Envisioning the Arts and Innovation District

The City of Victoria’s ambitious plan, Victoria 3.0, proposes an entirely new neighbourhood, the Arts and Innovation District, that will revamp a downtrodden area of downtown into an inspiring showcase of B.C. architecture and sustainable design — complete with a Marine innovation centre.

Mayor Lisa Helps and Julie Angus, CEO of OpenOcean Robotics, at the proposed site of the Arts and Innovation District. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

It’s a gusty afternoon as Lisa Helps walks briskly along Queens Avenue. She nods politely to a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard taking a hacksaw to a shopping cart on the sidewalk in front of the Bottle Depot Return-It Centre.

He’s the only person visible on a street lined with bland single-story buildings and expanses of asphalt parking lots, most of them three- quarters empty. If a tumbleweed rolled down the middle of the street, it would complete a picture that doesn’t exactly suggest vibrant urban prosperity. However, if Victoria’s mayor has her way, this underutilized and slightly downtrodden neighbourhood on the north end of downtown will be transformed into the Arts and Innovation District — a hub of creativity, ideation and entrepreneurialism.

Currently, the neighbourhood is an uninspiring mix of low density, single story-dominated heavy industrial, commercial and retail development, and recently remediated industrial land owned by the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations around Rock Bay. The aspirational Arts and Innovation District would be like an extreme makeover, and it forms the cornerstone of Victoria 3.0, the city’s economic development road map for the next 20 years.

The time is right to think big about what Victoria could be. COVID-19 has revealed in
a big way the city’s economic blind spots and vulnerabilities, especially the tourism sector and related businesses that are so dependent on in- bound travellers.

As the pandemic sent local businesses into hibernation, the mayor and city staff wisely revisited Victoria 3.0. Helps says it would have been “tone deaf” not to pull the document from the agenda and give it a hard second look in light of the local and global disruption caused by the pandemic. The updated version of the economic plan was passed by council on May 14 and is focused more crisply on building a resilient, inclusive and low-carbon economy over the next two decades. It also leans more heavily into the arts: in the updated plan Innovation District became Arts and Innovation District.

“I don’t think anyone could really have anticipated the impacts of COVID-19,” Helps says, as wind blows off the Inner Harbour and whistles along Queens Avenue. “It’s shown us how vulnerable we are, but it’s given Victoria 3.0 even more relevance and urgency.

I think people are all in. We want to focus on what we do well, and the Arts and Innovation District is a big part of the vision. We already have a strong tech sector, but right now jobs and salaries per acre around here are very low. We want to preserve these lands as high value, employment-generating properties.”

Exploring Potential

It doesn’t stop there. Not only will it be a place where arts and culture flourish, ideas incubate, R & D thrives and products and services are commercialized, the area is also meant to showcase construction and building design that puts climate change resiliency and sustainability at the forefront, and also models social and cultural inclusion. It’s ambitious, but if there ever is a time for hope and visionary thinking around how to revitalize roughly 10 square blocks of inner-city real estate, it’s now.

However, it takes a rich imagination to envision what could be for the desolate- looking properties around Rock Bay that are dominated by sweeping expanses of asphalt.

In the summer of 2019, Victoria’s economic development staff took a master class on modern cities with Rosemary Feenan, executive VP of research at Vancouver’s QuadReal Property Group and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Cities and Urbanization Council. It was a wake-up call for Helps and her staff to carefully assess Victoria’s role in a rapidly changing global economy.

For further inspiration, Victoria looked to the German city of Dortmund, which is undertaking a similar revitalization of industrial lands. Last October Victoria hosted a German delegation, including Ullrich Sierau, Dortmund’s lord mayor, to share ideas about innovation.

Helps admits these are early days but is enthusiastic about the potential. On the plus side, she says the concept has broad-based support from the marine industry sector, local First Nations, the University of Victoria and new landowners like Reliance Properties, which is closing a deal to buy nearly seven acres of industrially zoned Capital Iron land in August.

