Starlight Developments' mega-plan for a block in Harris Green suggests we’re not all in this together.
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance
JOIN ME: we’re going on a tunnelled journey deep into a corporate psyche; probably, actually, the psyche—the structure and joinery of ideas and values—of an individual corporate executive, since it seems so often to come down to that. But I promise, when we emerge, you will recognize that the whole time it has been a rollercoaster ride around your own sensibilities and values—that is, a mirror-view of a world that is surprisingly familiar.
Maybe you’ll wonder: “Have I been sleepwalking?” The answer is: “You have to ask?”
Andrew Duffy, business writer for the Times-Colonist, penned a May 30, 2019 piece, “Toronto developer plans to remake two blocks of downtown Victoria.” The blocks in question are Yates to View, Cook to Quadra. The developer has recently (November, 2020) submitted to the City this concept for rezoning:
An artist’s rendering of Starlight’s proposal for the Harris Green neighbourhood
Noted Duffy in that original 2019 piece: “A major swath of downtown Victoria is on the cusp of being redeveloped. Toronto-based Starlight Investments, which over the last three years has pieced together land parcels in the 900- and 1000-blocks of the Harris Green neighbourhood, is asking the public for input on what a redeveloped site between Yates and View streets could look like. Mark Chemij, Starlight’s senior development manager, said the company is excited at the prospect of reimagining the land—4.9 acres over the two sites—and open to all possibilities as the redevelopment process begins.”
Don’t know about you, but the needle on my crap-alert meter just swung past “overfull.” The company, of course, is not open to all possibilities, but only those that align with its business mission and practices, its sense of how to manage risk and ensure handsome profits; and this accompanied by a transient’s disinterest in the particular identity and trajectory of this community and city.
The entire development initiative, from the moment of acquisition of the first piece of property, was fore-visioned. In that 2019 piece, Duffy continues: “‘It’s a little early to provide any specifics,’ Chemij said when asked what Starlight has in mind. ‘We are still in the early days of the consultation process.’ The goal is to learn what the community likes and dislikes about the site, what it would like preserved and what it wants improved.”
Starlight has, between Duffy’s article and the present, undertaken a public consultation process during which, no doubt, the company referenced as a kind of “new normal” the ever-proliferating residential towers rising in Harris Green and the adjacent north, and may have received little public counter-view to its proposal.
And in its defense, the developer harbours the honest belief that no community, including this one, could conceivably have grounds—rational, aesthetic or moral—for repudiating the planning ideology, the urban and social ideas, or the vertical suburbs embodied in the illustration.
Duffy finishes: “Commercial real estate expert Randy Holt of Devencore Realty Victoria said Starlight is sitting on a wealth of potential. ‘All that potential density in the air, good for them for looking to take advantage of that. It’s a fantastic opportunity.’”
Holt, enraptured by the vision of 30 storeys and big bucks, at least gets A+ for honesty.
Here’s to air and “fantastic opportunities.”
I wonder if the community—that’s another name for Victoria, by the way—had the self-awareness, the moral literacy, the social gyroscopy, the informed self-understanding to show up during the consultation process and ask: “Mark, are you—not personal but corporate you—insane? Do you really think the inhuman monstrosity you’re proposing does anything to advance the singular aims of the people of this city, or the potential for improved and increased citizen identity, not to mention Victoria’s distinctive physical signature? Have you spent any time figuring this place out, or is this just another dirt play for Starlight?”
If, reader, you imagine the density, the amount of stuff, that Starlight is proposing, or the number of residential units (1,500), troubles me, it doesn’t. I have a problem only with the package, the lazy, city-destroying form and design. I have a problem with buildings that reinforce the cultural message that we’re not all in it together, and that are blind to Victoria’s extraordinary (but fragile) localness.
Cruising around its website, I learn that Starlight is a North America-wide real estate development company—homeless, in other words—with loyalty to nothing but return on investment. The company’s an income play for institutional investors and has no commitment to place, to story, to the conditions or physical choices that make people feel connected. For Starlight, such things are complexities and constraints, “noise” around the edges of business, distractions, irrelevancies.
