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.