The data was used as given, and has not been independently audited or verified by HDR.” Such a note at the beginning of a professional report is a kind of ‘get out of jail free’ or a ‘please don’t blame us’ card for the authors.
The “inputs and assumptions,” however, are in some cases so suspect, bizarre or flaky, that you have to wonder why HDR, a consulting engineering firm with nothing in the game other than a paycheque, and with its reputation presumably unsullied, would undertake the work without balking. It is hard not to read into BC Transit’s attempts a desperation to justify LRT as the mobility option-of-choice; that is, to throw shit at the wall until something stuck.
Here is a small, glaring and by no means isolated example. One input used in calculating the potential benefits of Victoria LRT is accident data. The idea is that a switch to LRT use by car drivers will statistically reduce accidents, consequently reducing life and property damage; and that this reduction is a quantifiable ‘benefit’ attributable to LRT. Okay. So, you would think someone would, as a starting point, get hold of the readily available data set showing accident history on Highway One between Langford and Downtown. Nope. Well, then they would at least use other relevant and comparable MOT (Ministry of Transport) data. Nope. Well, then at least Canadian statistics. Nope. It appears that someone provided, and HDR used, much higher data from the US Department of Transportation that allowed for an orders-of-magnitude larger and entirely bogus accident savings attribution.
Here’s another example. HDR forecasted a lower rate of corridor travel growth with LRT than without, but then spun the data in a way such that by 2038 (the study horizon), the reduction in auto travel and the increase in transit travel were out of balance by over 11 million trips. This is to say that an erroneous reduction in auto travel growth (the ‘error’ compounds over the 27 years of the study time-frame) was then converted to accident, travel time, and vehicle operating benefits for the LRT scenario (see items 3, 4 and 5 below). The end result, when all of these highly suspect calculations are pooled, according to Hindson, is an overstatement of LRT benefits exceeding a $1 billion. The CRD Taxpayers’ Association wrote to the CRD:
“The revised total of $1.2 billion [rounded] in overstated LRT benefits includes:
1) LRT ridership forecasts inflated by including predominantly bus passengers as LRT passengers: $23,730,000
2) Nearby Property Uplift value incorrectly included as a project financial benefit: $182,130,000
3) Accident benefits overstated by $405,509,800
4) Auto (includes trucks and others) travel time benefits overstated by $402,950,000
5) Vehicle operating cost benefits overstated by $148,350,000
Total LRT overstated benefits $1,162,669,800.”
It’s a convention that to justify themselves, these major capital projects have to achieve a minimum ratio between costs and benefits of 1:1. Reading the Association’s conclusion below, it’s not hard to understand why there has been so much sleight-of-hand during the study phase of this project:
“The net impact of these errors is that the Present Value cost of the LRT Project is now $922 million and benefits are at a maximum of $264 million ($1,427 billion original – $1,163 billion overstated) resulting in costs exceeding benefits by 3.5 to 1.”
Lest you imagine that self-respecting professionals would feel any shame about applying such flagrant body English, consider these additional observations of the Association’s about the contents and conclusions in various reports and presentations:
The LRT option was loaded with a $3.25 transit fare, while the other options were held at a $2.50 transit fare; the business case analysis does not comply with the Provincial or Federal business case guidelines for Capital Plan Development Projects; the accident benefits claimed in the Study are 17 times higher than similar LRT studies in Canada; the accident costs used are based on U.S. collision cost data which are considerably higher than the (required use of) Canadian accident costs; the LRT costs do not include notations about the $90 million additional balloon payment required to replace all the LRT vehicles in 2042.
In the vintage days of radio, The Shadow knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.” Now, we have to excavate cupidity and stupidity with FOI requests.
In the absence of more conclusive evidence, it would be irresponsible for anyone to assume that this entire regional transit process has been designed, however unwittingly, to produce outcomes favourable to the long-range business interests of SNC-Lavalin. I mean, how could you possibly assume that?
If you are looking for a more far-fetched but more innocent explanation, maybe it’s just ‘ironitis,’ as my parent’s generation used to call such fevered infrastructure grandiosity. From the BC Transit website:
“Light Rail Transit (LRT) from downtown to Uptown and then to West Shore has been recommended by the Victoria Regional Rapid Transit Project (VRRTP) and endorsed by the BC Transit and CRD Boards and the municipal councils. The estimated cost is $950 million and the business case has been submitted for funding under the Provincial Transit Plan.”
After all, this is Canada, not Libya, and we do things very differently here. In today’s parlance, let’s call it the zero effect.
6. Napkin Math
I’ve been playing with a calculator, exploring a wayward idea. Lessee...
Current stats indicate that heavy rush-hour traffic, two lanes wide, on the Island Highway is about 3800/hour. Let’s up it to 4,000.
If you invested principal of $1 billion (the rounded-up cost of LRT between Langford and Downtown) at a mere 2.5% interest, it would throw off $25,000,000 annually. If at the start of Year Two, with that interest income in-hand, you bought some really snazzy commuter buses and fancied up some key bus stops, you might have $10,000,000 left over. You could, in some appropriately safeguarded program, give 4,000 current single-occupancy car commuters an annual incentive of $2,500 to take the bus and leave their cars at home. By my calculations, this would totally remove the equivalent volume of one hour’s worth of crawling traffic from the highway during the morning and afternoon peaks, effectively restoring highway functionality probably in perpetuity. And in Year Three and subsequent years, you could redirect the $15 million you used on capital improvements at the start of Year Two to other regional transit improvements. Or you could solve the regional homelessness problem. Or end world hunger.
And remember, you would have preserved the original $1 billion in capital—returnable, at some point, to its various sources. So, what would be the taxpayer cost of such a strategy?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Once upon a time, Victoria offered the delicious opportunity to transgress at every turn.
OUR BEARDED DAILY, The Coach and Flyswatter, contained an early May report that Oak Bay residents had just staged a rally to protest a contemporary house going up in the 1000-block of Monterey, architecturally scandalizing the staid manses up and down the block and, like a flailing mouse drowning in the punchbowl, nauseating the people living in them. You should never underestimate Oak Bay’s capacity for hysteria and self-parody.
From the headline alone, though, “Oak Bay home too modern for neighbours’ tastes,” I had brief but unrequited hopes that the object of all this protest would be a house that had dared to erect something truly outre and new-fangled like a wood picket fence along the front-yard property line instead of the traditional pike-topped stone wall festooned with the bloody heads of invading Normans.
All that angry buzzing on Monterey triggered a momentary meditation on our city’s passion for order and stability and its hypersensitivity to the disruptive threat of change; and this, in turn, put me in mind of the Victoria that used to be when I first arrived in September, 1970: a potty, eccentric, colonial Pleistocene saturated with still-virulent old-guard values—all of which blew away like fireworks smoke in my first, short half-decade here. Victoria literally stopped fighting the inevitable, gave in to modernity before my eyes, and became the standard-issue city it is today, captured by the dismal preoccupations of real estate and pricey kitchen renovations.
So, travel back in time with me—less with strict regard for history than for impression—to tour a Victoria before cell phones and computers: the early 70s, which I now remember simply as a time of youth and unrepentant sexual squander. Which reminds me of a story. The Burlington Free Press sends a reporter up to St Albans, Vermont on the advent of Walter Wheeler’s 100th birthday. The reporter asks Walter whether he thinks there’s more sex now than when he was a youngster. He says: “No, about the same,” then pauses for thought: “but it’s definitely a different crowd doing it.”
I have mentioned that I came to Victoria in September, 1970, at the close of the salmon season, after a manly summer working at the Nelson Brothers Fisheries in Prince Rupert. Someone up there told me without a hint of guile or irony that I should visit Victoria because it was “a little bit of Olde England.”
And so it was.
By the way, you have only to go to the eHow website to learn that even in 2012 “The ambitious spirit of Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, reflected in the architecture and the personality of The Empress Hotel, has affected the town that grew up around it and makes Victoria a little slice of Britain in North America.” And I thought it was the toffee on Government Street that gave it away.
One story from back then—truth or myth hardly matters—will suffice: Mrs Tod would summon the Oak Bay police by telephone to retrieve her senescent husband who, on the occasional weekend morning, would wander in his bathrobe down to Scott’s Diner on Yates Street near Douglas for breakfast. And fetch him they did.
It was urban legend, too, that a few people still lived—in the Fred Astaire/get-your-mail-there sense of the word—on a residential floor high up in the Empress Hotel. I always imagined that this level could only be reached by private elevator and that it was populated with faded aristocracy caught in an era’s hardening twilight, warming their hands on memories of races at Ascot and uncle Albert’s time in the 1st Royal Dragoons at the Charge of the Light Brigade.
How different were things in Victoria back then in 1970? The sign on the Pat Bay Highway—itself a meandering, unpaved, one-track cart path—announced “If you cannot conjugate your Latin verbs, you are definitely not welcome in Victoria.”
Wine stores were not two to a corner, as they are now. In fact, there was no such thing as wine. You drank beer or booze and you bought hard liquor in the Sovietized environment of “package stores,” aware, as you beetled beneath the fluorescents, that a disapproving God was making another black X in your dossier each and every time you bought a pint of lemon-flavoured gin. Bottles destined for the alcoholic’s curtained gloom left the store robed in plain brown paper bags, so as not to tarnish the proper light of day.
That’s it! I caught Victoria in its last years of propriety—an invisible airborne virus of manners, code, boundaries. The city was anachronous and square, but it held the line. It held the line.
Victoria, distant in every way from the liberalizing influence and cultural roil of most cities, offered the delicious opportunity to transgress at every turn. You could sin here!
Like monks worrying their beads, there are fevered obsessives in this town who can recall the state and fate of every heritage building, going back to before Jesus could fly, and narrate tales of the heartbreaking loss of such treasures with a drama worthy of the sinking of the Titanic. Every nick and scrape in this city has been recorded with actuarial detail, either archived on paper somewhere or etched upon living memory. I have just a few more generalized recollections of my own (all that squander) that may help to paint an image of this place 40 years ago.
There was no Lower Causeway. You looked down from far above on starfish and discarded beer empties. Eaton’s department store sat where the Bay Centre now rests. The Bay maintained a huffy distance in its wedding cake of a store four blocks north on Douglas at Fisgard. Now, in a memorable consolidation, Eaton’s is in Valhalla (no, dear, that’s not a suburb), the new Bay sits astride the corpse of Eaton’s, and the old Bay is the new Hudson condos. Eaton’s had a grocery store in its basement, a tunnel under Broad Street connecting its two buildings, and a serpentine, counter-service luncheonette. I remember meeting the love of my week, Diana McCoy, there, over tuna salad on white. Oh, back then, finger sandwiches were made with real fingers, not the fake soy-based ones you get now.
A handful of eccentrics, alcoholics and floaters walked the streets downtown. They were “characters,” not “the homeless,” and were simply the smallest part of Downtown’s social ecology (this was pre-de-institutionalization). I remember a lumpen regular walking Downtown’s streets in the worst of weather, his green work shirt and pants visibly stuffed with insulating newspapers. And a grizzled, old scarecrow who would ask for odd jobs: “I work at your house for a dollar,” he would call as you walked by. And a harmless, screw-loose guy nicknamed Sashi who loped and pinballed all over town, talking non-stop to the lesser gods in his head, borrowing meal money from you one month, mutely placing accurate repayment in your hand six months later.
Victoria was Downtown-centric, small, communal in ways likely never to reoccur here. You went to a movie or a show Downtown. The tiny Carnegie Library (information and inspiration came from books, then) was on the corner of Yates and Blanshard, beside the Odeon. Your doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant and psychologist had their offices Downtown. Clothing or furniture-shopping were Downtown events. You drank urinous beer Downtown, principally at the legendary Churchill, a basement cavern on Government Street and Bastion Square. Beer mills still had separate entrances signed: “Ladies and Escorts.” Downtown in those years was the proper home of commerce, culture and raucous social drinking. Oh-oh, memories are starting to flood back in.
Oak Bay was a fusty, patrician Oz, practically a rumour’s distance from Downtown. The university had a physical plant not much larger than a well-endowed private school. You could buy homes in the Uplands for a buck and two box-tops. In places, the rural intruded almost to the edges of streetcar neighbourhoods like Fernwood. Had I known then what I know now about real estate and pricey kitchen renos....
Even into the late ’80s, cricket in Beacon Hill Park featured gentlemen in regulation whites, bowling and scoring to polite claps and calls of “Well played!” Now it’s a bunch of whooping, shouting, cheering newcomers who might as well be playing fast-pitch in Prince George.