The acquisition adds to the Vancouver company’s portfolio of Victoria heritage properties, which includes 780 Blanshard, Fairfield Block, Northern Junk, the Board of Trade Building and The Janion. Jon Stovell, president and CEO of Reliance Properties, calls the Capital Iron property along Store Street, “the gateway” to the Arts and Innovation District.

“We’ve been given an invitation to take part in Victoria 3.0, and we’re enthusiastic
and willing partners,” says Stovell, over the phone from Reliance’s Vancouver office. “We want the city to understand that it has to be a win-win. We want to be part of something that is visionary because it’s the right thing to do, but it must be de-risked for us. The devil will be in the details, and it’s going to take strong leadership. I think the mayor realizes that.”

Looking for Early Wins

Dave Ganong*, former managing director at Collier’s International, helped broker the Capital Iron real estate sale for the Greene family, who owned the property, and Ganong is now project manager for the project for Matullia Holdings, a joint venture between the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Matullia currently owns three acres of former Transport Canada land and will close a deal to buy an adjacent four acres from BC Hydro next January. For the Arts and Innovation District to have any chance of coming to life, it will require buy-in from the two largest landowners in this northern corner of downtown Victoria, Reliance and Mattulia, which own nearly 15 acres between them.

“It’s in its infancy and developers can be skeptical of city councils,” says Ganong, “but the steps Lisa Helps has taken so far to do something innovative and creative are very encouraging.”

The mayor knows it will be important to get some early wins. By the end of her term in 2022, Helps hopes to have crossed key milestones on the way to realizing the Innovation District dream.

As a first step, she hopes to have city staff complete a design charette at a cost of $150,000 to taxpayers, which will aim to bring landowners and other stakeholders to the table to develop a shared vision and implementation framework. By the time Victoria residents return to the polls for the next civic election, she also wants to have all the necessary Arts and Innovation District rezoning in place. That said, the city will have to get financially creative to move the project forward. Helps estimates that it will take two years and the efforts of two full-time planners at a cost of $750,000.

“That’s not in the city budget, so we’re looking at ways to subsidize the cost, so the property owners don’t have to assume that risk,” Helps says. “I really don’t care how we fund it. I just want to get it done.”

The city’s focus on innovation is well aligned with some important thinkers on the subject. In his final report to the province in January 2020, outgoing British Columbia innovation commissioner Alan Winter struck a prescient, call-to-action tone.

“British Columbia cannot continue to lean on sectors reliant on tangible assets for prosperity … We must recognize that the world is being transformed by intangible assets, such as data, software, intellectual property and product development, all leading to increased competitiveness for those jurisdictions that invest,” Winter wrote in the report’s executive summary. “By building on our strengths, and investing in ideas and people, we can manoeuvre through current economic headwinds and ride global trends to a resilient, sustainable and prosperous future.”

Capitalizing on Strengths

Long time Victoria property manager and real estate broker John Hopper believes the Arts and Innovation District is an idea whose time has come.

“Victoria’s tech sector has grown so much, and I think that will help give this project legs,” says Hopper, who along with his business partner in Geerjo Development Services, Eric Bramble, is an Arts and Innovation District champion.

Three decades ago, Hopper helped found the Rock Bay Ratepayers Association to promote the area’s revitalization. However, Hopper says the group felt like it was constantly swimming against the tide. Two years ago, the association disbanded because, “it didn’t seem like anything was going to change,” Hopper says.

“For so long Victoria has been so focused on housing. Lisa’s the first mayor to seriously look at capitalizing on what Victoria is good at — innovation,” he says.

So far Hopper also likes what he’s hearing from city hall. The region has some natural attributes that bode well for a progressive vision. For starters, there are relatively few landowners, meaning there won’t be too many cooks in the planning kitchen, scrapping over a common vision and path forward.

