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  • Come and Play! Breathing life into downtown Victoria

    Gene Miller

    Downtown Victoria needs to look and feel like our living room, not the grim, grey, anonymous thing it’s becoming.


    IN HIS BIOGRAPHY of Russian late-Romantic composer Nikolai Medtner, author Barrie Martyn chronicles Medtner’s early years in turn-of-the-Nineteenth-Century Moscow, commenting on the “flourishing of the arts, music, literature, philosophy.”

    Evocative language that sets the imagination racing, especially the surprising inclusion of philosophy in public culture. The world had entered a new and exciting century, and these were years in which society’s pulse beat faster, not just in arts and culture, but social, political and scientific thought, too.

    Things expand, things contract. We are now again in powerful, but very different and perilous, times of social change featuring a resurgence of far-right religion-and race-based neo-conservatism, threats to freedom of expression, risk of collapse of egalitarian democracy (you now hear growing reference to “Christian Democracy”), the shrinking of social imagination and dangerous intellectual contraction, the growing re-subordination of women (just watch the next decade), social/political violence south of us, and a hatred of cities as presumed centres of urban liberal thought and practice; and globally a strong drift toward autocracy, thickening borders and the surveillance state. In ways and for reasons I only begin to understand, the idea of a global order and the dream of loosening and cooperation that accompanied it is suffering at least temporary abandonment.

    These are existential times and it’s my worry that all of this will generate profound threats to and challenges for Canadian democracy and, specifically, for the identity and integrity of Victoria and its prospects as a centre of liberal values and practice.

    It’s an enormous challenge to hold a citywide conversation about this, and most of us are rarely motivated by—in fact, tend to scoff at—alarm. We seem to require a completely visceral encounter with catastrophe before we will react or go on a “war footing.” Regrettably, nature has designed catastrophe so that its urgencies and outcomes are all one package.

    But if the wind is blowing the right way, people can be motivated (or seduced) by opportunity, benefit and by invitations to pleasure. People like fun.

    Come and Play! is an idea inspired by the cultural fever of Mentor’s Moscow. To the extent that such things can be engineered rather than emerging organically, its purpose is to breathe new life and viability into downtown Victoria and to restore strong identity to our regional society.

    Downtown currently faces and is poorly prepared for a set of unmistakable threats and challenges. It looks and feels like a setting for danger, not pleasure; grim, grey and, increasingly, a place of anonymity, not of landmarks, a visual copycat of cities everywhere. It needs ‘icing’—a major investment in public realm beautification, distributed as needed in the course of a decade, say, over a roughly 60-block area—Wharf to Cook, Humboldt north to Fisgard and into Rock Bay. For lack of a better image, Downtown needs to look and feel like a living room.



    Many new Downtown buildings make it look and feel like a setting for danger, not pleasure; grim, grey and, increasingly, a place of anonymity. 


    The world is now desperate for conversation, and this will only intensify. I can’t imagine a better place to create a centre for thought and cultural production in the broadest terms than Victoria. Come and Play! is cultural renaissance intended to foster public conversation in all of its expressions. Force or charm the university—at least its relevant programmes and departments—Downtown, instead of that pointless landscaped arcadia in the middle of nowhere. Encourage the creation of new organizations and institutions, and invite others to relocate to Victoria. Create a hundred public realm venues for the display of art, photography, sculpture. Conferences, workshops, speeches, debates, reinforced and amplified by widespread media interest, online publishing, the promotion of nameplate experts and leaders in various fields engaged in professional residencies here. 

    Play to an obvious local strength and make Downtown by intention a centre for ecological/environmental thought and innovation. Invite creative individuals and groups to locate Downtown. Give them whatever incentives they need. Build strategic alliances with worldwide media. They’re always looking for content. Encourage chess tournaments and other intellectual games intended to distract people from depression. Create opportunities for massive First Nations cultural renewal and contemporary re-expression.

    In other words, give people countless new reasons and incentives to come Downtown, to be part of its life and energy. And by the way, the public library, which has been intentionally and successfully broadening its range of services, appeal and clientele, is a logical partner in all of this. Ditto the provincial museum. Also, high-tech is a logical partner. Isn’t there some currently under-celebrated plan now unfolding for a tech-driven innovation district Downtown?