Which leads me to ask: What’s the matter with all these people? What has happened to everything good and proper here? The city’s going straight to hell. Unless, of course, there’s just a different crowd doing Victoria.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Put all the politicians, bureaucrats and engaged citizens in a big pot and turn up the heat until everyone screams "Density!"
FROM MY EASTERN WINDOWS dawn landed like the Apocalypse a couple of Fridays ago: a tortured sun fighting its way through volcanic black stormheads churning below a leaden sky that flattened the landscape from horizon to horizon, north to south.
“The end of Fairfield and pricey Gonzales?” I wondered. “Maybe there really is a wrathful Higher Power. But why Cook Street Village? Why? Why? Why?”
God works in mysterious ways.
I consulted my well-thumbed Bible For Dummies. And there it was, a portent, a message. The text in Renovations 4:17-3 read:
Sayeth the Lord: For your iniquities and inertia I will tear down your great works, heritage and otherwise, for ye have abandoned your downtown and left its economy in the gutter. And I will cause ye to wander in Langford without a cool coffee shop or rustic baguette with herbs and sea salt for forty years. Your supplications come too late, declareth the Lord. Time for tough love and Tim Horton’s, I say unto ye. Yes, this means ye.
On the very same day and at the very same hour that architect/urbanist Franc d’Ambrosio and I were giving a presentation to a hundred-strong UDI Victoria (Urban Development Institute) luncheon audience, including Victoria’s mayor, half of City council, numerous property owners, developers, architects and other professional stakeholders about the urgent need to turn Rock Bay at Downtown’s northern door into a great new mixed-use urban neighbourhood filled with residents and workers, Jim Hartshorne, currently president of the West Shore Developers Association and prime consultant on Westhills in Langford, was addressing an audience of commercial realtors at some other rubber chicken palace about the Westhills plan to build a total of 6000 homes and (I hope you’re sitting down) six million square feet of commercial space. If the details reached me accurately, it appears that the Stewarts, deep-pocketed developers of Westhills, are prepared to spec-build the first quarter-million square feet.
Well, doesn’t that make you want to slit your dainty Victorian wrists? If you’re having trouble getting your head around the number, six million square feet is about 2000 Pagliacci’s. Not, of course, that there is any danger of—excuse me a second. What? No, reception’s good. Oh, Pagliacci’s is closing up on Broad Street downtown and moving to Westhills?
I’m just kidding...probably.
Here’s a thought: maybe, instead of issuing proclamations that the Belarus Navy is not welcome in our harbour because of that country’s sub-par diversion of recyclables from its landfills, Victoria Council should be confronting the immediate reality that Downtown is slowly but steadily losing its status as the economic epicentre of the region. Maybe this is just the way some downtowns wane—not with a bang but a whimper, through a process of slow haemorrhage, so imperceptible at any given point over time that it hardly seems worth dealing with...until, of course, Downtown crosses a tipping point and wakes up dead, an economic backwater, in spite of all conceits about being the “centre of it all.”
While it’s good that the mayor, several months ago, intervened literally at the last moment to reduce the severity of the City’s bonus density policy (in which the City keeps urban densities artificially low to force developers to “buy” from the City the additional density they need to create viable projects), his actions simply softened Victoria’s development policy disincentives. The City has to stop thinking that a move from -5 to -3 is palliation worth cheering, and must figure out what a set of +5 policies would look like.
I don’t know how to say this more simply: Victoria needs 10,000-20,000 new people living and working in and near Downtown. That’s the goal; everything else should be the how.
Imagine an insufferably cheery, peppy extrovert who meets a healer who says: “You’re not really happy, are you?” and places magical fingers on her third and fourth chakras. Tears well up in her eyes and in a moment she’s gasping and shaking with soul-racking sobs, admitting that she hates her life.
That’s our girl, Victoria. For more years than any of us can count, the City has honed its genius for inertia. It has set up a complex network of systems and policy structures, rules and regulations designed to slow and frustrate constructive ambition; a forbidding, hermetic “don’t bother me” service culture; and a “plan to plan,” consult-everybody-but-do-next-to-nothing modus operandi. The whole thing is a vast, institutional lie, an emperor’s new clothes representation of good municipal management, but it has become so ingrained and has delivered dulling pain and stress for so long, that people within the municipal organization and citizens at-large find it hard to believe that things could or even should be any different. It’s a lot like what happens in a bad marriage that endures well past its sell-by date. And as in a bad marriage, all parties are complicit—politicians, administrators, citizens: good people trapped in a bad context.
Something, someone has to release the City from this culture.
I’m staring at the cover of an important official document entitled Victoria Economic Development Strategy. In an introductory chapter I read this freighted note: “Population and job growth is projected to accelerate in the suburban areas, particularly in the Western Communities. As population and job growth become more concentrated in suburbia, the impact on the Downtown core could be profound.” And a bit later, “We can accept these trends as inevitable or we can commit to a bold new approach that will change our course and manage our future.”
In its Action Plan summary, the Strategy states: “Enhance the vibrancy of Downtown” via these priority actions: “Increase residential density; increase cultural development and programming; reduce commercial vacancies; increase the economic potential of the harbour; increase safety, security and cleanliness.” The document was produced by the City in 1997.
The broad social indifference to climate change has a lot to teach us here. It’s hard to get people to recognize and mobilize against threats that move only with (in this case, literally) glacial speed. That is, Victoria, trapped in the euphoria of lottery win-like real estate value increases (the “somebody up there loves me” syndrome), chesty with long-standing conceits about its regional importance and economic and cultural heft, convinced that the city’s appealing physical setting is a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card from God, and in a dozen other ways swallowing its own horseshit, has been mostly blind to the northward-drifting centre of regional economic gravity and its implications.
The history of nations and cities (and yes, downtowns) is loaded with cautionary stories like this, of once-successful places and cultures that became self-congratulating, dulled and inattentive to shifting conditions. Usually, in these situations, the wake-up call comes late.
Know where I would consider putting the new central library were I the head of long-range planning for the regional library board? At Uptown. Know where I might locate if I were an educational institution looking to strategically position a satellite campus? At Uptown. Do you imagine, somehow, that regional calibrations of this kind are not being considered by savvy institutional decision-makers, by developers, by business and shop owners?
Brooke, a young, attractive sales associate, has been with Urban Barn long enough to remember the customer count and daily sales performance at the old location on Herald Street, in the heart of Downtown’s so-called “Design District.” Now the store is adjacent to Future Shop, along the faux streets of Uptown. “We’re much busier now,” she assures me. “Our store traffic count is way up.” She’s excited about what Uptown’s emerging later phases will do for her business.
Is it some twitchy, leftie response to enterprise, an indisposition toward red-meat capitalist adventure, or some unique blend of values forged in the city’s long history—the British-y past, the pervasive and falsely calming economic presence of the provincial civil service, the intransigent complacency of a retired gentry—that has made this town so ditzy and extinction-prone when it comes to economic development?
Recently, at a business event, the mayor stated that the City held a presumably impressive 42 percent share of regional employment. I thought: How do we grab the other 58 percent? Why is it so hard for Victoria to breed (and elect) its own version of municipally self-interested carnivores like Langford’s Stew Young and his council? Why, in the highly competitive regional brawl between municipalities, is Victoria’s reflex response a Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement and a default to “the regional context?” If I ever hear Young agonize about what Langford can do to help the City with its downtown street population and its homeless, or if the lily-whites on and off Central Saanich Council reverse themselves and extend a rousing welcome to Woodwynn Farm (Creating Homefulness Society) and ask what they can do to help to make it a big success, I’ll start to believe in the regional context.
Rock Bay—the “subject area” of Franc’s and my UDI presentation—is roughly 18 city blocks between Chatham and Bay Streets, the harbour and the west side of Blanshard. It is an area about half the size of the existing Downtown core. If you walk its entirety you will discover first, that it’s a big sloping bowl with million-dollar south-westerly views over the harbour all the way to and past the Sooke Hills and the distant Olympics; and second, that it’s mere minutes by foot from the heart of Downtown.
After your Rock Bay walkabout, grab a latte at Discovery Coffee just around the corner off Douglas on, uh, Discovery Street, sit down, and ask yourself why an ambitious city wouldn’t be falling all over itself to produce a fresh land-use vision rich with strategies, policies, incentives, a taxonomy of beneficial partnerships, a dynamic business plan and related marketing and so on intended to produce a living/working population in Rock Bay of, say, 10,000 over the next two decades.
Chakras are the sacred energetic gateways to healing and wholeness. Know anybody with magic fingers?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Even with storm clouds on the horizon, Victoria continues to avoid direct action.
AT A RECENT Urban Development Institute luncheon, guest speaker Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, invited to profile the City’s new economic development strategy, told this story:
“I was giving a speech in James Bay and mentioned Victoria as a world-class city...and someone in the audience said “What if we don’t want to be a world-class city?”
Now, this raises some interesting questions: What does it mean to be a world-class city? What does it mean if your city isn’t? And last, who cares what some shrubby, unemployed, dope-smoking loser in James Bay thinks? Or, why would the mayor throw that goad at a James Bay audience, any more than he would say: “Ya know, James Bay could really use a bunch of 30-storey condo towers, four active traffic lanes on Simcoe Street, and a nuclear reactor at Ogden Point?”
Amongst the top gleanings on Google for “world class” are World Class Hockey Camp, World Class Luxury Vehicle Detailing, and World Class Wreckin’ Cru (an electro rap group).
Clearly, “world class” has about the same definitional precision as “Awesome!” and “Like, totally!” I would say to the James Bay audience member: nothing to worry about. By Google’s standards, we’re world class whether we like it or not.
As I listened to the mayor tick off Victoria’s assets and, implicitly, his own administration’s accomplishments, I developed a growing sense of the void between political image-play and reality—that is, two different systems of thought or species of narrative akin to: “The glass is half-full” versus “There is no glass.” Of course, this is not unique to Victoria. I draw your attention to the profoundly diverging political/social/values/economic narratives fighting an epic war to the death or the next presidential election, whichever comes first, south of our border.
Years ago, when I was teaching at the High Mowing School, a Waldorf high school in New Hampshire, one of my students, Christopher Stoney, a goggle-eyed, physically uncoordinated dork with a fine mind but differently-wired circuitry (yes, he may have been a Venusian), would often interrupt a lecture or class discussion to blurt troubling and ponderously framed questions like: “Mr. Miller, if you say you want creative and original expression from us, why do you give us specific topics to write about?” Or, “We call it a two-by-four, but it isn’t. Why don’t we call it a one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half?” His queries—clearly, such matters had been fare-jumping his mental gates for hours—would be accompanied by eye-rolls and audible here-we-go-again groans from the other students, but also a grudging fondness for his zingers. It’s like he didn’t get it. His view of the world was too logical, too literal. He got some other “it.”
Listening to the mayor, I felt a bit like Christopher Stoney.
Now, if “world class” means “mostly crappy but nice in places,” then the mayor and I are on the same page. But honestly, if you Google for the “Ten Most Beautiful Harbours,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Waterfront Cities,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Heritage Cities,” or “Ten Most Beautiful Urban Parks,” or “Ten Most Architecturally Significant Cities,” or “Ten Most Culturally Rich Cities,” or “Ten Most Dynamic Downtowns,” you’ll be stunned by the global competition and shocked not to see Victoria referenced on any such lists. It’s a big, world-class world out there.
Such evidence delivers an inescapable message: “Get real!”
Here, then, is a clutch of annotated Christopher Stoney-like questions:
At the UDI luncheon, the mayor couldn’t say too often that the city needs developers to believe in Victoria and invest in local projects, and that the City considers itself a stakeholder in successful outcomes (“We’re your partner.”). Given the flight of economic and shopper energy to the suburbs and the mounting weakness and frangibility of the network of downtown shopping and commerce, why would the City adopt a downtown bonus density policy designed (however unwittingly) to discourage developers from creating more office, commercial and residential space, and other policies and procedures that make the City notorious for obstruction and micromanagement of the development approval process?
Considering how the City maunders on about setting a high standard for architectural design excellence, why is there a near-total absence of outstanding contemporary architecture (though, God knows, a few developers and their architects try, in spite of the obstacles)? Could it have anything to do with the economic realities of development? Is it conceivable that good design costs more, and is automatically elided from too-thinly-profitable development pro formas?
Why does much of the downtown public realm look like a back-up set for Blade Runner?
What extended and continuing psychotic episode has allowed two of the most significant harbourfront properties along Wharf Street to operate as surface parking lots?
Why has the city been incapable of completing the Inner Harbour walkway?
