Downtown Victoria is Dealing with Unprecedented Change

Douglas takes a snapshot of our downtown as people argue over and innovate solutions for keeping the urban core great amidst fast growth.

Downtown Victoria Douglas Vancouver Island Magazine

How you experience downtown Victoria depends greatly on which blocks you explore. Some are flush with heritage charm. Others are contemporary — curated to meet the needs of a tech-fuelled workforce. Then there are the buildings that have seen better days but provide important and affordable rentals.

Not only does downtown have many sides, it must satisfy many needs. It’s the commercial, retail, tourism and entertainment hub for the Capital Region, and it’s home to some 8,460 residents and growing (according to 2016 Census data on downtown, Harris Green and North Park). The City of Victoria’s 2012 Official Community Plan (OCP) predicted downtown would see 10,000 new residents by 2042, but 2019 stats show Victoria has already reached 40 per cent of that population expectation. The likelihood of this region exceeding OCP predictions is high.

There are pluses and minuses to the increased density. Retail vacancy rates have fallen to under four per cent under the current mayor and council, down from 10 per cent in 2014. Many stakeholders say having more people living downtown will increase the area’s safety, which is important to those who already live or work there.

“As a business owner, I like the fact that there’s another set of eyes on the street when people are going for a run or walking their dog — these are people who are invested in the health of the downtown because it’s their community …,” says Teri Hustins, owner of two Oscar & Libby’s gift stores downtown.

“In the 1990s you could bowl down Government Street after 5 p.m.,” Hustins adds. “So I think the pairing of residents and the business community along with different social agencies and community groups makes for a really healthy, vibrant community.”

To accommodate a growing population, downtown is densifying rapidly as developers, buoyed by low interest rates and a robust economy, are reimagining everything from downtrodden heritage buildings to entire city blocks.

This growth has brought issues affecting downtown into sharp focus. Just mine the local news media for letters to the editor, or visit Vibrant Victoria’s message boards, and you’ll find strong differences of opinion.

Some people feel dedicated bike lanes are ruining the city, while others valorize this infrastructure. Some want taller buildings; others think height and massing will kill the esthetics. The area’s newest buildings are lauded by some, while traditionalists mourn the perceived loss of heritage. Then there’s the concentration of social services in the area, which has created a lot of fear in regard to the clusters of people suffering from addiction and homelessness that fan out from Pandora Ave.

“The biggest challenge for Victoria is threefold,” says Miko Betanzo, the City of Victoria’s senior city planner and urban design specialist in charge of downtown. “It’s to ensure that the functions and needs of downtown continue to be met while ensuring it’s still livable and the character and authenticity of Victoria remains intact. Those things are sometimes opposed, and sometimes they work in unison, so it’s about keeping the balance.”

Where is the Balance?

Maintaining that balance relies on many things, primarily successful placemaking, which Betanzo says means designing for people first, as opposed to cars or garbage loading or developers.

To do that, Victoria’s planning department has to synthesize these discordant voices at a street level and ensure that a diversity of residents can comfortably meld and interact downtown. It also needs to safeguard against inequity — so one demographic isn’t favoured over another. That means finding a balance between financially stable condo owners and the city’s homeless population — and everyone in between.

Interestingly, many of the people most accepting of realities of downtown are the people who live there, as opposed to those who commute in to work or visit as a day-trip diversion.

Paul Gandall, a lawyer, downtown dweller and president of the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) says while his group does have concerns about what the city is getting back from developers as it navigates this aggressive period of growth, downtown living is comfortable for most people.

“I think Victoria’s downtown … is like any other. It has pros and cons in terms of convenience and transport and operating hours and noise,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly unexpected about it when it comes to living here.”

Lori Smith* and her husband have lived in a condo near Vancouver and Yates streets for 26 years. She takes the changes, including the massive number of buildings going up in her Harris Green neighbourhood — the fastest densifying part of the downtown area — in stride. There, 16 active and large projects will account for roughly 2,000 new residential units, 45,000 square feet of commercial retail space and 8,000 square feet of office space. Some of these projects are in the works or imminent; others have been completed within the last two years.

“I love my views and my apartment,” Smith says, “but I knew when we bought that those things might eventually go away as the neighbourhood was built out.”

Smith takes the city as it is. “I know the street people in my neighbourhood, and I have everything I need within a few blocks,” she adds, “so I feel very lucky to be here. I have to say, though, if smelling your neighbour’s curry or hearing sirens bothers you, I don’t know why you’d choose to live downtown in the first place — it’s part of the colour of living here.”

Pandora’s Box

Just a few blocks from Smith’s condo is an area many people identify as the flashpoint for their fears of what could happen if a balance isn’t maintained downtown.

Pandora Ave., between Douglas and Cook, has been controversial for everything from bike lanes to open drug use to gentrification. It’s where the city’s homeless issues (a recent homeless count put the number at 1,525 in Greater Victoria, down 18 per cent from 2016) are most visible, especially since the area is now in the spotlight with the announcement of more condos and mixed-use projects.

