Will Victoria’s Old Town become a facade?
Leslie Campbell’s article on Victoria’s Old Town is excellent! It addresses all the key issues. It should be required reading for anybody interested in Old Town. I write as a member of the Heritage Advisory Panel, and as a relatively new Victorian, a transplant from Vancouver. The Heritage Advisory Panel has been holding special meetings to discuss how we may encourage the City to pay proper attention to Old Town and respect the many regulations and guidelines that are already in place.
On reading Leslie Campbell’s lament over the “hollowing out” of Victoria’s historical architecture, mostly in favour of what amounts to Joni Mitchell’s “little boxes made of ticky-tacky,” I could not help but be reminded of China’s so-called Ghost Cities, where no apparent reason (at least from a western perspective) can be conjured up for their existence. All it will take here in Victoria, is that the appeal for these modern edifices becomes focused elsewhere (whereupon the developers will disappear like swamp gas) and voilà…we will have what amounts to the makings of our very own “ghost city,” with no apparent reason for its existence.
Thank you for your well-written and most fair review of this matter.
I can assure you there are few, if any, heritage buildings about to fall over or are in particularly poor shape. They can virtually all be redeemed to their earlier glory, and because an individual paid too much for a property does not entitle a new owner to simply up the density and change the overall character of the neighbourhood and city.
Chris Le Fevre
Heartfelt thanks for your extensive and conscientious review of the complex issues in play for the future of an historic precinct. “Will Victoria’s Old Town Become a Facade?” is indeed a very worthy topic as our community moves to a new City council.
Also a salute to Stuart Stark and Pamela Madoff for continuing to uphold their important ideals and objectives for maintaining this unique and invaluable urban area.
It is indeed a daunting challenge for these times in downtown Victoria, to come to grips with an array of evolving and interdependent issues: shifting retail, employment, and housing needs; escalating real estate pressures; seismic precautions; long-term strategies for tourism; refurbishment of historic buildings; and care for that ephemeral component of the soul of a city—community memory.
In 1971, as a Victoria High School student, I first became involved in the early campaign to recognize, protect, and reuse the historic architectural buildings of downtown Victoria—collectively, the rare asset of an intact, contiguous 19th-century commercial city centre.
Through my subsequent career as a Victoria architect and urban designer, the maintenance of Victoria’s Old Town remains a central concern. As a city planner, I worked centrally on the preparation of the Downtown Core Area Plan—and know fully that one of its primary intentions was to retain the physical character and the authenticity of Downtown’s vintage districts.
A set of strategies were instituted, to encourage development to expand Victoria’s downtown east of Douglas Street—with greater allowances for building height and density in these areas, while tightly constraining increases in height and allowable density west of Douglas Street.
Analysis demonstrated that growth of over 10,000 new residents and considerable office and commercial expansion (over a million square meters of new building floor area outside of the historic commercial district) was achievable, without compromise to the retention of older districts.
Adaptation and renewal of our ever-struggling, but august Downtown is not a simple exercise: some innovations and compromises will be inevitable, but to what degree, and with what safeguards? At what point of change or redevelopment does an historic urban area begin to loose its essential integrity? What precautions are needed so that land speculators and developers do not begin to undermine or demolish delicate older buildings, in expectation of easy up-zonings, and for the convenience of parking lots (as have consumed so many older North American downtowns)?
Use of a Bonus Density Transfer System is often applied by cities to help conserve historic areas and to pay for rehabilitation, while at the same time using transferred densities to help support desirable new development in under-utilized areas—such as Victoria’s North Douglas/Blanshard Corridor.
Worthy places such as Quebec City, Old Montreal, and a multitude of historic European cities, hold to strict and intricate constraints to protect their antique centres—areas integral both to their tourist economies, and to their cultural identity.
Without similar disciplined self-defense, in a time of hungry real estate appetite, Victoria runs risks of broiling its own Golden Goose.