Why were ten of the 13 business and education community members of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Panel people with no particular business, organizational or institutional mandate (or regionally competitive passion) to make downtown Victoria hyper-successful?
How does a couple thousand tech workers (far less than one percent of the total regional worker population) make us a Silicon Valley-like hotbed of high-tech innovation?
Why is the city spending hundreds of thousands annually on “message management,” when everybody knows it’s just “good news” varnish, hyperbole, turd-buffing, or old dither in a new wrapper?
From the City’s Victoria’s Economic Development Strategy comes the following strategy points concerning downtown:
Focused effort is required to retain and support the region’s main urban centre.
• implement the Downtown Core area plan
• create a comprehensive waterfront plan for the entire core area waterfront from Ogden Point to Rock Bay
• foster a lively downtown arts and culture scene
• with the development industry, improve the public realm by enhancing sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, and street furniture [sic] improve safety and security downtown
• explore the feasibility of creating a new downtown educational presence for the major post-secondary institutions.
Let’s do a brief semiotic analysis of this language and syntax (the entire strategy document is studded with similar examples). “Focused effort is required” means: “Downtown’s circling the drain and somebody better do something. Not us, of course, but an abstracted somebody.”
“Create a comprehensive waterfront plan” means “Do what Victoria does best: create plans. Someday. When Planning Services manages to scratch a few completed projects off its hundred-item list...unless other priorities come along.”
“Foster a lively downtown arts and culture scene” means “Do absolutely nothing, but for God’s sake, call it fostering.”
“With the development industry, improve the public realm” means “Omigod, we don’t have a dime in the bucket after we tackle infrastructure and capital spending items, so make the developers provide public space improvements. Oh, memo to ourselves: capture 75 percent (the City’s favoured number, thankfully modified at the last moment by the mayor) of the lift in the land value if they want more density and spend the money wherever and on whatever we please, because we’re near-broke, but then ask them to provide public space improvements.”
“Explore the feasibility of creating” means “Form an all-stakeholder study group to propose a methodology for optimizing strategies for exploring the feasibility of creating a report outlining a framework of recommendations to review options for the creation of absolutely nothing.”
As I write, the Downtown retail vacancy rate is creeping toward eight percent. And in that vein, apart from its tendency toward the aspirational, the report (available online at: www.victoria.ca/assets/Business/Documents/economic-development-strategy.pdf) does harbour a suspect and risk-laden idea: it refers to downtown as the regional “hub for specialty retail.” This raises two issues. First, Frontrunners, the “specialty” running shoe store on Vancouver Street, also has a store in Langford. That is, the suburbs is not some benighted landscape littered with nothing but cruddy big box stores, but an increasingly sophisticated and diverse retail landscape. Second, if your wallet becomes thin in a prolonged economic downturn like the current one, are you going to buy milk and hamburger meat at the Superstore, or violet-infused elderberry all-butter shortbread at that adorable little patisserie on Fort Street?
I mean, simply, to highlight a form of institutional and cultural pathology in Victoria: a tendency to abstract, to avoid direct, beneficial action at all costs, even if the storm clouds are visible on the horizon. Other places: “I need a hammer, right now. Please give me one.” Victoria: “It would be helpful to have a hammer.” I have to believe that if an advisory committee submitted such a report to Stew Young, mayor of Langford, their skeletons would be exhumed from the Hartland Road landfill in a decade or two. Not really. It would be a century (Stew is a waste management professional).
It’s not that the entire Economic Development Strategy Report has this hallucinatory quality. In places, it makes reasonable and sensible recommendations. The real tragedy is that the report underscores the disconnect between the city’s economic hopes and the kind of liberating policies and implementation that could make those ambitions come true. I know the mayor wants the best for the city, but I worry that he and his council are stuck to their hips in a toxic fudge of wrong-thinking and counterproductive policy design.
Like Christopher Stoney, I’m looking at an economic development one-and-a-half by three-and-a-half, and being told it’s a two-by-four.
Guess I’m getting the wrong “it.”
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Reflections on what makes Esquimalt the real deal.
ESQUIMALT IS THE REAL DEAL. Everywhere else is exegesis. That’s a slap in the face of quite a bit of regional exegesis, and ovation for a place that receives far too little applause, so it may be useful if I tell you what is on my mind—especially timely, right now, as Esquimalt is going through a tiny spasm of funk, self-study, and media-fanned ignominy over its worry about a proliferation of payday loan shops along the main drag. (Funny, I would have targeted Tim Horton’s.)
I remember as a kid living for a while in the almost exclusively Jewish Kingsbridge area of New York City, sure that if I ventured into neighbouring Tolentine (home of St Tolentine’s Church), I would be eaten alive by Irish Catholics. Older, wiser and better read (Irish Catholics don’t eat Jewish kids alive, they cook them first), I have come to understand that human geography in all places is tribal and made up of sub-territories each with its own narrative or story of place—social, economic, historical, physical, ethnic, mythical. Some of this is mutable, since places do change; some of it sticks for a long time like a hated nickname.
There are two Esquimalts: imaginary Esquimalt (“So, these three drunks stagger into a cheque-cashing store...”), and real Esquimalt. Esquimalt—the name is Central Coast Salish, Es-whoy-malth meaning place of gradually shoaling water (no, I don’t know what “gradually shoaling water” means)—has in regional mythology an “other side of the tracks” reputation—largely attributable historically to the presence of two groups: the armed services, and working-class people like the enormous workforce at Victoria Shipyards and Victoria Drydock who actually make and repair things (troglodytes, of course, from the perspective of the white cuffs/organic arugula crowd on the closer-to-God side of the Blue Bridge).
Victoria, by the way, was named for an English queen who presided over—well, comedian Mort Sahl had the best line: “You call it colonialism; we say we brought roads and schools.”
I like Esquimalt a lot. It isn’t in any practical sense really the underdog, but I root for it. It’s as if the pixie who distributed municipal benisons gave Esquimalt too light a dusting. But with that said, online history suggests that Esquimalt had its heyday:
"Esquimalt’s quiet development was shattered by the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 when its wharf became the main point of arrival for thousands of miners heading to Victoria. Esquimalt officially became the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station in 1865. By the 1880s, rapid growth was occurring through the building of Royal Navy dry docks (1887), the construction of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (1886), and the founding of a military base at Work Point (1887). Esquimalt’s attractive setting made it a desirable residential location for many of Victoria’s business and political leaders."
And then there is this exciting footnote in history, the year before my birth:
"The massive passenger liner Queen Elizabeth crept into Esquimalt Harbour in 1942. The Queen Elizabeth (then the world’s largest ocean liner) was at the Esquimalt Graving Dock to be secretly refitted from a passenger liner to a troopship capable of carrying a full army division of 15,000 men. This invaluable Allied asset was one of the most attractive targets in the world and almost no one knew with certainty where she was. To have sunk her would have been a massive victory for the enemy. In order to prevent being attacked by surprise at night, naval authorities urged the people of Victoria to adhere to the strictest possible security by partially covering the headlights of their cars, closing curtains in their homes and avoiding mentioning the ship’s name in public and private."
Somehow, between then and now, Esquimalt acquired a reputation for being a bit rowdy, especially in the glory days of the Tudor Pub, a legendary hops palace at the corner of Esquimalt and Admirals where bar melées involved thousands, lasted for months, and required the intervention of UN peacekeeping forces (I stretch a point to make a point). But in the interests of fairness and perspective, this was the same era (early ’70s) as the Churchill, a capacious basement beer mill on Government Street beside Bastion Square, and home to—without a word of exaggeration—some of the most malignant, unredeemed, subhuman wreckage you could find in these parts (many went on to distinguished careers in the arts, politics, the civil service, business, and magazine journalism).
DND holds ownership to probably a quarter of Esquimalt’s real estate—an enormous acreage just past West Bay Marina and, of course, all the land at Naden where the Pacific Fleet is docked and the shipyard and drydock are located. The West Bay piece includes extensive married quarters—street after street of modest, well-maintained housing; and Saturday in nice weather must be washing day, because clothes fly like flags in the breeze from dozens of clotheslines, less an intentional ecological statement, more a cultural tradition.
Most of the housing in Esquimalt, after you get off Esquimalt or Admirals Road and start to worm your way into its neighbourhoods, has a Saanich-y look, except for the more James Bay-like housing on the long finger streets that terminate at the water. That said, you could never mistake Esquimalt homes for those in other parts, and this might have to do with a higher ratio of smaller homes that, in my view, gives the area a distinctive modesty and frees it from pretence.
Yes, there are some heritage-era mansions with to-die-for views; and numerous waterfront or water-view properties, especially on those finger-streets between Lyall and the ocean. Friends of mine, Bill and Linda Ross, own a plum-coloured art deco house at the water’s edge on Constance Avenue that must be seen to be believed. Dave and Shirley Barrett own a big old place at the water’s edge not far from Saxe Point Park. There is a cluster of gorgeous art deco homes—like nothing else in Victoria—near the village at the foot of winding Old Esquimalt Road.
And while it may seem a digression, no cultural tour of Esquimalt is complete without mentioning the Superstore Warehouse Outlet on Wilson Street, where you can manoeuvre industrial-size shopping carts along aisles loaded with gallon jars of mayo, 50-pound bags of rice, job-lots of any candy with the word “Gummi” in its name, three-foot-long pepperoni sausages, and carboys of sweet green pickle relish large enough to garnish a thousand hot dogs.
Leaving the esoteric charms of the Superstore behind, there is no missing...what is it, exactly...a current drabness, a lack of ego, principally in those buildings that line Esquimalt Road from the Vic West border almost to the town centre. If you bring a discerning eye as you drive, and look past the buildings rather than at them, you discover that Esquimalt Road is built along a ridge with a steep drop-off to the south, and that block after block of Esquimalt Road features million-dollar views of the ocean and the Olympics. I have no idea what the zoning allows, but there is extraordinary redevelopment potential, and this could be Esquimalt’s “Miracle Mile.”
Developers drop in from time to time with proposals for 10- or 15-storey buildings in or near the town centre. Esquimalt flirts with these economically tempting proposals, but remains uncertain that highrise is the right profile for a town centre not much longer than Oak Bay’s. If I may volunteer an opinion, I would suggest offering almost unlimited density to developers, but aggressively managing height. I have no problem with height but Esquimalt isn’t likely to get exceptional highrises so much as sore thumbs.
It’s in the course of writing this meditation about the place that I stumble on the reason why Esquimalt’s the real deal: the town is completely authentic, and even the recent boulevard program along Esquimalt road, begun by former mayor Ray Rice, is free of artifice. Next time you’re out for a recreational meander, take a couple of hours on Esquimalt’s main roads and side-streets, wearing your planner’s eye.
Authenticity is hard to come by and easy to destroy. There is nothing wrong with Esquimalt, and I would urge its leadership to make a 10-year commitment to execute the town centre plan, continue to beautify main streets, wake up to the development potential along both sides of Esquimalt Road, and keep the Gummi Bigfeet flowing.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
What will it take for mayor and council to realize it's war and that job number one is to save Downtown?
AFTER THREE SHORT YEARS it’s again time for us troglodytes to put down the remote, get our food dye-stained fingers out of the family size bag of Hawkins Cheezies, and go to the polls. Saturday the 19th—Municipal Election Day in Victoria!
As soon as the Labour Day weekend was over and summer-ized voluptuaries were magically turned back into citizens, the civic election will-be’s and wannabe’s started their chivvying and I began to hear the grumbles: some of you were threatening a killing spree if you had to go to all-candidates meetings or read campaign brochures filled with platitudes and pledges about public safety, strong and vibrant communities, heritage protection, affordable housing, prudent tax spending, more green space, protecting our seniors, and so on.
I attribute the swamp of clichés to a kind of authorless cynicism—something like an airborne cultural pathogen or a corrosive, blanketing fog—affecting political incumbents and aspirants about what it takes to get elected or re-elected in Victoria. And if this synthetic politics is a form of public obscenity, the public itself is a willing accessory: passive and fuddled to the core, it encourages a municipal election process whose commandments are: say nothing provocative, sit on the side of the angels (signal left, that is) on all the obvious issues, spout platitudes, don’t express an original thought, pray for name recognition at the polling booth or hope that name-dropping some popular incumbent (“Dean sent me”) buys you some votes.
