Downtown residents question the $34-million deal for a new fire hall.
CRITICS HAVE ISSUED THEIR LISTS of the best TV shows of the past year. For high stakes and dramatic twists, though, it has been hard to beat the live stream of recent City of Victoria council meetings.
“We have one of the most difficult decisions we will probably have all term in front of us today,” mayor Lisa Helps told councillors on November 15. For nearly three hours they debated sites for a new Crystal Pool, before voting 7-2 to keep it in the southwest corner of Central Park, the location City staff had already spent two years and $2 million planning for, despite the objections of its neighbours. The following week, at the November 22 council meeting, they looked certain to ratify that decision. A group of North Park residents marched down to City Hall to show their opposition. And then the council stunned the audience.
Helps said she’d had a conversation with RG Properties’ Graham Lee, who leases the Save-On arena, and that he was “enthusiastic” about exploring a partnership for a public swimming pool on the arena’s parking lot. “My report back to the public and council is that meeting went well, there is an interest, and I’m not going to say anything further because that would be motivating one way or another.” But that was enough: councillors voted unanimously to pursue discussions with Lee, even if it meant blowing the January deadline for a first crack at federal-provincial infrastructure cash, and risked losing $7 million in grants the City had already accumulated.
“What tipped the balance for me is even if we get some federal and some provincial funding, we’d have to hold a referendum [to borrow money] and we could have the North Park residents forming the ‘no’ side,” Helps told Victoria News. “We all know what it’s like to do a large infrastructural project that the public doesn’t support, like the Johnson Street Bridge, and I don’t want to do that again.”
There may have been other factors (a new geotechnical report showed significant bedrock and groundwater at the Central Park site), but the official story is that councillors listened to the neighbourhood, and changed course. Now, with the pool on hold, their attention will turn to Victoria’s next big undertaking — a new No. 1 fire hall — which appears to be following a similar early plotline. City crafts megaproject. Proponents sell plan to neighbourhood. Conflict ensues.
LAST MARCH, the City announced a remarkable deal. After 18 months of closed-door negotiations, it had signed a contract with Dalmatian Developments, to pay the newly incorporated company $33.7 million upon completing a 41,700 square-foot fire hall as part of a new mixed-use building on Johnson at Cook, on land that’s currently the back end of a parking lot for Pacific Mazda. The fire hall, built to the latest post-disaster earthquake standard, would include six bays for fire vehicles, Victoria’s first purpose-built emergency operations centre, and space for BC Emergency Health Services to operate four ambulances. The old fire hall on Yates would remain open while the replacement was being built, and the City would use money from its financial reserves, so there’d be no associated tax increase.
The new fire hall on Johnson Street could be topped by affordable housing, but the deal requires concessions from the City (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design)
It was great news, Helps told reporters. Moving the fire hall Downtown made sense with more residents in the area, and it was cheaper than the City building one on its own. (In 2013 CFB Esquimalt opened a fire hall of similar size for $27.3 million, but it didn’t have to buy land.) When CTV asked if there was a risk of cost overruns, as with the “fixed-price” Johnson Street Bridge, Helps replied: “How could it go like the bridge went, when a private-sector developer is building the project? The City will pay when it’s done.”
But members of the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) started digging into the deal, and didn’t like what they saw. The fine print of the City’s announcement said the agreement was “subject to Dalmatian Developments bringing their overall project through the rezoning process” — and that “overall project” turned out to cover the entire Pacific Mazda property.
Dalmatian is a partnership between Jawl Residential and Nadar Holdings, a company owned by the family of the late Victoria mayor Peter Pollen, who bought Olson Motors at 1060 Yates in the 1960s. (He ran it as a Ford dealership until 1988, when it became Pacific Mazda, but it remains in the Pollen family.) The property, consisting of nine parcels of land, is oddly zoned. The eastern half is designated S-1, which permits buildings up to five storeys covering no more than 60 percent of the land, with a floor-space density up to 1.5:1. The western half is R-48, which allows up to 10 storeys, but doesn’t limit coverage and says nothing about density; Dalmatian says that effectively gives the western half a huge “theoretical” density of 9.8:1. Neither zone permits a fire hall, so some rezoning is needed. Dalmatian proposes spreading the R-48 density around the site, and erecting four mixed-use buildings: the fire hall, limited to 12 storeys because of its seismic requirements, and three connected towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall.
Last summer, Dalmatian revealed the fire-hall building’s design, crafted by HCMA (the architects also working on the new Crystal Pool), and the DRA held a community meeting in the Mazda showroom to discuss the plans. Ninety-three residents turned up, and they were peeved — not with the developer, but with the City for letting the project get this far before consulting the public. “I’m beginning to feel like I’m part of a social experiment, to see how much noise, how much disruption I can take before I will be pushed out of this area,” said a guy who lived on the north side of Johnson. Several said they saw no benefit to their neighbourhood, just five or more years of construction, and then sirens. “This is just cramming more and more buildings in. We’ve got no green space, and this is supposed to be Harris Green,” another complained. “Where’s the City of Victoria’s planning department on this?” he demanded, to applause from the audience.