    Look, the way things are now, with the economy upside down and turmoil likely to continue; with relentless competition from increasingly urbane shopping centres; and with the ever-expanding clout of online shopping and other online economic services, there is risk not of erosion of downtown retail/commercial infrastructure, but implosion, a loss of critical mass and viability.  

    Might the Province be a financial partner in this entire initiative?  It couldn’t hurt to ask. What would all of this cost? I don’t know, $50 million. Peanuts. The global publicity and the financial benefits would easily outstrip the cost.

    Where’s the energy Downtown right now? The “Old Town” rind around the Inner Harbour. People like the energy, visual appeal and distraction of such locales. Somehow, these areas give story, legibility and identity—definition and distinction, an ‘us’—to civic society, but none of this comes with a guarantee. It requires reinvestment and reinvention. It requires chance-taking and enormous drive and dedication. Habit and custom get tired, wear out, turn into the past. This fact puts great pressure on stakeholders. Letting go ain’t easy and the impulse to hold on, hold on, hold on is a powerful force. Still, times and conditions change, and downtown Victoria is in history’s crosshairs. As happens to every system in nature, social parts wear out and need re-expression.



    People like the energy, visual appeal and energy of “Old Town”—such areas give story, legibility and identity. But they require reinvestment and reinvention. This shows the Oriental Hotel at 554 Yates Street. (Photo by Michael John Lo)


    Why Come and Play!? The phrase has the right energy. It’s inviting, capacious, seductive. It’s anticipatory and points toward a new future for Downtown. It’s distinctive: it provides an organizing idea and establishes an image for Victoria that other cities haven’t conceived.

    By intention, Come and Play! is more frame than blueprint, a canvas that should be filled in by numerous influencers, originators, innovators with their own good ideas. Still, here are some of the key initiative areas: 

     • public realm beautification and amenitization; 

     • cultural capture and recentralization Downtown; 

     • a proliferation of education/learning (new programmes and facilities);

     • engagement and volunteerism by downtown residents and others to foster citizenship and stakeholder values and habits;

     • a promotional ‘machine’ for Downtown marketing/image projection (Come and Play! needs appetite, a desire to succeed a competitor’s energy and poise);

     • Downtown resident customer incentives (special status and benefits to downtown residents); 

     • elimination in one or two years of homelessness and street camping;

     • a strategy for the attraction of new organizations, centres, programmes (good for office rental and a driver of downtown visitation);

     • attraction of conferencing, lectures and other forms/expressions of social broadcasting;

     • particular emphasis on environmental and ‘one-planet’ ideas/programmes/leadership, and promotion of downtown as a global capital of one-planet practice;

     • more directed networking and active communication/collaboration between DVRA, DVBA, cultural resources and institutions, faith/spiritual resources and entities, civic leadership and other stakeholders.

    If you have any doubts about the potential for near-term success of Come and Play!, I encourage you to objectively and un-ironically consider the profound social and physical transformation of Westshore, achieved in twenty short years.

    Let’s go! 

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.


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    Almost 30 years ago, the Canadian Federal Government cancelled any new long-term investments in social housing.  A CMHC budget freeze meant that Canada would no longer build supportive housing, for the past 30 years. This meant Canada became one of the few developed nations without a national housing strategy.  The results of this inactivity were predictable – a lack of affordable housing across Canada.

    Point 1) If you want affordable housing to be built in Victoria, the government has to finance it and build it.  The private sector will not build it (or build as little as they can get away with) because they want to maximize profit on every new development.

    Point 2) Victoria City Council is selling a load of BS when they say the only way to get more affordable housing is to allow developers to build giant 28 and 30 storey towers.  Very few of the units in these towers will be affordable.

    Point 3) Renters in the city of Victoria who voted for the current Mayor and Council, thinking they would get significantly more affordable rental units built, have been betrayed.

    Point 4) Victoria residents who are alarmed by the current trends in the City of Victoria, and fear that we are turning into a smaller version of Vancouver, need to fight back. Remember, developers will promise anything to get their projects approved, then renege on any promise that isn’t legally binding if it suits them.  Apathy and inaction will result in us getting the City that we deserve, not the one we want.

    Doug Lee

    Victoria BC

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    I concur with Doug Lee’s comments regarding affordable housing in the city.

    Victoria is now an exclusive enclave and playground of the wealthy. The affluent members of society are the only ones who can afford to live in this former colonial fortress.