Most local political contests here are little more than spats over different approaches to inertia; and God knows there’s evidence to support that view. It’s a challenge to cast local elections as serious public referendums on mayoral or councillor performance because so few credible challengers present themselves as the anti-incumbent or offer seriously competing visions or political agendas. From here we can only watch with awe (or envy) the mayoral slugfest in Vancouver where NPA contender Suzanne “It’s time for Robertson to Mayor up” Anton is attempting to paint Vision Vancouver incumbent mayor Gregor Robertson as a bumbling lightweight incapable of leadership (the Stanley Cup riot) and a capricious green clown (bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge). Her prospects may be iffy, but she gets credit for giving the voters a choice.
Still, don’t lull yourself into thinking there are no local concerns in Victoria.
What’s interesting about the City of Victoria is that you can feel its pain. It plays a Christlike, sacrificial role in the regional hagiography, and the surrounding municipalities—solemn invocations of regional cooperation notwithstanding—can barely contain their glee. The WestShore doesn’t even bother to hide its animus and contempt. It simply wishes Victoria would drop dead. Frank Leonard, mayor of Saanich and regional elder statesman, keeps his opinions to himself, christens new shopping centres, and diligently repaves his roads.
Every politician in the region with a shred of intelligence knows exactly what’s happening: the tide of economic influence is streaming toward the suburbs and Victoria is slowly but steadily losing muscle mass in terms of regional leverage. Gormless Victoria council is either unaware or in denial. I guess they’ll just wait until Downtown wakes up dead.
The City of Victoria is the only place in the region where you get this strange condition of endless, concatenating near-fiascos: a vitiated Downtown planning process (with profound implications for Downtown’s future); homelessness and street issues; the edgy relationship with the province; Blue Bridge cost overrun debacles-in-waiting, rhapsodic embrace of LRT with no idea whatsoever if it will benefit or hurt the city; housing affordability challenges; a largely un-funded half-billion-dollar capital works to-do list; a median household income $10,000 below the regional average (and half of Oak Bay’s); legitimate worries about business and shopper exodus to the suburbs; intermunicipal competition for jobs and fading numbers for Victoria; diminishing financial reserves…. Whoo-ee! Of course, not everything’s a crisis and the city has its share of victories. The new public urinal for besotted, late-night club-goers is a big success.
There is an alternative political narrative to the conventional one you are likely to hear at the all-candidates meetings or read from the blizzard of campaign junk. The alternative goes something like this:
One more global economic crisis or new suburban shopping centre or really crappy tourist season away from serious implosion, downtown Victoria is at constant risk of dodo-ing out as its share of the shopper pie gets thinner and thinner, and as every bumptious, new suburban business claims turf in the regional consumer’s wallet. In spite of the conceit that Downtown is where the region shops, God knows folks in the ’burbs aren’t spending one dime Downtown. Their paycheques are being cashed at the Save-Marts and the Mega-Buys, and a thousand other shops and services filling the interstices between the big boxes. (Just wait until some enterprising dreamer creates a mall in Saanich called The Design District.) Watch what happens when the Four Horsemen of the Economy come riding through Downtown.
Starting in the 1970s, a generation of people who had a background in house-building or construction—‘napkin pro forma’ nailbangers and opportunists—made up the bulk of the city’s developers. For them, heritage buildings were just dated eyesores. Any available block was worth busting. They saw places not as neighbourhoods or social narratives, but opportunities. They threw up (I mean constructed) hundreds of butt-ugly three- and four-story utility-grade apartment and condominium blocks—taller buildings in some cases—anywhere and everywhere the City would allow it. They didn’t do it because they’re evil; they did it because they could, and because they weren’t building homes, they were cranking out “product.”
Communities weren’t well organized; these things often landed like bombs and took the heart out of streets and neighbourhoods. Communities in reaction got up on their hind legs and started to fight back. Now, neighbourhoods have effectively fought the development industry to a draw, but all of this sulphurous history has powerfully affected land use culture and process in Victoria, making the public wary, officials and policy-makers tentative and micro-managerial, and developers defensive and hyper-strategic.
Memory, in other words, doesn’t evaporate quickly. The City—its citizens, neighbourhoods and communities, politicians and, by reflex, its planning department—have become very accustomed to saying “no,” or “maybe.” Now, even though the locus of development has shifted out of the neighbourhoods and much closer to the Downtown core (a very good thing), the City doesn’t really know how to say “yes” very well.
A particular set of planning skills and creative assets is required to produce vibrant, successful Downtown neighbourhoods. Victoria, even though it has some bright lights in the planning department, has not really developed these skills; or the planners are fighting against incredible political intervention and the sheer weight of the past. Vancouver has developed these skills (Yaletown, West End, Granville Island, Granville Slope); Portland has too (Pearl District, NW 23rd, PSU, the trolley system). Ironically, the new crop of Victoria developers (many are Vancouver transplants or players) is now probably far ahead of the City in its receptivity to and embrace of the best urban design ideas and sensibilities.
In spite of a few tentative utterances from the mayor (timed, tellingly, in the last 60 days before the election), or the prevailing lunatic “Downtown’s for everybody!” sensibility, I remain unconvinced that he and council realize that Downtown isn’t dead when the last business turns off the lights, but when the binding cement between businesses gets too soft.
What will it take for mayor and council to realize it’s war and that we’re fighting powerful social and economic trends, and that job number one for City leadership is to design and implement a policy strategy promoting intensive, new residential and mixed use/job-related development as close to Downtown as possible—everywhere?
What will it take for them to realize that an economic development strategy based on the idea of attraction/retention of suburban shoppers, dollars, and jobs is practically folly, and that a vast, new population of city-living folks is needed to improve the Downtown retail economy? What will it take for them to realize that the development industry has no trouble reading the push/pull, we-may-need-you-but-we-find-you-morally-repugnant nature of City policies and approval culture, as distinct from authentic partnership?
This is a City, not a business community issue. If Downtown’s stress cracks widen, the City will have to dedicate more and more resources to costly, too-late, and possibly fruitless Downtown economic repair, less and less to city-wide services and amenities. And no politician or candidate—mayoral or council—has figured out how to deliver a convincing public narrative on this subject that might bind Victorians in some kind of common cause or productive strategy.
If you do brave an all-candidates meeting, you might want to echo-sound on this subject. Do wear your tinfoil helmet, though, to protect you from the saliva-rain of spluttering clichés.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
What to do with a contaminated, once-industrial part of Victoria in a post-industrial era?
WHAT DO YOU WANT, Victoria? What do you want to be? Modern? I don’t think so. History hangs around you like a wrinkled matriarch wearing her fortune around her neck, trudging through the curtained gloom of a Rockland mansion. Socialistic? Well, yes, but just during the news cycle, please, and not in our neighbourhood. Administrative and imperial? Bold and high-powered? Pass.
How about lymphatic, aggrieved, isolationist?
Several months ago the Times Colonist ran an editorial entitled “Making rezoning pay for public.” The TC quotes a neighbour of a proposed development: “If they get 12 storeys, what do we [the community] get?” The editorial continues: “That’s a question every municipal council should be asking before approving rezoning applications…Rezoning approvals generally increase the value of a property. Councils often seek, or are offered, benefits in return for rezoning…[But without accurate information, councils] can’t strike the best deal for the public.”
Developers—if I may borrow from Conrad—have taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land.
I don’t want to pull you all the way down the rabbit hole on the subject of zoning, but I do want to establish here, as context for the theme of this month’s sermon on the area known as Rock Bay, that zoning is about as rational as religious faith and subject to the same logic as the parental “Why? Because I said so!”
The 20th century opened with “smokestack” industrial practices (including everybody’s favourites: whale flensing and dumping coal tar), and closed with the total transformation of industrial business activities, loci and markets. Hey, guess what, there’s no more local industry, so small wonder that many industrial areas in urban settings are in a functional transition and ready to change with the times, but are still trapped in an outmoded definition of industry and long-ago zoning, and burdened with a civic eye blind to the special costs of contamination cleanup or the unique challenges and risks of developing properties in a transitioning ex-industrial frontier.
This is understandable in part because areas don’t necessarily stop being what they were on some January first. Transitions can be slow and evolutionary, and there are often viable holdover activities with legitimate industrial agendas regarding land use, and a lot of political clout and megaphonic moral leverage. This traps planners and politicians who want never to be on the wrong side of the little baby Jesus jobs-and-industry argument (the local mantra in Victoria is working harbour, working harbour).
So, what is the Rock Bay narrative? Economy? Geography? Opportunity? Policy? Complexity? How should we frame public interest for the future? This is a classic Victoria story: archetypal in its genesis, predictable in its (presumptive) outcomes. Maybe it starts with history.
Rock Bay—the sizable area north of downtown bounded approximately by Chatham Street, the south side of Bay Street, the harbour on the west, and Blanshard Street on the east—was home a century ago to tanneries, a coal gasification plant, timber mills, and a variety of other businesses and cottage industries. Folks lived and worked in the area. At one time, harbour waters lapped well inland, east of what is now Government Street in the vicinity of Pembroke and Princess Streets, and a wooden pile bridge—now rotted, dismantled, gone, and replaced by a portion of Government Street itself—used to carry people and streetcars from one side of Rock Bay to the other. Now much of the bay is filled in. A frisky stream—currently encased underground in an ancient, six-foot brick culvert—once ran down to the harbour waters.
An estimated 85 percent of Rock Bay’s foreshore and uplands is laced with contaminants from previous industrial practices. BC Electric used to dump coal tar and chemicals everywhere, and bury disused PCB-laced capacitors. Other industries treated the lands and waters of Rock Bay like a flush toilet or a magic disappearing cabinet, contributing to the area’s glow-in-the-dark pedigree. In fact, Rock Bay is described in federal government handouts as “one of the most contaminated sites in BC.”
While the wisest thing might have been to turn the area over to the Japanese to use as a toxic monster movie set, various civic leaders—elected and otherwise—have cast an eye north periodically and seen the gleam not of chemical stew, but of opportunity.
Folks think of the current Rock Bay as industrial—light, heavy, or a mix of both. An hour-long meander up and down its roughly 16 square blocks reveals a finer-grained reality. There is still the old house here and there, mostly uphill of Douglas Street toward Blanshard—some occupied residentially, others appropriated by adjacent service businesses. There’s a lot of warehousing and truck unloading, auto-related repair and servicing, motels, commercial offices, an incredible amount of paved surface, a Dairy Queen, numerous shops, a condo development. In fact, Rock Bay contains everything from redi-mix concrete plants to a love shop—soup to nuts, you might say.
St Vincent de Paul has a big operation here. So does Budget Rent-a-Car vehicle sales (though rumours are swirling that owner Judy Scott has sold the property to BC Transit for some future transit infrastructure). There are large, vacant properties scattered here and there, and behind temporary screening, BC Hydro and the feds are involved in a $40-million cleanup of the large, almost seven-acre, contaminated site around the old power plant. There’s chatter that Ian Maxwell, owner of Point Hope Shipyard and Ralmax, has his sights set on a watery indentation close to Bay and Government Streets as a future site for additional construction materials barging and handling.
While an industrial ecology may have occupied large portions of Rock Bay in past times, industrial activity now exists mostly west of Government Street and takes the simpler (and hardly job-intensive) form of an asphalt operation two blocks north of Capital Iron, and the concrete batch plants and ever-shifting hills of construction aggregate that claim almost all of the water’s edge along Bay Street. Smith Brothers Foundry and Machine Works maintains its operation on Princess Street between Government and Douglas. If you want to stretch the definition of “industrial,” Vancouver Island Brewery operates a bottling plant on Government Street, near Bay Street, and there is a major recycling operation on a side-street.
Let’s face it: Rock Bay looks like crap, has no coherent identity, and is a stretch of urban crud between the northern reaches of downtown and the Oz of automotive sales and servicing north of Bay Street. Rock Bay is like the sitcom closet out of which falls unwashed laundry, month-old pizza, shoeboxes, a tennis racquet, suitcases, a stuffed owl and a tuba.
It does have some things going for it, though. First, it’s a bowl sloping from every compass point toward the harbour—there are fabulous south-westerly views to be capitalized on. Second, it’s close to downtown and, assuming the Hudson makes good on its supermarket boast, close to food. Third, it’s a relatively unpainted canvas and is crying out for new, brilliant urbanism. Fourth, in spite of claims of a red-hot market for industrial land, the Rock Bay property market remains moribund. Rock Bay land use is all over the place, suggesting that future zoning for multi-use would simply expand and capitalize on, not frustrate, the area’s current DNA.
Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, without being too specific, has put forward a vision linking Rock Bay’s future to “jobs,” hinting that an efflorescence of tech business would be a welcome outcome. The Downtown Victoria Community Alliance, during its Downtown 2020 conferences, a few years back, speculated that Rock Bay might, alongside other uses, become the home of thousands of new residents feeding the downtown economy and animating its streets. For its part, the city, during its recent renovation of the Downtown Plan, extended downtown’s planning umbra to include the entire Rock Bay area, but didn’t move downtown’s official boundaries north. (Like the most attentive of lovers, the City was sensitive to the feelings of the Gorge-Burnside neighbourhood who uses the Rock Bay body count in its claim for municipal goodies.) The City has yet to define a vision for Rock Bay or frame its land use potentials. With the exception of council, who all sing a rousing chorus of “working harbour, working harbour,” no land use narrative has taken hold.
And there it sits.
When folks try to understand the mind of the developer, they often fail because they make the mistake of imagining that developers are complex, textured, charitable, nuanced, able to embrace ambiguity—that is, human. But to get an accurate picture, you have to zoom in from mammalian consciousness, through reptilian consciousness, to plant or single-celled organism consciousness. There is only one elemental life force beating out a tattoo within the developer’s being: Risk…reward. Risk…reward. Lub…dub. Food…eat. Air…breathe. Water…drink. Risk…reward.
Then you have the City of Victoria, infected by apparently incurable bunny-itis, playing the Mr Bill role (Google it if you’re under 40) in the planning/zoning/development process: “So remember, kids, the developer is your friend, and he will always clean up contaminated sites for free and provide park space, community amenities and affordable housing funds. Isn’t that big cement truck a little close to me? Ohhhhh nooooooo!”
It approaches the cringe-worthy to observe Victorians responding to the words “appropriate” and “scaled” and it’s an outright x-rated experience to witness how they make them cuddle: “appropriately scaled” and “scaled appropriately.” Unfortunately, there are two tall, dark strangers which “appropriate” and “scaled” have never met in their travels: “risk management” and “financially viable.”
You can hear the idea expressed around City Hall that the City prefers not to “intervene in the marketplace.” But this is baloney. The City is a vast intervener and player in the marketplace—with every zoning decision and every development cost charge and every site- or area-specific capital expenditure having an economic consequence, and arbitrarily showering value and opportunity throughout the marketplace. (In this context, it’s useful to know that downtown commercial vacancies are up and retail register sales are down. The reverse is true in the suburbs.)
I appreciate that Victoria has a genius for inertia and that this talent happens not by accident, but intention. I understand that downtown has been volunteered (some would say sacrificed) to prove the virtues of caution and immobility in a scary, jumpy world. I get the nuanced messages behind the stance: memory is a safe refuge; pride (or its Victorian simulacrum, height) cometh before the fall; love of change is just cloaked hunger for novelty…itself folly; when in doubt, tend your garden and mend your gate; and so on. In a moment of meditative insight it comes to me that Downtown is just social theatre in which these beliefs merge into a female expression or personification of the city; and that really what Victoria endlessly, ceremonially recapitulates is a rejection of the wriggly, spermatic assault of “The Modern”—like Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, the Unfulfill’d Queen (the frigid queen seeks satisfaction but cannot trust herself to love; and upon her shoulders, she believes, rests the responsibility to ensure that civilization does not descend into darkness and madness); or Tennyson’s “Princess”:
Not peace she look’d, the Head: but rising up
Robed in the long night of her deep hair, so
To the open window moved, remaining there
Fixt like a beacon-tower above the waves
Of tempest, when the crimson-rolling eye
Glares ruin and the wild birds on the light
Dash themselves dead. She stretch’d her arms and call’d
Across the tumult and the tumult fell.
But every Victoria, including our own, must respond to the shifting future, including the scary bits. All this desperate, tight control is bad for health: it gives the city cancer. The future comes knocking, even if you’re hiding in your shell. So, let’s pose an open question: in Rock Bay can market realities and City policies ever commingle, merge, conjoin; or, to take things down from the imagery of hot, raw sex to holy matrimony, at least create a productive collaboration?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
A fast track to Langford? Or bankruptcy?
IT’S IRONIC THAT THE POLITICIANS WHO JUMPED ON the light rail transit bandwagon in August labelled as “premature” a suggestion that we hold a referendum on the subject. If anything is premature it was their endorsement of the billion-dollar proposal.
Ever since BC Transit came out with its report recommending LRT from Downtown to Langford, many have been scratching their heads at the idea of making Greater Victoria the smallest metropolitan area in North America to be served by LRT.
Jane Sterk, leader of the BC Green Party, (echoing many others) has come out calling for a region-wide transportation plan before we invest in LRT, as well as suggesting that “a better immediate investment would be upgrading the E&N line to move people—including those who work at Naden Base, one of the region’s largest employers—between the western communities and downtown Victoria. This would alleviate the most congested routes in the region at a fraction of the cost of building an LRT.”
Recently, Bev Highton of the CRD Business & Residential Taxpayer’s Association noted: “The Association has encountered many unanswered questions about the LRT proposal, some of which are as basic as: How many riders would be anticipated? What revenues would be produced? And what are the numbers behind the so-called business case? Surprisingly, none of the information is included in the project final report, or the project website, or any other public source, and none of this information has been provided under the Association’s outstanding Freedom of Information requests.”
The Chamber of Commerce and others are calling for an independent review. A good idea in light of the apparent conflicts of interest: First, it was discovered that a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Inc, which builds LRTs, co-ordinated the Rapid Transit Study that led to the proposal of LRT for Victoria; and then on August 23 the Taxpayer’s Association pointed out that “the Chairman of BC Transit is also the Chairman of InTransit BC. InTransit BC is one-third owned by the same SNC-Lavalin Inc that is in a position to bid on a Victoria LRT line.”
As Highton said, “It’s a rather flimsy way to proceed.”
But that didn’t stop Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, councillor John Luton, MLA Rob Fleming, MP Denise Savoie and a few other politicians from endorsing LRT and talking about getting funds from the federal government.
I support investment in public transit; we need to rely less on cars to move us around. But the current proposal, with it’s mega-price, seems more like business-as-usual thinking, based on the same kind of constant-growth model that brought us urban sprawl and traffic congestion in the first place.
Megaprojects have a way of being costly disappointments. Research by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School shows that megaprojects tend to cost more than projected and underperform—on economic, social and environmental fronts: “positive regional development effects, typically much touted by project promoters to gain political acceptance for their projects, repeatedly turn out to be non-measurable, insignificant or even negative.” Flyvbjerg notes, “Megaproject development today is not a field of what has been called ‘honest numbers.’” As if that’s not enough, he continues: “Project promoters often avoid and violate established practices of good governance, transparency and participation in political and administrative decision making.”
Edinburgh is the poster child for how wrong things can go with LRT. With a budget overrun of more than 50 percent and construction running three years behind schedule, their city council was forced to shorten the line by about one-third. Most recently, after considering options to borrow $374 million more to complete the shorter line or scrapping it altogether (with $986 million already spent), council voted to shorten it even more, abandoning tracks already laid to the centre of the city (which caused months of unpopular disruption to lay). News reports are rife with words like “cock-up,” “fiasco” and “madness.”
Edinburgh’s council denied its citizens a referendum. Hopefully that won’t happen here. Everyone in the CRD will pay for LRT even though only a small portion of the community will benefit from it.
We also need comprehensive, community-wide transportation planning and priority setting. Infrastructure is expensive so we can’t do it all, or at least not all at once. We certainly shouldn’t commit $1 billion to any project without a clear understanding of what else needs doing, both in terms of transportation infrastructure and other needs—or before relatively inexpensive tweaking of our current transportation system: adding some designated bus lanes, getting an E&N commuter train going, building the McKenzie interchange.
The rush to LRT, a proposal that seems to have deep roots in the ever-hungry engineering/construction industry, has attracted politicians eager to be seen as “progressive” and willing to commit vast amounts of public funds to ensure Victoria is not somehow doomed. It brings to mind Langford’s Stew Young warning that if the Spencer Road interchange wasn’t built, it would ruin the region’s economy. He was wrong. Instead, the region got a Bridge to Nowhere and resources that could have been used to eliminate the bottleneck at the McKenzie Avenue intersection were misspent on his miscalculation.
How much transportation miscalculation can one small city take before it wakes up and demands a thorough effort at creating a regional plan?
Is a billion-dollar LRT for the Langford-Downtown corridor the best way to solve a $25 million problem?
I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF INTRODUCING YOU to the exquisite Italian fashion model, Bianca Balti. Can you imagine your life if you were involved with her romantically? Or if you were her best friend, with benefits? Your life would be perfected, a dream, right? You would feel youthful, alive. You would always be happy. Could she be stupid and nasty? Could her appetites put a big hole in your bank account? Don’t be silly! Your very existence would be perfumed and your entire life would be a dance in the air. Days would be tropically warm, evenings molten. You would sail on rails of silk past the traffic gridlock on the Island Highway between Millstream and downtown.
What the hell was that? That was the sound of reality finding a parking spot—a not un-apt image for the subject of this piece: the steadily quickening dream of light rail transit in the Capital Region.
Media has been flogging the light rail story and the blogosphere has been alight for a few months, ever since BC Transit released news of its considered preference for light rail over a bus option as a response to mobility challenges (and opportunities) between WestShore and the downtown core.
If this piece on light rail transit begins with the image of a distractingly beautiful woman, it’s because there is a not dissimilar cloud of projection and fantasy around light rail: it’s easy to be dazzled by rail enthusiasts whose expectations approach the Catholic belief in transubstantiation; by complex social semeiotics and the perceived ‘sexiness’ of light rail; and by studies, data and analyses that can get your toes tapping during an initial read, but which raise as many questions as they answer once the buzz wears off.
Yes we can’t
Light rail, by some accounts, has the power to do everything including raise the dead. It will whisk people quickly and pleasurably between WestShore and Downtown (with some key stops in between). It will trigger economic re-animation by inspiring new density around the ‘nodes’ of station stops. It will get everyone out of their cars, reducing fuel consumption and countering global warming. It will end the crush of slow-moving or standstill traffic on rush-hour arteries. Plus it’s a progressive crowd-pleaser (who’s not a progressive?) and so twenty-first century.
In such a jumped-up atmosphere, it becomes difficult to understand exactly what job or jobs light rail is meant to do, and equally difficult to make an objective or informed judgment about value for money.
Ballparked to cost about $950 million (the always dodgy ‘$9.99’ of infrastructure cost-estimating), the system is being floated for shared (presumably one-third) funding by the feds (taxpayers), the province (taxpayers) and the CRD (that is, the CRD’s municipal constituents)(that is, the taxpayers).
Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard is a man with a public persona so reasonable and placid that I’m convinced he goes home and kicks the dog, or re-enacts famous train wrecks in his basement, or has some other unspeakable emotional outlet. I mean, there he was, mid-May, prudently and all-too-temperately suggesting that maybe the idea of public spending on light rail be put to a non-binding plebiscite when people go to the polls this November, instead of shrieking: “Are you insane? “Are you out of your effing mind about loading homeowners with another $250+/year on their property taxes, and commercial property owners (read: commercial tenants) with five times the current transit levy?”
The outburst is fictional, but the fact is that he stands alone amongst regional politicians in questioning the cost-benefits of LRT. His call for public temperature-taking this fall is intended to…what? Measure public appetite? Stall? Slow the momentum behind the push for LRT? Give people time to study the facts and sober up?
Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, while echoing Leonard’s call for a plebiscite, clearly laid out his transit preferences: “I would be quite happy to get out there and campaign in behalf of the yes.”
Transportation science or woo-woo?
If you were looking for a knowledgeable, Smart Growth-oriented transportation expert, and a champion of diverse mobility options to serve the community’s needs and provide travel choices, you would have to go no further that Victoria’s Todd Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a research organization and think tank dedicated to the analytical study of transportation and mobility policy choices and impacts.
Over coffee in late May, I ask Litman to frame the broader context for LRT in Victoria. More than once during our conversation, he returns to the cautionary thought: “You have to be careful how you define the problem. Will LRT ‘cure’ traffic congestion? No,” he says, and adds that LRT may offer an appealing alternative to car commuting for some small slice of the traveling public.
It’s his view as well that the business case for LRT rests significantly on the potential longer-term benefits tied to evolving land use. That is, there is an expectation among planning professionals that greater residential densities will spring up around LRT stations, generating increased economic activity, raising land values, and making those populations somewhat less car-and-energy-dependent. Litman is fairly direct in claiming that the only way to justify the capital costs of LRT is by calculating such ‘externalities’ as these. I ask him coincidentally to make a distinction between LRT and busway options. He acknowledges the difference in capital cost (BRT is cheaper) but minimizes the operating distinction, suggesting the differences on the results side are not that great.