Landslide Lisa’s record as mayor
Your article on Lisa Helps’ first term is difficult to see as anything other than a hatchet job. That’s because you selected three “moments” as defining her term and find that in all she lied, evaded her responsibilities, or did a bad job. Almost as a grudging afterthought, in two paragraphs within a 6-page article you write that it’s a tough, contentious and complex job, and she’s done good and bad things for the City. It’s a hatchet job because all of the “moments” concern relatively ephemeral matters which will be relegated to footnotes in a few years, if remembered at all. What’s glaringly missing are the things that she’s done that will last. They generally aren’t “moments.” They are the things that really matter, changing and affecting the lives of citizens and the health and liveability of Victoria. They are many and impressive. They aren’t acknowledged at all, let alone discussed…
Each of the three episodes that you examined are interesting and, knowing your careful analytical skills, I accept that they are probably very accurately described. But will any of the three matters have a long-lasting impact on the City? Is your portrayal of character complete and rounded? And really, are they the best way to understand and evaluate the Mayor’s record prior to an election? In your opinion, is there really almost nothing that she’s done that’s positive? Because that’s the general message you conveyed. Surely that’s not credible.
You know what change there’s been during Helps’ term. It’s been huge. She’s not responsible “personally” for all that, most particularly the economic boom, no mayor could be, because City governance is a group exercise with a lot which is out of the control of any municipality. But leadership is critical. She has led and not held back, and must be given credit or blame (depending on your views) for what Council has done overall.
What do you think of the changes in the economic health of the City over that time, or the cycling network, or work on affordable housing, or on finally getting the sewage system in place, or the densification and influx of new residents and enterprises into the City, or the quality of public services, or the culture at City Hall with respect to the public, or collaboration with other municipalities or levels of government, or fiscal responsibility, or whether the council is forward-looking, or the nature and quality of development—always the biggest thing that any municipality has control over? And a whole lot more, obviously. Those are the things that have a lasting impact, some more than others. What do you think of her performance as the face and voice of the City?
As you say, she has a tough and complex job and one which is inevitably contentious. I’m not a fan of everything she’s done. She’s done some things, like the statue removal, as a personal project and very flat-footedly. But on balance her motives have been sound. She’s been an intelligent, forward-looking, inclusive, open, gutsy and strong leader in a time of great change as this city matures. The city is better for it.
David Broadland replies:
At the time we published the story, Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe had not released his final report, which appeared on September 26. Lowe was very specific about what Mayors Helps and Desjardins did to cover up former VicPD Chief Frank Elsner’s misconduct. The mayors lied to journalists and they tried to hide allegations of sexual harrassment against Elsner from Lowe’s office. They were also provided with evidence about Elsner’s own attempt to cover up his misconduct. This latter conduct was judged to be the most serious of Elsner’s misconduct and warranted, in retired Judge Baird Ellan’s opinion, “dismissal from policing.” Yet Helps and Desjardins ignored this evidence. The mayors could have fired Elsner for cause. Instead, Mayor Helps, in spite of knowing the details of Elsner’s misconduct and hiding them from Lowe, told journalists that Elsner was the “best thing that’s happened to this town and Esquimalt in a long time.” The legal process that followed cost Victoria taxpayers close to $1 million. It’s true that Mayor Helps’ conduct was just a series of “moments.” But detailing such moments of serious political misjudgment and holding Helps accountable for those lapses are far more necessary to the long-term health of our municipal democracy than acknowledging Helps’ support of urban densification or protected bicycle lanes. See page 14 of this edition for a full account of Lowe’s final report.
Mayor Barb Desjardins told Black Press, “As two female mayors, I can tell you that I would not have allowed that not to be investigated.” She was referring to the sexual harassment claim against then Police Chief Frank Elsner that she and Mayor Helps investigated.
Persecuting consenting personal behaviour, while masquerading as morality, to politically manipulate the public is a fascist tactic.
The Me Too movement is critical for womens’ justice. But this one doesn’t clearly fit the mold. The Office of the Police Complaints Commission (OPCC) effectively saying to “trust us” is condescending and arrogant. We’re not hearing that a subordinate’s dignity or physical security was threatened, or their employment jeopardized.
We deserve evidence that Chief Elsner’s tweets undermined public or personal security. That doesn’t require releasing potentially embarrassing material.
I met Chief Elsner a few months into his new position. He was the first police chief to visit Our Place. He was invited by the Victoria Committee to End Homelessness (VCEH).
Chief Elsner compassionately and humanely listened for two hours to the homeless, the poor, and their allies giving their experiences. He took to heart VCEH’s call to end “policing poverty”: end poor profiling, possession seizure, indiscriminate ticket issuance, “loitering” harassment and systematically arresting street substance users.