Dalmatian’s rezoning proposal includes three towers, 14 to 17 storeys tall, at the northwest corner of Yates and Cook, along with the building containing the fire hall (centre back) (Image: HCMA Architecture + Design)
“We just want the City to lead by example, and respect its foundational planning documents,” says Ian Sutherland, the chair of the DRA’s land-use committee. The Official Community Plan considers the area “core residential,” allowing a density of only 5.5:1; the proposal has an overall density of 6.8:1. There’s no legal right to swap densities around to different parcels, Sutherland says, and doing so would set a dangerous precedent. It would also give a huge “lift” to the total value of the property, one that would be largely missed by the paltry $12 per square foot the City currently requires in community amenity contributions (CACs) for densities above 3:1. “As soon as this zoning happens, that’s it, the money’s collected, and then they can build whatever they want in the future as of right without any further CACs at all.”
Sutherland wants the City to enforce the 5.5:1 density in the OCP and R-48’s 10-storey limit. He’s worried, however, that councillors may think they have no alternative to what has been proposed. He got a copy of the Dalmatian contract via FOI, and though heavily redacted, its text makes clear the deal to build the fire hall is contingent on a rezoning of “all of the Development Lands”, and permitting “any density not used in connection with the [fire hall] Project to be used on the Nadar Remainder Lands”.
Consequently, on November 22 he wrote to councillors on behalf of the DRA, appealing to them to respect the neighbourhood’s concerns. “The signing of the contract for this Fire Hall was made by the previous council without any public knowledge or assent and has locked the City into terms that are highly questionable. The public is invited to participate as an afterthought but is told that the deal has been struck; it’s this or nothing. But we propose this is a false choice and that this application is not the only way forward. We ask our new council to consider themselves not bound by the terms of this contract as written.”
VICTORIA CERTAINLY NEEDS a new No. 1 fire hall. The existing one, built in 1959 and only 26,700 square feet, is so cramped that the department’s largest trucks barely fit into its bays. (Worse yet, a 2010 report said the entrances could collapse in a quake, making it impossible for the trucks to leave.) Firefighters sometimes have to drive against one-way traffic on Yates to get onto Fort and reach the eastern part of the City.
The proposed site isn’t perfect. It’s west of the “recommended” area in a 2016 City staff report, but fire trucks can travel quickly east on Johnson, and north and south on Cook. A third-party evaluation said the driveway is too short to let fire trucks safely turn into traffic on Johnson, but controlled lights can stop cars up the street. What about the noise, though?
David Jawl, a development manager for the fire hall project, says he’s confident the fire service will be an excellent neighbour. “They can be a 24/7, eyes-on-the-street safety presence,” he notes, and they have experience operating stations next to apartments, on Yates and in James Bay. (The department says it won’t turn on sirens until a vehicle reaches Cook.) Besides, Jawl adds, “we plan on developing the future phases right next to the fire hall. So any concern a neighbour across the street has about noise or disruption, we share those concerns.”
Jawl Residential has added a public plaza at the corner of Yates and Cook, plus several levels of underground parking, to help win over the neighbourhood. The potential element likely to sway councillors, though, is affordable housing. In November, the Province announced that it is giving Pacifica Housing $19 million to build 130 mixed-income rental units downtown, and Jawl is seeking approvals to put all of them over the fire hall. (Calgary has a fire station with an 88-unit affordable-housing tower, and last year Vancouver opened a fire hall with 31 apartments for vulnerable women and their children.) “We wanted to stick our necks out a bit,” Jawl says, “and [show] that we could try and do a beautiful-looking affordable housing project.”
Getting all this, Jawl says, requires master-planning and rezoning the entire property instead of just doing it in pieces. That would also ensure that the plaza, the parking, and the requirements in the City’s Downtown Core Area Plan — which permits up to 17 storeys on the western half of the property, he notes — around tower separation, view corridors, and setbacks, all get enshrined in the bylaw generated by the rezoning. “We feel it provides an amazing opportunity for the whole neighbourhood to blossom into this mixed-use, vibrant hub of downtown.”
David Jawl is Peter Pollen’s grandson. His mom, Kathy, is Pollen’s daughter, and his father Michael is related to the esteemed Jawl Properties clan that built Selkirk Water, The Atrium, and other local landmarks. (Jawl Residential is run by Michael, David, and his siblings Elizabeth and Peter.) David says his grandfather, a passionate advocate for a healthy downtown, started family discussions about transitioning the Mazda property 10 years ago, and in 2015, when the City put out a call for interest in building a new fire hall, Pollen gave his blessing to their proposal. “So we have a lot of connection to this land,” David Jawl says. “We feel a lot of responsibility in how it gets developed.”
Ross Crockford wishes everyone, including Victoria’s politicians, a happy 2019.
Edited by Ross Crockford