Who wants to ride the ‘loser cruiser?’
But warming to the subject of bus transit as it exists now, Litman observes: “Waiting conditions are key. BC Transit needs to stop thinking like engineers…needs to take more of a marketing and customer service approach.” He begins to tick off the amenity improvements that could and, in his view, should be made: more, and more comfortable and attractive bus shelters; digital read-outs at stops so passengers know how soon the next bus will arrive; a universal swipe card for fares; cupholders, so you can bring your latte on-board; improved frequency and guaranteed seats (no standing) for commuter runs; high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for higher rush-hour speeds; sexier-looking buses with more comfortable seats (no sardine seating) and more amenities like wi-fi…. The list goes on.
Such ideas do raise provocative questions and issues. Why are so many features—the so-called ‘service continuum’—of bus transit designed to reinforce the idea that public transit is a second-class travel option, that the only people who take the bus are ‘losers’ who can’t access a private vehicle—the young, the old, the poor? Why—as transit attempts to rise to the provincial challenge of expanding ridership and doubling travel share—does the system put so many practical and psychological obstacles in the way of enjoyable bus travel? Why have things been designed so that a billion-dollar train between Langford and Downtown seems like an inevitability? Consider the potential bus-user’s thought balloon: “I have to stand in the drizzle or drag myself an extra six blocks to a more distant sheltered bus stop. I have to freeze my ass off for six months of the year. I have to guess/hope the next bus will be here quickly. I’m stuck on this vehicle whose physical presence owes more to penitentiary design than riding pleasure. It’s a crapshoot whether I get a seat. What have I done wrong that I don’t deserve any comfort or amenities? Why do I do this? What’s the matter with me? I hate my life!”
Hint to BC Transit: This is not the secret formula for increasing market share.
Chris Corps, Principal of Asset Strategics, a Victoria-based chartered surveyor and the former President of Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Canada, directs me to a US General Accounting Office 60-pager produced in 2001, comparing bus and commuter rail service:
“While transit officials noted a public bias toward Light Rail, research has found that riders have no preference for rail over bus when service characteristics are equal.
“While environmental benefits have helped justify Light Rail systems, the gap in environmental benefits between rail and buses may be narrowing. FTA and bus manufacturers have focused on improving the design of buses not just to increase their attractiveness, but also to reduce their noise levels and emissions.”
Victoria’s ‘rush minute’
It’s interesting to consider how these grandiose infrastructure ideas take hold and how, unwittingly, they can produce weapons of mass transit, when a flyswatter is called for. If you want to understand, in part, BC Transit’s thought process and how it came to the conclusion that light rail was the way to go, this excerpt from BC Transit’s recent Victoria Rapid Transit Work Plan will help:
“In January 2008, the BC Government released the Provincial Transit Plan (PTP) committing $14 billion for transit projects throughout BC between now and 2020. This plan is focused on expanding fast, reliable, green transit and calls for a doubling of transit ridership, increased mode share and expanded accessible services in British Columbia. The accelerated implementation of transit in this provincial plan presented the opportunity and impetus to undertake a more detailed regional study and advance a full rapid transit network plan with a target of finalizing a recommendation to proceed with a downtown Victoria to Westshore rapid transit link as the first phase. Therefore, the Douglas Street Busway project has been put on hold.”
Let’s take a break from this earnest subject and give ourselves a bit of a palate cleanser before we plunge back into the transit story.
It’s almost “Jim Who?” here in Victoria. That’s how long it has been since the febrile and enterprising mind of Jim Hartshorne has prospected for development opportunities in the core area; but us oldtimers can remember when his name was scrawled next to an extraordinary percentage of core area development—condo blocks, commercial strips, ‘care-aminiums’—in Victoria and Saanich.
So where’s Jimmy now? Well, he’s working for his longstanding local patrons, near-billionaire brothers Reg and Roy Stewart, as the development manager for Westhills, adjacent to Langford Lake—an emerging community of 6,000 homes and, in due course, a million square feet of commercial. (For reference, 6,000 homes would produce a population roughly equivalent to that of James Bay.)
Jim has moved his own office out that way and I gather he’s having a heluva good time with the Westhills project, remarking here and there that he will be chasing every attractive, viable downtown retail, service and office business he can, hoping to convince them to move to Westhills as the development’s commercial component kicks in.
And in a parallel story, you caught the news that Cineplex Odeon is mid-construction on a new 7-theatre installation in the Langford shopping nexus? State-of-the-art. Along with Fright Night 14: Revenge of the Hypoglycemic, they’ll be hosting live simulcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera and other high-concept fare for the Westshore culturati. Not too shabby for the back of beyond, huh? A decade ago, culture in Langford was demolition derbies. Look at the place now!
Makes me wonder how long it’ll be before Westshore, appropriating more and more of the regional economy, starts to claim a share of provincial offices. It would mean more hell for the Victoria economy but, ironically, it would take some people off the commuter hamster wheel.
Now, back to transit.
Somewhere over the trainbow…
A cheerful and forthcoming BC Transit representative, Erinn Pinkerton, spoke in early June to a large, interested UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon audience about the recent history leading up to the decision to go with the light rail option between the urban core and Langford. As bar graphs and pie charts flew by on the screen, Pinkerton narrated the wandering, multi-year history of regional transit decision-making, leading to the selection of LRT as the preferred choice.
Fielding questions at the end of her presentation, Pinkerton volunteered that in some future “Year One,” ridership on the LRT is projected to be 7 million. BC Transit says current annual bus ridership in this corridor is 4.5 million. If everyone who is now taking the bus shifts to LRT, then Pinkerton is counting on 2.5 million rides materializing from...where?
Well, her hope is that they come from two sources: people who don’t yet live in WestShore but who will choose the LRT once they get there, and people currently driving cars and trucks through the corridor. If BC Transit could find those 2.5 million new rides, what would it look like in terms of relieving congestion? For example, how many cars would the LRT remove from the evening Colwood Crawl? Let’s do a little napkin math.
BC Transit is assuming that 60 percent of new riders will come from population growth and 40 percent will come from people shifting from cars and trucks to LRT, thereby getting out of the Colwood Crawl. Forty percent of 2.5 million rides is 1 million. Since these are two-way trips, that works out to 500,000 roundtrips each year.
Dividing that by 300 days of the year (that’s how BC Transit does it), we get 1667 actual riders. That’s how many cars we would be removing, in total. But not all of these riders will be using the LRT during the evening rush. CRD traffic studies show that 28 percent of daily traffic occurs during the 3-hour evening rush. That means that of those 1667 daily riders, only 470 are likely to ride sometime during the three-hour rush.
So, in “Year One,” using the best assumptions available to us—courtesy of BC Transit— we calculate that LRT is likely to take only 470 vehicles off the Island Highway for the full three-hour evening rush.
Turning our napkin over and dividing our capital investment of $950,000,000 by those 470 vehicles, we come to the jolting conclusion that, with LRT, we are going to spend roughly $2 million per vehicle removed to ease traffic congestion to WestShore. Slightly.
LRT Ridership Scenarios—WestShore to Victoria
Loss leader, anyone? Consider the IKEA 50-cent hot dog
A confession: When I’m on a Vancouver day-trip, and if time permits, I will detour off Highway 99 and make my way to IKEA just to buy two hot dogs for a dollar. The idea of saving four bucks or thereabouts is so compelling that I can’t resist. I’m a slave emancipated by a bargain. Gene 1, IKEA 0! Put it to the Swedes! Oh, and maybe since I’m there, I’ll pick up a dozen Snitt wineglasses and a Snott closet organizer and a Snort magnetic knife holder….
If we went with Todd Litman’s idea of snazzier buses with wi-fi and all the other service goodies including an on-board restroom and complimentary coffee, tea or juice (hell, throw in a muffin), coupled to HOV lane restriction for greater bus speed, might we attract another thousand riders? What would that cost all-in (new vehicles, road improvements, etc.)—$25 million, covering vehicle lifecycle capital costs and operating deficit?
Alternatively—since Erinn Pinkerton indicated that there is already a healthy carpool culture on this commuter route, how about if we paid for gas or in some other clever way rewarded new recruits to the world of carpooling? I’m guessing wildly that we could do that for $2 million a year, or less, and remove roughly the same number of cars from the road as LRT. Or we could do both of these—upgraded express bus and carpool incentives—together, and simultaneously increase transit ridership, reduce highway volumes, and achieve beneficial environmental outcomes.
Or we could tackle the peak period problem at its source and create a Langford office centre for government workers who don’t need to be physically present downtown. One thousand workers times 300 square feet equals two 12-storey office buildings. (Sounds like Westhills would love to step up.)
Is there any possibility that light rail poses a billion-dollar solution to a roughly $25 million problem?
Fixed rail, fluid destinations and the deceiver blob
On its website, BC Transit has a graphic image of the Capital Region filled with flow lines of various colours and circular blobs representing origin points and destinations. The only thing such a graphic overlooks is reality. People don’t travel from or to a blob. They travel from 947 Turnstone Drive in Langford to a medical secretary’s job at a walk-in clinic on the corner of North Dairy and Shelbourne; and while they may hate the Colwood crawl, a commute involving car or bus to LRT station, light rail to a Hillside Avenue stop, bus to the Hillside Shopping Centre, and a walk to the office is not likely to become the travel mode of choice.
And there are similar uncertainties with BC Transit’s base numbers. While it’s easy to think of those numbers as a statistical portrait of the river of Westshore-downtown morning or afternoon rush-hour traffic, nothing could be less true. The real model is a distributed one, with vehicular traffic originating from a wide geography across the Westshore and even north of the Malahat, and peeling off to a hundred destinations fanned across another enormous geography stretching from the airport to the university to Downtown to Naden in Esquimalt. Presumably, much of this, under a light rail regime, would involve transferring from light rail to the finer grain of the existing bus system, implying waits and lost time, and a loss of convenience for travelers. Weighing comparable all-in travel times by transit or car, and a comfort and convenience factor, might the commuter be pardoned for choosing his or her own car, even with the annoyances of peak-time slowdowns?
Innovation bankruptcy: if BC Transit was BC Mobility…
Read and weep: "Power companies in Britain have been required to progressively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and this year 68 percent of that reduction had to come from subsidizing professionally installed insulation in customers’ homes. Low-income and elderly customers got the home improvements for free. Others paid less that $1,000 to insulate a four-bedroom home, the full cost subsidized 40 to 60 percent. Residents recouped their investment in 12 to 18 months as fuel bills after insulation typically decreased 20 to 30 percent." (NY Times, June 8, 2011)
Other British initiatives include payments to homeowners who generate electricity and heat with renewable power.
I mean, BC Transit could give a thousand people a new deluxe barbecue, or a mountain bike, or a $500 food credit at the Superstore as an inducement to enter a carpool or an express bus system; or free, introductory fare for six months…at an annual cost of $500,000. It could double the incentive or the number of enrollees, and still just spend a million. It could do that for the next 950 years for the price of a Langford-Downtown LRT. Of course, BC Transit is not mandated to give people bribes—sorry, incentives—to take the bus, but the corporation could make dramatic improvements to the existing bus system and transit-way to directly influence travel consumer choices and achieve the same beneficial outcomes. And really, isn’t LRT something of an expensive bribe?
Touching the “third rail” of progressive sensibility
Folks for whom the ecological agenda is paramount see in light rail the promise of a cleaner, greener, cooler world; and see the rejection of light rail as a blow to the ecological agenda and a victory for the troglodytes. I have enormous sympathy for these views. The world’s going to hell, and it would be unconscionable to mock or criticize people who have dedicated their lives to changing our suicidal behaviour. But even if it’s a holy war, specific practices and choices need to be scrutinized, and need to pass muster.
There is also financial ecology. Every regional or municipal expenditure forecloses on other expenditures or investments, so it becomes important to consider ecological value for money spent. And with bang for the buck it doesn’t matter whether you favour the hundred-mile diet or 100mph at NASCAR—we’re all citizens and taxpayers. Here’s an excerpt from a World Resources Institute report in Grist online:
“Another exciting possibility for cities [trying to manage greenhouse gases] lies in bus rapid transit (BRT). Cities are installing these systems because they bring reductions in cost, commuting time, and traffic, among other reasons. But another co-benefit of BRTs is the reduced emissions.
“BRT installation is accelerating at a tremendous pace. Around 120 cities now have BRT systems or bus corridors, and the vast majority of them were constructed in the last 10 years. Interestingly, most cities embracing BRTs are in the developing world, where they have proven a less costly alternative to light rail.”