City projections show thousands of new residents will move into new buildings along the Pandora corridor over the next five years. Some of the developments include BlueSky Properties’ mixed-use project in the 1000-block, which will include a Save-On-Foods on the ground floor, plus more than 200 residential rental units above. The V1488 project by Cox Development is a 16-storey, 102-unit rental building with ground-floor commercial at the corner of Cook and Pandora. Across the street at the Wellburn’s site, a proposal is under review for a six-storey building with 100 rental units by Vancouver’s District Development Corp. In the 900 block of Pandora, a 16-storey, 166-unit rental tower has been proposed by Townline, the developer who brought The Hudson to life.

The new residents and employees these developments will draw will dramatically change the current look and feel of the Pandora corridor, which currently has services for a good portion of the city’s homeless and addicted population. Long-time developer Chris LeFevre thinks these changes will echo the transformation that took place in Old Town in decades past.

“The more people you have living in the zones that are a concern, the better it is,” says LeFevre, whose eponymous development company has created hundreds of affordable living units downtown. “Integration of people from all walks of life is fundamental to any city, and if you incarcerate them in one zone it’s just like creating a prison, and that’s bad planning.”

Though new residential and commercial spaces will redefine the neighbourhoods, shuffling the city’s poor and homeless populations elsewhere doesn’t address root causes of the problem.

Homelessness is seen by many who work in the social-service realm as a major stumbling-block to well-being for people suffering from addiction, trauma and brain injury.

“People don’t have anywhere to go — they can’t get into housing, and there’s no place they can be safe and try to cope with their situation,” says Don Evans, executive director of Our Place Society which owns a purpose-built facility in the 900 block of Pandora Ave. that has been operating since 2007.

The magnitude of need is clear when you look at how many people depend on Our Place’s 68 programs, which include supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites, along with services for those dealing with addiction, mental illness, brain injury, trauma and homelessness.

“So people are caught in this cycle of addiction,” Evans adds. “Now we’ve drawn them out of isolation, [it’s made] them more visible. That’s created the situation we have on Pandora, where people are feeling uncomfortable seeing people who are actively using substances because they don’t understand why they’re doing it, or what they’re doing.”

Evans says getting his clients into permanent, safe homes is the critical first step toward recovery, and he has garnered a great deal of support on the issue from local political, community and business leaders.

Victoria’s mayor Lisa Helps says access to housing is a top priority for the City, which is revising its housing strategy to establish an aggressive 10-year plan to create more affordable units by way of incentives and inclusionary housing. City officials are also exploring redevelopment opportunities downtown.

“We’re really looking under every rock and using every tool possible in our tool kit to create, incentivize and fund more affordable housing in the downtown,” says Helps. “When the city says affordable, we mean costing no more than 30 per cent of a household income for a low-to-moderate income in the city.”

Amidst still-high levels of homelessness, the City has raised the ante of its housing trust fund to one million dollars, up from $250,000, which will go to private, non-profit developers at a rate of $10,000 per affordable housing unit.

This, along with last year’s provincial commitment of $7 billion for a B.C.-wide affordable housing strategy means there is ample money to house people. Where and what that should look like is another question, especially for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

Housing for All

Lack of affordable housing in the core isn’t just affecting Our Place clients. A hot real estate market has made single-family dwellings outside downtown unaffordable for low- and middle-income earners. Condos, once considered a viable point of entry into the real-estate market, are increasingly pricey — especially for family-friendly two-or-three bedroom units. There’s also a lack of affordable rentals, which makes housing people who work in and around downtown tricky. And that affects employers too.

“When I speak to our member businesses, the number-one concern I hear is the struggle they’re having attracting and retaining good workers,” says Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt.

She says housing affordability is a major obstacle. “We need investment in stable non-market housing designed for working families with rents based on local incomes and not the international marketplace.”

One of the solutions The Chamber has proposed to government is separating the need for workforce housing from the region’s international real estate market.

“The real-estate industry is vital to our economy so we don’t want to destroy it,” Holt adds, “and it is not reasonable to think government regulations will reduce housing costs back to the point where the average family can afford to buy a house.”

The Customs House redevelopment at Government and Wharf preserves part of the facade. The luxury development will include 57 high-end condos. Photo by Jo-Ann Loro

Protecting heritage

Amidst all of this densification and push to create more housing for more people, some critics are concerned about overwhelming Victoria’s older building stock. Their concerns aren’t exclusively about housing affordability — they are also worried about pricing businesses out of the core. Keeping “a little bit of the city shitty,” as Bentanzo says, is good for new businesses who require lower rents to get into a stable commercial cycle and small businesses who can’t afford commercial space in new developments.

“To understand the priorities we are focusing on, everything new and shiny isn’t necessarily good,” Bentanzo adds. “Often, the things that exist and contribute to the function of the city come, more than we realize, from old building stock, which allows for startups or cafés, and when we look at that less than adequate building stock and converting it to other priorities like affordable housing, a very careful conversation must take place so that we know what we’re giving up and what we’re getting.”

There’s old building stock, and then there’s heritage. Heritage preservation through renovation has been a policy priority of many Victoria city councils over the years, and it’s not without its controversy, especially when it comes to facadism.

