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.