So why, exactly, is light rail the right choice for Victoria?
Isn’t it ultimately ecological to seek solutions scaled to the size of the problem? I mean, if a $950,000,000 capital expenditure will only remove several hundred cars from the highway system, doesn’t that create an obligation for us as a regional community and for the agencies that serve us to innovate, to find a solution at least as good, and much cheaper?
A date with the data
One of the most interesting aspects of preparing this piece has been a review of online sources reporting on, analyzing, discussing every conceivable aspect of transit systems—individually and comparatively; in Canada, the U.S. and globally; now, then and projectively; from an engineering, financial, energy, ecological or ideological perspective. I have reviewed more than two hundred documents and, hoping for the reader’s trust on this, my conclusions are that the data can be spun to produce any outcome you favour, and that it is impossible to make an objective, hands-down case for LRT over other transit options.
The bus stops here. And here. And here
There is concurrence on one point, though. Urban geographies have become highly ‘distributed’ and multi-nodal, and linear or radial transportation systems based on an outdated image of the city and the moribund idea of downtown as the commercial, office and even cultural centre of a region—the place everybody goes to for work, shopping and fun—are fighting a risky, possibly a losing, battle. People want to ‘get where they’re going.’ Their daily lives are cluttered with multiple demands spread across a large urban geography and can only be effectively met with a highly adaptive, responsive and convenient mobility system.
Welcome to the car.
Transit systems compete with this reality and, in my view, the more car-like they can be, the better they will do. This has largely to do with service, convenience, amenities and speed; and long before agreeing to astronomical transportation investments, this regional community might reasonably ask BC Transit to maximize the potentials of the existing bus system.
The biggest externality of all: The Future
Read the news today? Oh boy! Two recent news pieces on Huffington Post caught my attention—this:
“Responding to the possibility of a ‘double dip’ recession, Robert Shiller, co-founder of the U.S.-based Case-Shiller Home Price Index noted in a recent interview that he wouldn’t be surprised to see U.S. home prices fall by another 25 percent during a slide over the next 20 years.”
“Exhausted by the political stalemate over the sputtering U.S. economy Democrats and Republicans have been reduced to magical thinking, hoping that things will eventually get better by themselves. But time isn't on America’s side. The country is suffering its highest average duration of unemployment since at least 1948. ‘The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that the cyclical downturn becomes structural. People and things that lie idle start to lose their productive value. Then you’re into all sorts of troubles,’ says Karen Ward, senior global economist at HSBC Holdings in London.”
When I consider the economic, environmental and social roller coaster we’re all riding these days, and add that to the bill for the new sewage system and other infrastructure commitments current and pending, and to municipal tax bills that are going up by significant increments, and to declining municipal reserves, I think: wouldn’t this be the perfect time for regional politicians and community-serving utilities to hedge bets, stay lean and innovate brilliantly, not expensively?
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Notes on the illusion of administrative triumph over the random and unknowable future.
IT WAS A BRILLIANT, CRYSTALLINE MOMENT. At the end of Saanich Councillor Vic Derman’s hour-long presentation called “The Natural City,” recently delivered to about 75 of us in a Reynolds High School auditorium, the first audience question came from a woman who noted: “When you asked us earlier about the most important feature of a single family home, I wasn’t thinking ‘the back yard.’ I was going to say ‘privacy.’”
Vic had spent much of his hour logically building up the case for density. It was his point that carefully planned density represents victory over sprawl, that there are ecological and environmental imperatives for moving away from a car-based culture, and that nature and ecological design can be brought more fully into urban planning to produce an attractive arcadian urbanism.
His interlocutor though, unhappy with this theoretical vaporizing, made it clear that she wanted not more density, but less. “Isn’t that what we all came here for?” she asked, putting a very fine point on the paradise paradox.
I suppose it always goes like this. Folks in single-family homes are threatened by the possibility of nearby duplexes. Folks in 12-storey buildings are threatened by a 16-storey building proposed down the block. We feel it like a physical threat, and the prospect of greater density within our subjectively defined zone of self-interest awakens nothing short of animal alarm.
A FRIEND WITH NOTHING BUT MY BEST INTERESTS at heart pointed out to me that for the last several months, I’ve used this space to ankle-bite Victoria’s Mayor Dean Fortin, diss the regional transit effort, muss poor, defenceless Oak Bay’s hair, sneer (twice) at the US, and treat the Japanese earthquake disaster as an opportunity for standup.
I think the likely cause is mind-rotting mould spore syndrome. I just discovered a bruise-coloured mould bloom on my home-office wall, behind some tall bookcases. It had been watered by a leak within a wall cavity where a cracked cast iron wastewater stack had been weeping moisture for a very long time.
I went to my doctor, hopeful that if the disease had a name, it had a cure. He asked me to sit on the examining table, back to him. He tapped and poked invasively for a couple of minutes, then said “Ah!”
“What’s up, doc? Did you find the problem?”
“Yes. You have a screw loose. Also a tumour.”
Tumour…and a screw loose.
“Well, can you maybe grab a Phillips head and tighten the screw?”
“Nope. Threads are stripped.”
“What about the tumour?”
“You have too much irony in your system. You look like Jabba the Hutt, by the way. Sitting in front of the computer all the time isn’t a lifestyle. You get any exercise?”
“I use the bathroom a couple of times a day, and I never drive there, I always walk.”
WALKABILITY REMINDS ME THAT we need to talk about the City of Victoria Official Community Plan Update, fully known as The Official Community Plan Update: Shape Your Future. (And I’m Gene Miller: Napping or Dead.)
I would have preferred Fight the Future or Flight From the Future or, with Telus’ indulgence, The Future is Terrifying. Or Yesterday Was Better!
Mark Hornell, are you into numerology? (Mark is assistant director of community planning with the City of Victoria)
There are 11 letters in your name, Mark. Those 11 letters have a numerological value of 55, and your destiny number is 1, whose characteristics are: initiating action, pioneering, leading, independence, attainment, individuality.
Your destiny number denotes the skilled executive with keen administrative abilities. You have the tools to become an original person with a creative approach to problem solving, and a penchant for initiating action. You have a good mind. On the negative side, you may at times become too optimistic, tending to scatter forces and accomplish very little. (My God, it sounds just like Victoria!)
In other words, you have great potential, Mark, so don’t blow it, okay? Right out of the blocks, the Draft OCP vision statement worries me:
Victoria is an urban sustainability leader inspiring innovation, pride and progress towards greater ecological integrity, liveability, economic vitality and community resiliency as we confront the changes facing our society and planet today and for generations to come.
I mean, I understand that while this rhetoric seems written in fire if you’re staring at it from the cheap seats, it’s actually constructed out of papier maché and packing-crate wood; but still, I’m worried about that word, “leader.” Like, does that mean we have to actually do something more than maunder on about Dockside Green? I hope not.
“Walkable neighbourhoods?” If people were meant to walk around the neighbourhood, they would have been born with feet instead of wheels. Victoria would be the size of a pueblo, or an Italian hill town, or Hobbiton.
Like, tomorrow? I have a 7 at Union Pacific Coffee, an 8 a.m. conference call back at the office, a 10 at Starbucks, an 11 out in Saanich, lunch with a colleague at J&J Wonton Noodle House on Fort Street at noon. Then, I promised to help a buddy move some crap out of his basement for a dump run, and I have to go dinner shopping. Plus sometime, I have to get to Rona in Langford to replace a cupboard door handle that pulled loose from its screws. Now put “walkable” in a sentence with any of that.
Walkable neighbourhoods? Dude, is your world filled with 22-year-old yoga hotties coming and going from the Fort/Cook self-improvement nexus? If the answer is yes, I’ll buy you a beer so you can tell me about it in lurid detail.
And this village hierarchy concept? I can’t quite figure this one out. It starts with big circles for Mayfair and Hillside Shopping Centres (colloquially named town centres) and works its way down to something called the “May At Moss Village.” There is something wrong—some false note—with defining shoppertunities as towns and villages. It’s too rhapsodic, charm-ified, and it fosters a synthetic and spurious narrative.
How about this for a vision statement for the next 30 years:
Acknowledging that vision falsely augurs an outcome, and that Official Community Plans simply support the illusion of administrative triumph over the random and unknowable future, Victoria will create fewer lofty plans and put much more focus on execution. We will more intensively invest our very limited resources so as to finish what we start.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
What doesn’t the CRD understand about its own regional growth strategy?
IF THERE WAS EVER ANY DOUBT in my mind that a resort involving 257 housing units, a spa, recreation centre, and store on land alongside the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail—a provincial park—should be denied, a gathering of 300 people in late March ended it.
We were sitting in the pews of the First Metropolitan Church. The event, hosted by half a dozen environmental and community groups, was facilitated by former federal environment minister David Anderson, who noted “Everyone in the province has an interest in protecting the park, so it isn’t entirely a [Juan de Fuca electoral area] issue.”
Yet right now, the decision on whether to allow developer Ender Ilkay’s proposal to proceed may well be left to a subgroup of five CRD directors—from Juan de Fuca, Sooke, Langford, Colwood, and Metchosin. As writer/activist Zoe Blunt wrote last December in Focus, “This committee…has yet to see a development application it didn’t like.”
On that evening in the church, it wasn’t just the many arguments put forth by panellists and speakers from the audience against such a development in that fragile and beautiful place that were persuasive. It was the crystal clear unanimity of the polite but determined crowd—from all walks of life, all ages, and representing diverse CRD neighbourhoods.
First off, it seems this is all moving forward without proper consideration of First Nations’ claims in the area. As Russell Jones, a Pacheedaht elder stated at the meeting: “That land is not owned by any of the people who bought it.”
Why, asked others at the open microphone, would we allow any risk to the wilderness experience afforded by Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, with its spectacular remote beaches and forest? A wide buffer, they said, is critical to the park’s health and integrity.
But it’s not just lay people and First Nations elders who don’t understand why Ilkay’s proposal has gone as far as it has through the CRD’s approval process. Panellist Deborah Curran of the Environmental Law Centre, a lawyer intimately acquainted with our area’s regional growth strategy, said “Nowhere in the regional growth strategy is it contemplated that tourism uses are compatible with rural resource lands. So it is confusing to me why this proposal continues to move forward.” She explained to the gathering that the regional growth strategy is a formal covenant that we, and our various municipal and regional governments, have all agreed to live by. Endorsing as it does principles fostering compact urban development as opposed to sprawl, it helps us create healthier communities. Municipal bylaws—including zoning—are legally bound to comply with its principles.
Attendees listened with rapt attention as Curran also explained that there is nothing in the regulations that requires the CRD board to even refer the question to the five West Shore representatives. There is hope, then, for some sanity.
Brian White, another panellist and the director of the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Royal Roads University, warned that experience shows that if this proposal is approved, land values will rise and there will be pressure from other developers. “This proposal is a Trojan Horse,” he said. “It opens up [the area to] land speculation on a grand scale…[it will become] a giant monopoly board for offshore developers who never see the place.”
Pascale Knoglinger, the young president of the newly formed Jordan River Community Association, told of how “the process was very frustrating” for her community: “We feel we’ve had no input.” She remains unconvinced the project will provide any benefits for her community.
Many in the audience issued pleas to the CRD to “live up to its responsibility.” Greg Holloway pointed out that those in urban areas accept greater density in return for keeping wilderness and rural areas preserved.
Others raised important questions. “How are we going to get over the notion that just because someone buys a property, they have a right to develop it?” asked Ray Zimmerman. Diane McNally urged us all to take a hard look at “our love affair with growth and development.”
By the end of the evening, it appeared that citizens were hopeful of changing not just the direction of the CRD, but were keen to go further. A North Saanich resident advocated for making the Juan de Fuca lands a federal election issue and establishing a national park—perhaps even a World Heritage site. The final speaker, Saul Arbess of the Sea-to-Sea-Greenbelt Society, noted that our new premier, untainted by the travesty committed by Gordon Campbell’s government in releasing the lands from tree farm management, might be convinced to purchase the land to expand the park. “It’s an opportunity to get the land back for the people of BC in perpetuity,” he said.
Ender Ilkay is obviously a persistent fellow—this is his third proposal for the area. But that doesn’t mean the CRD should give into his desires, that his interest supersedes the people’s. In 2007 the provincial government acted in a way diametrically opposed to the public interest in letting Western Forest Products take their lands out of tree farm licenses without compensation. Here’s hoping that CRD directors don’t add insult to injury.
Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine.
Oak Bay doesn’t allow secondary suites, but there’s pressure to change that. Would anything be lost?