Facadism refers to the practice of keeping the exterior of a building to retain a vintage look, while gutting the rest due to safety or cost concerns. High-profile local examples include the Era building on Yates St., the Union building on Pandora Ave. and the Customs House project on Government St., in which only the shell of the former building was retained. That project, by developer Cielo Properties, will accommodate a high-end, 57-unit development. Some residents worry the City is being too accommodating to developers who care more about the bottom line than heritage preservation and height restrictions.

One of the city’s most outspoken advocates for heritage preservation is former city councillor Pamela Madoff, who recently joined a group of 50 citizens, including heritage planners and neighbourhood representatives, who are concerned Old Town’s heritage program is “slipping out of balance.”

“When you look at the character of the city — and that we actually enjoy an international reputation for the quality of our built heritage — when you start going down that road to facadism, it starts turning the city into basically what appears to be a film set.”

Betanzo says the City has done a fantastic job of preserving its heritage to the extent that it will not likely ever be under threat. Perceptions of that kind, he notes, have more to do with a “changing of the guard” and evolving notions of identity.

“There’s a lot of new people coming on and a lot of older people have moved on, and I think there’s a concern that all of that hard work might go away with that change, but the reality of that is not there,” he says. “Everyone can recognize the benefits of heritage to the authenticity and identity of the city, and we could almost do a better job of concentrating on other areas as opposed to some nebulous threat of heritage demolition.”

Whether a development is a heritage renovation or a new build, the DRA is keeping a close eye on changes taking place. Not only does the DRA assess appropriateness of development proposals by holding its own public meetings, it will also pressure developers to provide solutions to perceived issues with build-outs, including massing and public amenities.

The DRA recently encouraged changes to a proposal by Jawl Residential and Nadar Holdings for a 12-storey mixed-use building on the Pacific Mazda lot at Cook and Johnson. The project will house Victoria’s new No.1 firehall and emergency service centre, plus 130 affordable housing units. The developers have plans to build three other towers on the site.

Concerned about a lack of green space around the project, the community and land-use meeting organized by the DRA led to the creation of a 2.5-metre setback around the property, in addition to a dedicated public plaza, something Dave Jawl of Jawl Residential said his group was happy to do. But not all downtown stakeholders feel the need for new public spaces, given the state of existing squares and parks.

“A lack of green space is not something your average downtown resident would raise as a concern,” says Mike Kozakowski, publisher of the local development news site Citified and online forum Vibrant Victoria. “If anything, there’s more of a concern from people who live down there that the public spaces we do have aren’t used very well.”

He points to Centennial Square. “It’s a massive open space,” he says, “but it’s hardly used because there’s a [sense] that it’s not conducive to spending a nice afternoon with the kids… so the question is: Does downtown Victoria actually need more parks or does it just need more densification to have more eyes and ears on the streets? That’s the sentiment I keep hearing.”

While public consultation is integral to the development process, helping to create livable, vibrant spaces for residents, it can also ease tensions between communities and developers. Much of Victoria’s new development in and around downtown is in areas that have been underused or poorly maintained over the years. Keeping density in appropriate areas is part of creating and maintaining vibrancy near the city’s commercial hub.

“If we’re unable to densify Harris Green on a surface parking lot that’s been used as an automotive service dealership for 50 or 60 years, I’m not sure where we can develop and densify,” says Jawl in reference to the Pacific Mazda car lot proposal. “That’s the best place to do it where we’re going to have the least amount of negative impact and the greatest amount of positive impact.”

Inspiration from Seattle

As Victoria grapples with the push and pull associated with creating a vibrant, livable city core, it could look to Seattle, which is facing similar, if more intense, pressures. There, a booming tech sector is bringing thousands of new residents into the downtown core every month, making Seattle the fastest-growing city in the U.S. The city’s development boom has resulted in 69,000 new housing units coming on market in the urban core in the past seven years.

Plans for the City’s new No.1 firehall and emergency response centre include four towers at 12-, 14-, 15- and 17-storeys high for a two-acre site on the edge of downtown and Harris Green.

Where the city differs from Victoria, beyond sheer population, is in how it is navigating development. Seattle residents pay a housing levy, a tax which goes directly to the creation of housing for people making 60 per cent or below the median income in the metro area.

Seattle developers can “pay or play,” essentially a choice between giving dollars to the City’s housing fund or incorporating below-market units into their plans. They can also defer property taxes on projects that provide 20 to 25 per cent of units at an affordable rate.

Seattle’s council has already upzoned the majority of the city’s multi-family and commercial stock to allow for more density, and because the City of Seattle depoliticized the permit process, very few applications go to council. Seattle has also launched an easy-use website that helps residents explore the nuances of all proposed builds.

“None of this comes without controversy,” said Nathan Torgelson, director of Seattle’s department of construction and inspections at a recent talk to the Urban Development Institute Capital Region in Victoria. “Many in the development community feel the fees are too high, and many neighbourhood activists don’t like the idea of increased density in their neighbourhoods, so it’s been a tricky discussion… The devil is in the details — planning is not easy.”

*Name has been changed by request

This article is from the April/May 2019 issue of Douglas.