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.
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