I RECENTLY WOKE UP WONDERING: what passes for tectonics in Oak Bay these days? And there in the February 4th Times Colonist was the heaven-sent answer.
Reported under the headline “Secondary suite meetings plan sparks residents’ concerns,” were remarks from John Foxgord, lifetime Oak Bay resident and spokesman for the newly formed Friends of Oak Bay Neighbourhoods (FOBN). While he was not intentionally opening himself to parody from cheap-shot artists (fortunately, none such writes for this magazine), his remarks did carry just a whiff of Oak Bay “let them eat Tim Hortons.” Still, I understand this was not his intention.
But I get ahead of myself. Foxgord is quoted remarking: “Council has done a good job seeking input but they haven’t explored the impacts…The group is opposed to any huge change to the flavour of the community without well-reasoned and widely supported requirements.”
And: “Oak Bay isn’t necessarily a community of rich people but the people who move here pay a premium to live here. They want the simple quiet civility of a single family neighbourhood. To have such a broad and sweeping change disrespects that premium.”
I have only a tiny quibble with Mr Foxgord when he suggests that the folks living in Oak Bay aren’t necessarily rich but do pay a premium to live there. What are they, unnecessarily rich? Look, we are talking about a municipality whose constabulary in days of yore could be summoned on the phone by a concerned hausfrau to pick up her confused husband who had wandered downtown of a Sunday morning to breakfast at Scott’s Diner on Yates Street, dressed in his bathrobe and pyjamas. And pick him up and drive him home they did. Respectfully.
Talk about premiums!
I understand, by the way, that the under-worked police may still be available for such services. But honestly, in light of the revelation that, in spite of the prohibition against secondary suites, an estimated 800 homeowners have these illegal suites, couldn’t the Oak Bay police be kept very busy busting them? It could be great theatre and resemble that scene in the movie version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 when “firemen” acting on tips burn hidden caches of books, and police arrest the owners. It might make a great reality tv show, something like: When Good Single-Family Homeowners Go Rogue. Or Suitebusters.
FOBN states that its mandate is “to protect and enhance the quality of life within Oak Bay neighbourhoods.” (Not the quantity of life.) Cleverly legalistic and circumspect in its public statements (these kinds of community utterances are always rich in code), FOBN challenges the municipality to define the objectives of its (currently non-existent) secondary suite policy, and acknowledge that secondary suites may just be one of a suite of appropriate responses in a housing strategy:
“A vital concern of the FOBN is that our research indicates it may not be possible for the municipality to require a home with a secondary suite to be owner-occupied. Legalization would mean that single-family homes throughout Oak Bay would be granted the option to effectively operate as duplexes. This would be an extraordinary departure from the Official Community Plan which states its primary objective as the maintenance of Oak Bay’s single family character.”
Next thing you know, all the Uplands mansions will be boarding houses.
Were I the suggestively named Mr Oxgored, I mean Mr Foxgord, I would have had the balls to say:
We hate renters. We hate what they represent: transience, instability, chaos, and the end of civilization as we know it. We hate when they show up with their U-Haul trailers filled with lava lamps, folding card tables, mismatched china, tasteless “Hang In There!” posters in plastic frames, and other crap. We hate their 4x4s with the monster truck wheels and the “Gas, Grass or Ass—Nobody Rides For Free” bumper stickers and their beater Camaros parked on the street with the gold chain-link license plate holders and the “PRN KNG” vanity plates. We hate their socioeconomics. We hate the late-night pizza delivery. We hate how they remind us that but for the grace of God….
“Gene, stop that! This is Your Conscience speaking. You know perfectly well that Mr Foxgord means no such thing and has no such values. He makes perfectly reasonable points and besides, you’re no one to talk, you hypocrite. When someone camps in Beacon Hill Park anywhere near your place, you get twitchy and go all shoot-to-kill.”
Okay, okay, I admit everything. But look, if Oak Bay estimates that there are 800 illegal suites already, you may safely double the number to get at the true math, since there is a universal condition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” concerning illegal secondary suites. Everyone knows it’s rampant; everyone pretends it doesn’t exist. Neighbours don’t rat on neighbours either because they imagine their turn requiring a mortgage-helper may come some day, or because they don’t want to come home to find their corgies poisoned.
Now, the prevalence of extra-legal secondary suites raises some interesting questions about the Big Three: Noise. Parking. Ambience. Let’s take them in order. There’s the open-ended issue of noise—specifically, what noise might someone living in a secondary suite make that someone living in a single-family house wouldn’t make? Do they slurp their vichyssoise? Laugh too fulsomely whilst reading Thackeray? I want to keep an open mind here, but I just don’t get it, unless it’s that secondary suites represent a threat to absolute silence, or to some mystical hum or emanation produced only by single-family neighbourhoods.
Regarding parking, it seems to me that once you leave the absolute jungle frenzy of Oak Bay Village where cars chivvy about like rhinos at the watering hole, and where on occasion I have seen people race for parking spots in front of Athlone Court at the unconscionable speed of nine km/hr, things become quite manageable on Oak Bay’s side streets. But in the interests of disclosure I acknowledge that when someone parks in “my parking space” at the curb in front of my building, I have to handcuff myself to the radiator so I don’t leave a spluttering note on the transgressor’s windshield. So I’m prepared to give a little on this one.
But ambience…that’s the biggie. Atmospherics covers a lot of territory, and I would wager that this is what all the fuss is about. As Alan Foxgord notes above: “…the people who move here pay a premium to live here. They want the simple quiet civility of a single family neighbourhood. To have such a broad and sweeping change disrespects that premium.”
Honestly, Mr Foxgord is defending a vision of invested-in propriety. He’s defending civility. He and the other knights of FOBN are pledged to defend “the premium.”
The holy premium—a noble quest.
Who amongst us can claim that he or she is immune to the charms of Oak Bay, or the mysteries of a perfected life that it promises? Side street after side street of beautiful, well-tended homes. Landscaping taken to the level of manicure. The sheer good manners of these entire neighbourhoods. The sense that all is well with the world or, at least, that Chaos and Ruin have been fought to a draw at the borders…kept at bay outside Oak Bay.
Let he who is free from Alan Foxgord cast the application for the first (legal) secondary suite.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.
Self-interest should be the starting point for Victoria’s transportation planning.
HOP IN THE CAR. What? Oh, you don’t like the butt-warmer? Just turn that thumb-wheel to zero. Not that one, that’s for dashboard lighting level.
Where are we going? We’re just conducting a Wednesday afternoon experiment. What does your watch say? 3:41? Good. So, here we are turning onto Blanshard from Broughton, by the Royal Theatre. We’ll stay to the right because cars can still make left turns up until four o’clock. Hey, nice! It’s 3:43 and we’re just hitting our first red light at Fisgard at the arena corner. Less than a minute later and we’re cruising through Bay Street when the traffic light second-counter still says five…four; and it looks like we’re going to make it through the Hillside Avenue green also. Damn! The truck ahead of us had to pause for a pedestrian, and now the light’s turning yellow.
Traffic’s starting to thicken at Finlayson across all three lanes of Blanshard, and it looks like we’re going to miss a light cycle. Yup, it happened. Not too bad at Tolmie, but I can see the river of brake lights ahead, and I bet we’re going to be two lights squeezing through Cloverdale and maybe even three on the crawl through the long Saanich Road light near where Uptown shopping centre is taking shape.
Oh, wait a minute, we’ve been driving in Saanich for the last number of minutes, not Victoria. Oops!
Do you need me to go back downtown and make the same northbound trip out Douglas Street instead of Blanshard, heading toward Uptown where Douglas becomes the Trans-Canada Highway? Or down Pandora toward the Johnson Street Bridge? Or down Bay to the Bay Street Bridge? Or out Quadra or Cook? Or up Fort or Johnson headed toward Oak Bay?
Do you want me to conduct the whole experiment an hour later, around five, if you think the traffic will be heavier then?
Or would you like to take my word for it and come to the same conclusion I have come to: traffic in Victoria is not a problem and rush-hour traffic into or out of the city is not Victoria’s problem. It’s Saanich’s. Or the Western Communities’.
Victoria, the city—even and especially the street network serving downtown and environs—is a brilliant demonstration of successful high-volume traffic management. So why is Victoria putting any energy whatsoever into the idea of a regional transportation plan?
All the people who journey into Victoria by car, vanpool, bus or bike are already doing so by exactly those means…without a regional transportation plan. In other words, there is already a plan. It’s called: people getting around. They come into town. They work for government. They work in offices. They work for businesses and in shops. And so on.
So, why would Victoria want to spend a penny or any political capital on a transportation plan or on new systems that will simply do what is already being done more or less successfully? Especially when the real problem isn’t in Victoria, but elsewhere? (By the way, you don’t have to take my word. Test this for yourself during morning or afternoon rush hours. Sure, traffic is heavier everywhere then, but there are no standstills, no gridlock, within the city itself.)
You say: Yes, but people living in the Western Communities who work for government, etc. get stuck in long, unwieldy, rush-hour traffic jams in the morning and later afternoon. And I say: boo-hoo, my heart bleeds for them. They have to come into town because of work or professional obligations. Honestly, who cares if they drive their cars or crawl in on their nose hairs? Or if they don’t like the commute, let them dump their jobs with the provincial government and work in Langford. I understand Tim Horton’s on Goldstream Avenue is hiring.
And if there was an express bus or rail corridor between downtown and Uptown in Saanich, this would benefit downtown how, exactly?
Look, I am neither a crackpot nor a Luddite nor a fool, so follow my logic. Everybody who needs or chooses to come downtown is currently doing so. All others are clearly avoiding downtown, and the presence of a high-speed bus or a light rail connection is not likely to make much if any difference, as in: “You want me to drive from my home to Uptown, park illegally, take public transit to downtown and back? For what? Why would I do that? For all that trouble, I’ll just stay at Uptown and shop, thank you.”
The problem is cultural and historical: We have been cultivating beliefs about the city’s centrality for a very long time, and old beliefs are very hard to shed. I’ve heard various theses, the most popular of which is that the dominating presence of the provincial government produces a lulling effect characteristic of company towns. It’s hard to become competitive, tough, practical and self-interested overnight. In my view, we could do worse right now than to act as if the provincial government were only visiting.
Transportation? Economic development? There is no regional perspective. The political leadership in various municipalities is making hard-headed decisions pitched to their own local advantage. Here’s Saanich’s Frank Leonard in the local paper just before Christmas under the headline “Saanich mayor calls for better transit service.”
Saanich cannot afford to let plans for rapid transit on the Douglas Street corridor push its regular transit needs to the back burner, Mayor Frank Leonard says. “The 25-year plan for transit concerns me because it’s not recognizing the needs of the existing population,” he said.
“It seems to have a bias toward chasing not so much population growth but sprawl, in some respects—the population that’s on the outer reaches of the region going into new subdivisions as opposed to the density that a municipality like ours is providing within existing boundaries,” Leonard said. Leonard said existing neighbourhoods in Saanich need a better transit service.
Does Victoria itself have unmet mobility needs? Absolutely! Should self-interest be the starting point for Victoria’s thoughts about mobility needs and the investment of its stretched finances and limited administrative capacity? Absolutely! How should that be defined? Two simple ideas: convenience and service to Victoria citizens, and downtown economic development.
To be clear, Victoria can have great success when it tries. One of the regrettably underreported triumphs of Dean Fortin’s mayoral leadership has been the enormous progress made in the provision of housing for various at-risk constituencies, including the homeless. A second is policing and downtown security. And regardless of where you stand on the Blue Bridge issue, there is no missing (or admiring) the mayor’s dogged campaign to win public support for City spending on a new bridge.
We need to harness that determination to create a modest but entirely achievable mobility revolution—some form or multiform of transportation to supplement big busses tied to their routes. Ideally, it would be a much more granular—the wifi of mobility—and come as close as possible to the convenience of a car and the responsiveness of a taxi, without costing any more than an hour’s downtown parking. Sort of the land-based analogue to the harbour ferries. Or maybe enclosed power-assisted pedi-cabs. Or taxis, using a different tariff strategy.
The idea, in any case, would be to enable Victoria to draw on the economic strengths of its dense population and the geographic advantages of its small land footprint. At a guess, there is no point within the political boundaries of Victoria more than eight minutes from downtown by vehicle; and to provide mobility convenience to this population so it can bring its shopping dollars and service needs downtown makes a lot of sense.
Actually, given success, such downtown mobility services might extend into the near reaches of Saanich. I’m sure Mayor Leonard wouldn’t mind.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.