Chief Elsner pledged to change policy. It was clearly starting to happen.
A restorative justice approach is sufficient discipline—taking responsibility for immature social media and making amends, yes. Dictatorial guard changing, no. Mayors Helps and Desjardins were using this approach and it was working. They should have remained the ultimate arbiters, being democratically elected officials, presiding over their police departments.
Maybe input from the Victoria Committee to End Homelessness, Together Against Poverty Society, Society of Living Illicit Drug Users and the Alliance Against Displacement should also have been included.
Until actual personal or public harm is revealed, the effective outcome of the OPCC’s (sham?) “investigation” is the apparent coerced loss of a public official whose community benefit vastly outweighed his acknowledged indiscretion.
Herding dispossessed people like cattle away from the civilized citizens’ glitzy new downtown—whether it’s Camp Namegans’ residents or just Victoria’s daily sufferers without privilege shuffling through our streets —is fascist. Some people of influence may not have liked Chief Elsner’s challenge to this Old Guard approach. That seems to be the real cover-up.
I wanted to share with you the response from Councillor Alto on September 18 to a query about why minutes were not taken of the City Family meetings. Mayor Lisa Helps was originally contacted but deferred to Councillor Alto, who answered:
“When council approved the Witness Reconciliation Program in June 2017, it endorsed a program of work that was unlike anything the city had attempted before. In particular, the program acts in respect of the traditions shared with us by our nearest Indigenous neighbours, the Songhees and Esquimalt. Those Nations, like many of their neighbours, hold primarily to oral history and communication, using story telling as the primary means to share information, exchange ideas, and make important decisions.
“Council acknowledged that this new way of working would be challenging for us, as we would need to put aside our dependence on the written word, and open our minds to different values and ways of working together. We would need to learn to trust an entirely different process.
“In that spirit, there are no ‘Minutes’ in the conventional sense of our Western processes. We are present in the moment of gathering, and bear witness to the sharing conversation, understanding that one of our tasks is to act as a bridge, or translator, between the two conventions.”
I think it’s important for Victorians to understand how Mayor Helps’ approach to governance is fluid and autocratic. She appears to have no issue with dismantling certain foundations of transparent governance. Particularly for work in which certain citizens were paid an honorarium for their contributions.
I fail to see how minutes can be construed as an element of colonization, which is how Mayor Helps categorized the act of minute- taking in her request to contact Councillor Alto for comment.
Here is a response I got from one member of the City Family as to why minutes were not available for the public to read. It happened only after I accused them of secrecy. Charlayne Thornton-Joe wrote:
“The City Family did not have minutes mostly because we were respecting the First Nation’s Tradition of oral history. Which means we talked, we continued to talk, we went to the Songhees First Nation Chief and Council and spoke, then to Esquimalt Nations Chief and Council and spoke. Our conversations were witnessed by those in attendance which we then shared with Council in a report.”
I find this response unsatisfactory, to put it mildly.
The monies came out of the public purse, to which we all contribute.
Reconciliation is of supreme importance to all of us. City Family must be accountable to all of us, not only to one group, otherwise reconciliation can be turned into a double-edged sword.
Fresh out of Domani
In Focus’ last edition, Gene Miller suggested that there is an accelerating drama playing out in the communities of Greater Victoria, as he puts it, a “cultural battle about how to live with strong implications for land use.” My regular dog walks around north Gonzales in Victoria and over into Oak Bay seem to confirm this, judging by the lawns and utility poles festooned with signs exhorting passersby to “Stop Over Development by Oak Bay United Church—Respect our Neighbourhoods” and “Say No to Large Urban Village.” Clearly these proposals are seen by many residents as threats to their sense of home and community and “the social connections and relationships these places foster.” Why can’t we, as Gene once asked me in the checkout line at Capital Iron, just let people living in Fairfield and other established neighbourhoods put in secondary suites and the occasional garden cottage, rather than have to accommodate townhouses, and apartment buildings too?