“Usually when you’re talking about plans like this, you have 300 owners in the room,” Hopper says.

Secondly, he says the Rock Bay lands already have a mix of industrial and commercial zoning, which provides a strong foundation for high-value employment generation.

Ocean Future Cluster

If the Arts and Innovation District is a Victoria 3.0 cornerstone, then the Ocean Futures Cluster is a proposal that could get this economic development initiative out of the starting gate with a bang.

The theoretical cluster will be anchored by Blue Economy principles, defined by the World Bank as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.” Kate Moran, professor of earth and ocean sciences, is president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, a globally recognized research institution with a staff of 160, based at the University of Victoria campus.

The organization operates the NEPTUNE and VENUS cabled ocean observatories in the northeast Pacific Ocean and in the Salish Sea, and is involved in numerous other ocean monitoring and research projects. Moran anticipates that the Ocean Futures Cluster could help bridge the gap between R & D and commercialization in Victoria’s marine sector.

She believes the city is uniquely positioned to carve out a sustainability niche that’s distinct from the St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador-based Oceans Super Cluster, which is focused more on commercial fishing, oil and gas, and other extractive industries.

“Victoria is the right place to do this,” Moran says. “People get it here.”

Kate Moran // Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet

According to Moran, Victoria already has the solid building blocks of a cluster. Companies and organizations like Seaspan, BC Ferries and the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority are all looking to become more sustainable and are putting dollars behind green initiatives. Victoria is also home to world-leading companies in the ocean sensing sector, such as ASL Environmental Sciences and JASCO Applied Sciences. Couple this private sector expertise with the platform for data gathering and number crunching provided by Ocean Networks Canada, and Moran believe it’s a winning formula.

To jumpstart the Ocean Futures Cluster, and, in turn, the Arts and Innovation District, she says it makes sense to start with a low-hanging fruit project, such as a technology testing tank that would be shared by industry and academia.

“Along with providing shared resources, a space for collaboration and educational events, the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub is an accelerator and incubator, offering critical business resources and mentorship needed for early-stage companies to grow,” says Julie Angus, CEO of Open Ocean Robotics.

Envisioning What Could Be

Right now, the Arts and Innovation District is long on ideas but short on details. It’s like an outline of a masterpiece in economic revitalization waiting for innovators, entrepreneurs and developers to colour between the lines. Rosemary Feenan, of QuadReal Property Group, believes Victoria has the fundamentals of “a 3.0 city,” rich in creativity and lifestyle attributes. As a provincial capital, with a well-established tech base and world- leading oceanography expertise, she says, Victoria has natural connectivity with neighbouring Pacific Northwest hubs.

“Victoria has a very strong business and community voice and a sense of what they want the city to be,” Feenan says. “They have a passionate mayor, and the Arts and Innovation District is a great start.

Our walk ends at KWENCH. Mayor Helps considers this hip coworking space on Store Street as a snapshot of what could be. It was cofounded by Tessa McLoughlin in 2017 in a building designed by the iconoclast architect Francis Rattenbury in the late 1800s.

The 25,000 square foot, two-story brick building started life as a warehouse. For many years it was a decaying symbol of the industrial age. Today it’s a breezy open concept space that symbolizes nimble 21st century thinking where creatives, freelancers, artists, start-ups and remote-working corporate execs converge to work, share ideas — and socialize. Fitness classes, a podcast studio, a hair salon, a massage room and a soon-to-be opened restaurant are included with membership.

In many ways, KWENCH embodies on a small scale the globally fluent, innovative, inclusive and amenity-rich city that Victoria already is, but also could be so much better at.

“Tessa is modeling what we want to do with this property,” Helps says. “One of the great things about being mayor is that you get to champion really good ideas.”

Continue Reading: Coworking Culture is Here to Stay

*Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Dave Ganong as the managing director at Collier’s International (he is the former managing director) and Reliance Reliance as the project manager for Matullia Holdings for this project.