Buildings like the ones proposed are disconnected from the city’s experiential plane and both produce and add to an atomization of residents who are divorced physically and energetically from the life of the streets and the city. This is the symbolic code of such development: to reinforce and intensify physical and social isolation, to disconnect and weaken human community, to de-citizenize.
Real estate development is not a credentialed profession. If you want to be a real estate developer, you have only to spin around three times, clap your hands, and say: “I’m a real estate developer.” (A career in politics offers roughly the same freedom from prerequisites.) Apart from having a nose for opportunity and managing conventional business risks, there is no specified cultural learning for developers, nothing that obliges them to contextualize their work in any social framework of land use or design; no requirement to show awareness of the relationship between building form/design and some wider social ideology or aspiration, or civic culture; no obligation (or incentive) for a developer to perform as a citizen, to show, in New York Times journalist Tim Wu’s words, “civic virtue.” (Victoria is blessed with a handful of exceptions: Chris LeFevre, Don Charity and Luke Mari come to mind, and there are others.)
And this is tragic, because developers have such important agency bearing on site use, massing, scale, architectural presentation, building amenities, building complexity and visual interest, building warmth, welcome and participation in the public realm, and so on. I’ve read the speculation that we are in a late point in a sweeping evolutionary arc that may well end with the complete merger of human and machine consciousness (humechity?) mid-this century; and that in some adjacent future, human community as we have conventionally practiced it may have to struggle to prove its utility and purpose. But such a grotesque prospect doesn’t remove the challenges of here and now, or erase the demands of, to use an old-fashioned word, citizenship.
Citizenship, like volunteering, is a stakeholder’s declaration. It’s both a state of mind and a set of actions through which you declare your connection to and emotional investment in a community and your willingness to make the effort, be part of the larger, shared effort, to sustain its health and integrity. And no, owning a home and paying property taxes do not by themselves qualify as or ensure citizenship.
I sense that citizenship in previous generations was more an automatic feature of the cultural package, mother’s milk. These days, urban community management seems to have become more administrative and professionalized, and less one of the participatory “eager arts.” This abdication is a worrying trend that leads to other dangers, and it creates a daunting requirement for local government to over-explain: endless citywide public conversation about why’s and how’s, plans, impacts, alternatives, consequences, and so on. Exhausting, huh? Well, use it or lose it (Starlight’s proposal a case in point).
In his disturbing new book, The Tyranny of Merit, the philosopher Michael Sandel writes: “Not only has technocratic merit failed as a mode of governance; it has also narrowed the civic project. Today, the common good is understood mainly in economic terms. It is less about cultivating solidarity or deepening the bonds of citizenship than about satisfying consumer preferences. This makes for an impoverished public discourse.”
It’s just a hop to apply Sandel’s formulations to current land use and built form thinking whose practices now have ever less to do with reinvigorating the common realm or protecting the virtues and social expression of mutuality. This, in turn, impoverishes community and diminishes its ability to sustain its story of place or purpose, its us.
For counterpoint, consider for example the energetic and protective reactivity of Friends of Beacon Hill Park to even a tree’s-worth of park compromise, or the Hallmark Society to the threat to or loss of Victoria’s inventory of history-rich buildings and settings.
What are they fighting for?
The answer, I think, is memory, social memory. These days there are powerful trends and forces set against public memory, designed, however unwittingly, to obliterate memory, which is to say a community’s cultural compass, its map to navigate the future.
When you remove memory, you obscure rooted values and create an anchorless society much more susceptible to whatever the most persuasive ideologue of the day is selling. For proof, you have only to consider the spread of autocracy worldwide and the terrifying recent (and, ominously, continuing) US political insanity.
In the face of such trends, does it really make sense to give up on community self-authorship? Do you, in a decade, want to wake up in anywhere...or in Victoria?
As always, the answer to that question is very local: Yates to View, Cook to Quadra.
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.