As he notes further in his column, story comes first, policy follows, as we try to make the story come true. As the “technocrat” who led the planning team at the City of Victoria which developed the Official Community Plan in 2012, rather than trying to foist some mechanistic abstraction on Victoria, we were trying to put into bylaw language the story about Victoria’s future that emerged through a year-long consultation with more than 6,000 city residents. The story was about the value Victorians put on the quality of this place, and how it could grow and change over time in a manner that respected its essential character, becoming even more a city with a lively, walkable downtown surrounded by humane neighbourhoods, each with a village centre that put a nugget of urbanity and a focus for community life within walking distance of everyone. Turning any vision—whether of a city’s future or, as I have been involved in for the past two years, a house—into reality requires shifting narrative gears to something more like a script, with inevitable and essential quantities and metrics. In other words a strategy.
The strategy proposed in Victoria’s OCP calls for accommodating half of the forecast growth for the next 25 to 30 years, about 10,000 people, in the downtown core area; another 8,000 in 12 urban villages (all focused on existing places); with the remaining 2,000 people scattered throughout the remainder of the city’s neighbourhoods. It’s always possible that more people could choose to move to Victoria, but these estimates are consistent with what we have experienced over the past 25 years.
Contrary to what Gene Miller asserts in his column, a close reading of the OCP reveals a more nuanced understanding of community than simply as a collective market for local retail. Anyone who wants to know what a Large Urban Village (LUV) looks like just has to stand in front of the Beagle Pub on Cook Street and look around—Cook Street Village, and the surrounding residential area within a 10-minute walk composed of single detached houses, duplexes, four-plexes, townhouses, and apartments is the model. Victorians said unequivocally back in 2010-2012 that they wanted more of this—the sense of community, the local identity, the opportunity for face-to-face transactions with neighbours and friends—throughout the city. Also, they wanted to be able to reach shopping and community services on foot, which means that if you want a grocery store similar to the Thrifty Foods at Ross Bay, you need a local market area in the order of 15,000 people. Roughly what you find in James Bay.
What strikes me in all these numbers, particularly with respect to the urban villages and neighbourhoods, is just how modest they are outside of Downtown: about 80 people per year spread across Victoria’s neighbourhoods; 320 across 12 urban villages. If we want to keep shopping, schools and community services viable in some of Victoria’s neighbourhoods, in particular places like my neighbourhood Gonzales, where population has been flat or declining for years, these numbers are not likely enough. Victoria may have to try, as Gene Miller once advocated back in his Urban Development Institute days, to grab a bigger share of regional growth than forecast.
In my view, this distribution of new growth is too canted towards the Downtown and urban villages, where the predominant house form in the future will be apartments, whether rental or ownership. That works well for seniors and young singles, but less well for families with children. While some families are choosing to live in apartments, the majority would prefer a home with a yard of some kind, a challenge to provide in Victoria’s high-cost housing market, where a 5,000-square-foot lot with a modest house can cost upwards of $700,000 to $1 million depending on the neighbourhood. If we want to provide more opportunities for families to live in Victoria, we need to find room for more affordable ground-oriented housing—secondary suites, garden cottages, duplexes, four and six plexes, townhouses and freehold rowhouses—what current housing jargon calls “missing middle housing” in Victoria’s neighbourhoods, and not just in Burnside, Hillside-Quadra, Oaklands and Jubilee; in Fairfield, Rockland, and Gonzales too.
I don’t know if the obvious intimations of societal collapse surveyed so well in Miller’s column are behind the land-use conflict in Victoria’s waterfront communities. Similar dramas have played out repeatedly over the 20-plus years I have lived and worked here. There is constant tension between the desire of residents for community stability and control, and broader civic and regional challenges related to growth management, equity and social inclusivity. All of these dimensions need to be taken into account as we work our way through neighbourhood change and try to ensure that we maintain and enhance the qualities of community and place we love.
Saying “Stop” and “No” are not in the long run effective or fair strategies to ensure we get the communities we want. My worry, as I look around the room at community meetings on the Gonzales Neighbourhood Plan, and see a lot of people of my vintage expressing genuine hostility to the possibility of accepting even a few of these housing forms in the neighbourhood, is that what purports to be a concern for community character and respect for neighbourhoods is just plain old entitled exclusion. As Pat Carney once wrote about the Gulf Islands, the galvanizing ethos all too often seems to be: “I’m all right Jack, now pull up the ladder.”