    It’s not surprising they want to convert all the public space around them into their own private “living room” – full of toys and trinkets, entertainment galore, all status symbols of the ‘good life’ to which they feel entitled.

    As for more “icing” (beautiful decoration) on their “Paradise Cake” paid for by taxpayers, will that change the fact that Victoria is still a fortress of high-priced condo towers and heritage homes or 21st century mansions owned by investors, used by well-heeled tourists as short-term vacation rentals, or owner-occupiers who reside here a few months a year, while those who need decent affordable places to live are being run out of town?

    Isn’t it enough that many of these multi-million dollar strata properties like the refurbished Customs House on the waterfront already received ten-year tax-free subsidies paid for by all Victoria residents?

    Now the real estate and development lobby together with their affluent clients demand taxpayers shell out millions more on downtown ‘beautification’ projects. Why? To sell more high-priced homes in this pristine paradise, while removing the ‘blight’ – the sight of the unhoused and long-time tenants who make this city their home?

    The “Come and Play!” slogan is at best just marketing hype from those who see profit and privileges that can be realized by promoting Disneyland dreams and fanciful fairytales.

    At worst, this slogan represents a harmful diversion to avoid looking reality in the eye, and accepting the urgent necessity to take concrete measures that will resolve the complex yet fundamental contradictions that lie at the heart this “Dysfunctional City by the Sea.”

    There are no safe havens and Shangri-las on the Westshore, or anywhere else, that will guarantee a bright future or a place that is risk-free without natural calamities, climate catastrophes, economic downturns, and social unrest.

    There are no populist slogans that will make problems disappear with a magic wand, a magic bullet, or a ride on a magic carpet.

    “Come and Play!” disguises the fact that the province’s capital city serves the needs of the top one per cent of society, not those of the 99 per cent who need decent jobs and incomes, secure and affordable housing, and adequate support to sustain their health and well-being.

    Edited by Victoria Adams
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    Guest Still Hope For Downtown


    I’ve long admired the articulate and well written articles penned in Focus Magazine by Gene Miller. He has been an institution in Victoria for many, many years. I also agree with many points that he has raised in this most recent article regarding the forlorn look of our urban centre here in Victoria.

    One only has to look at the brightly coloured hues of other cities, both here in Canada and in other parts of the world, to realize that the grey and bland high rises that have, over the past several years, come to dominate the downtown area, to see a general albeit somewhat gradual architectural and dull malaise settle over us all.

    The only point of contention that I would raise is Mr. Millers suggestion that Victoria could brand itself with the statement “Come And Play,” which for me, conjours up images of nightclubs and bars and young people partying in the streets, riding scooters in unsafe ways, possibly even toppling statues of our colonial settlers (if there are any left) a big increase in public drunkeness and drug use, and street fights when the bars close for the night. Witness the years of such experiences in Vancouver, when the Granville Street Mall became a haven for night clubs and party goers.

    Although I’m no expert in such matters as branding, I do feel that we need to reach out to a broader audience, which would include the many visitors lost, as their previous, fond memories of the City Of Gardens has gone the way of the Do Do bird, not to mention the loss of many Vacation Rental properties that once provided accommodations for families who could not afford a hotel experience, or had other special needs that were not addressed by local hotels, and the increase in street crime and mentally ill homeless campers who populate the streets (not an issue affecting our city of course) along with local retail businesses and restaurants no longer available for them to browse through or dine in, lost to the rot in our downtown core. All now lost, but recoverable with a little bit of TLC.

    Obviously there is much work to be done to brighten-up our dingy downtown. Perhaps a return to neon signs on building exteriors, as is planned for the revitalized Granville Street area in Vancouver? Or, a bylaw requiring building owners to maintain their existing exterior paint jobs? Take a look at the peeling paint on the building now housed by a convenience store franchise on the corner of Douglas and Yates Street, or the now vacant Dollar Store on Douglas street, both of which are, among many, in dire need of refurbishment. There are lots of other things that can be accomplished to add colour and brightness to our neglected downtown core, too many to list herein.  

    Having said all of the above, a big thank you to Mr. Miller for his many insightful and interesting articles over the years, he still rates high in my reading list and I appreciate the thoughtfulness that he brings to your publication, it’s just one of the many things that makes it special.

    Stephen Young

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