Victoria’s waterfront neighbourhoods have some of the highest quality of life in the region, with access to the finest parks and views, along with easy access to transit, community amenities such as schools and, yes, shopping, on foot and by cycle. Their populations have been flat for years, and other neighbourhoods have taken on the lion’s share of the civic work of accommodating rental and social housing. Those of us who live in them, many old guys like Gene and I, who had the great good fortune to buy in 20 or 30 years ago when prices were still relatively affordable, shouldn’t squat on these neighbourhoods like dragons on a hoard of gold. Young people express a lot more acceptance of different housing forms in these communities, seeing in them the only conceivable way that they could ever possibly afford to live here. For the sake of healthy community life now, and future vibrancy, we need to welcome more people into our neighbourhoods, and let them evolve into richer, more complex places.
Public land and Northern Junk proposal
With regards to Ken Johnson’s letter “Public lands being sold to Northern Junk developer,” it seems to me that the real controversy over the Northern Junk property begins with the decision to preserve two abandoned buildings that are certainly old but that hardly seem to have any real heritage value. I am trying to imagine Victorians from the 1860s, or the 1910s, or the 1950s, or even the 1980s understanding why Victorians in 2018 would go out of their way to keep these two Northern Junk buildings standing. They were tiny little warehouses and, let’s face it, they aren’t that pretty and represent a bit of an eyesore at the “Gateway to Victoria.”
It seems to me that a lot of people in this region would be quite content to see the Northern Junk building knocked down and have that entire property turned into a green space that would also open up the view of the harbour instead of the proposed multi-storey structure that does the exact opposite.
When council finally gets around to having a referendum on the borrowing of money that might be required for the new Crystal Pool, they might want to consider killing two birds with one stone and ask Victorians what their preference is for the fate of the Northern Junk property.
Will Premier Horgan protect our water?
“All you need is two eyes to see it’s a bad idea to put toxic soils in a watershed looking down on the drinking water for 12,000 people.” This was John Horgan speaking to the Save Shawnigan Water rally at the BC legislature in 2015.
A huge pile of 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil sits in a quarry a few kilometres above Shawnigan Lake, awaiting a government decision. The soil contains hydrocarbons, sulphur, arsenic, chromium, lead and other heavy metals, all known to be dangerous to human health. About 12,000 people rely on the Shawnigan Lake watershed for their drinking water.
In January 2017, Justice Robert Sewell of the BC Supreme Court found so many deficiencies with the Shawnigan site’s permitting process that he ordered the permit to be sent back to the Environmental Appeal Board. The government cancelled the permit soon after Sewell’s decision, but it put off the decision on whether to remove the mountain of contaminated soil at the site.
Over 18 months later, as the approaching rainy season brings increased risk of leaching, government inaction is making the Shawnigan community increasingly anxious.
Sewell found that the conduct of quarry owner Cobble Hill Holdings (CHH) and its silent partner Active Earth Engineering “compromised the integrity of the approval process.” He also found that CHH co-owner Martin Block “was not being truthful in the evidence he gave with respect to the nature of the relationship between Active Earth and CHH.” “It is quite clear that the information provided to the [Environmental Appeal] Board by Mr Block was false.” Justice Sewell’s findings confirmed a secret 50/50 partnership between the company and the engineers.
The Shawnigan community is united in wanting the soil removed, and the long delay has many residents worried. “The contaminated soil should never have come here in the first place,” said Sierra Acton, Shawnigan area director at the Cowichan Valley Regional District. “It was completely opposed by the community even before the misleading evidence found by Justice Sewell. If the soil is not removed, it isn’t a question of if poisons will leach into the Shawnigan community drinking water, it’s a question of when. The community will not stand for it.”
Where does the NDP government stand on this? Premier Horgan is on record against the contaminated site at Shawnigan numerous times. The big question now is will Premier Horgan be as good as his word? Will he order the removal of the contaminated soil to safeguard drinking water, as his government should? Or will he do nothing, and leave the soil where it sits, setting the stage for much more expensive remedial action down the road.
This much is clear: the government may have changed, but it is “business as usual” at the Ministry of Environment. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, the Ministry still does not require that engineers be independent from the projects they are monitoring for the government.
The site monitoring reports posted on the Ministry of Environment website are stamped by an engineer who was a partner at Active Earth Engineering at the time of the secret agreement denounced by Justice Sewell. The Ministry still appears to see no potential conflict of interest with this monitoring arrangement.
Will Premier Horgan walk his talk and order the soil removal himself? Clearly, the fate of Shawnigan drinking water is in his hands.
Blaise Salmon, Shawnigan Research Group
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