Nowhere is the revitalization of downtown Victoria more obvious than in the boom in residential construction. Everywhere you turn downtown, there seems to be a towering crane putting up a new, upscale condominium development.
In the past, much of the new residential construction was in Victoria West’s Songhees area or Harris Green, more at the edges of downtown. The new construction, however, is right in the heart of the downtown shopping district and inner harbour area – which is one of the major attractions of these new developments.
One area that has seen a flurry of activity is along Humboldt Street. There is the Belvedere, a 16-storey concrete tower built at 788 Humboldt Street that opens this year with 77 suites and ground-level retail space. Nearby is the Astoria building, at 751 Fairfield, a 20-storey concrete tower with 164 stylish, modern suites. Both of these buildings are being built by Concert Properties of Vancouver. Just a few doors door work begins this spring on The Aria, a 12-storey, two-tower condo being built at 737 Humboldt, nextdoor to Victoria’s historic Church of Our Lord, by Alpha Project Developments.
All these pale in comparison to the massive Parkside Resort & Spa, a timeshare-like “fractional ownership” development being built at the corner of Humboldt and Blanshard across the street from the St. Ann Academy grounds. Developed by the Pearson family and Aviaest Resorts, Parkside’s 126 one- and two-bedroom condos are selling starting at $124,000 for a quarter-ownership and $420,000 for a full ownership.
To most downtown boosters, the boom in residential construction is overwhelmingly a good thing – although they do worry that many of the new units are higher-end condominiums bought by non-resident owners or speculators. A smaller handful of critics insist that out-of-town developers, primarily from Vancouver, are swooping in and buying up all the prime land, cheap, and in the process changing forever the unique, small-city character of Victoria. Ben Isitt, the Victoria Civic Electors’ candidate for mayor last year, strongly criticized high-rise developments that “threaten to destroy the character of Victoria’s neighbourhoods and downtown.” Still others complain that the boom in upscale residential construction will only further marginalize the already-marginalized downtown homeless population – which the last official census estimated at about 700 but which many believe to be much higher. With the average cost of a condominium in the Greater Victoria area now at $256,818, advocates for the homeless insist the City should be encouraging more low-cost housing, not luxury condominium developments.
Nevertheless, across the harbour on the Songhees, which is considered part of “Greater Downtown” by the Downtown Victoria Community Alliance (DVCA), development is continuing with rapidity. Shutters Spa & Residences, a $35 million condo developed by the Westbank Corporation of Vancouver, and consisting of 185 luxury residential units and spa facilities in a curved, 6-storey, semi-circular tower at 66-68 Songhees Road, is nearing completion. This is merely the first phase in yet another series of brand-new residential developments being built in Victoria West, a once-industrial area overlooking the harbour that is now being reclaimed for residential use. The most famous of these newer developments is Dockside Green, a massive $350 million development planned for 11.6 “brownfield” acres along Tyee Road, facing the Bay and Johnson Street bridges, owned by the City of Victoria.
Once completed in 10 to 12 years, the development, which will be built according to new “green” standards, will become a new urban community for 2,500 residents and also feature retail, office, light industrial and public facilities. Nearby is also planned Songhees Hillside, three planned condo towers, expected to range from 10 to 13 storeys, being built by Calgary developer Ken Mariash in four hectacres of land bordered by Esquimalt, Tyee and Kimta Roads. Like Dockside Green, the Songhees Hillside development is expected to consist of high-density residential and commercial floor space.
You might think that the rapid development of Victoria West would create a backlash from a minority of anti-development crusaders – and it has. But some people believe that Victoria in general, the Docklands development in particular, are too timid in pursuit of downtown housing initiatives, pursuing an outdated vision of low-rise “livability” that is unrealistic and not suited to the 21st century.
“The timid vision for the Dockside Lands only continues the inexplicable trend of underbuilding major projects in order to comply with our increasingly preposterous small-town mythology,” wrote columnist James Pagnotta recently. “A century ago, Victorians … built a large, dense downtown full of impressive buildings — including two buildings right on Douglas Street that were legitimate skyscrapers for their day (sadly, both were demolished decades ago and replaced with much shorter — but allegedly ‘Victoria-sized’ — midrises)… Downtown needs residents. Everyone knows this. Abandoned department stores, empty lots, parking lots, undeveloped sites … these things are NOT evidence of a vibrant downtown! We should be taking extreme measures to encourage residential development, instead we’re taking extreme measures to minimize and discourage it, all the while extolling downtown’s ‘livability,’ and then citing the fact that hardly anyone lives there as the ultimate proof!”
There is little doubt that municipal regulations and city planning can directly affect the number of people living downtown. According to the Downtown Victoria Community Alliance (DVCA), which conducted an extensive study of downtown residential patterns, there were 1,850 people living downtown in 1971. But in the early 1970s, the City began enforcing residential occupancy codes and, as a result, the downtown’s population plummeted 64% in ten years, hitting a low of 665 people in 1981.
Slowly, those numbers crept back up to 1,135 in 2001. Until recently, downtown residents were primarily single, never married adults (60%), about half of whom were under the age of 49. The vast majority (83%) rented apartments in one of the 820 private dwellings downtown, paying an average rent of $615 per month. The median income of all downtown residents, in 2002, was $20,300.
But all that is about to change.
An estimated 6,000 residents are expected to move into the downtown area in the next few years. If the DVCA planners have their way, those numbers will grow to 30,000 residents, within a 1.2 square mile area, by 2020. Naturally, not everyone is happy about this. The last mayoral election, in fact, was considered at least partly a referendum on whether, and how fast, Victoria should grow – with “pro-growth” Mayor Alan Lowe clearly winning the debate. However, “growth” issues abounded during the election with Esquimalt’s ecologically-minded Chris Clement defeating incumbent Darwin Robinson on a “smart growth” platform and pro-growth Sooke mayor Janet Evans squeaking by to win re-election.
One area of downtown that almost everyone agrees would benefit from increased residential use is the North End – and that is precisely what is happening. The lively retail outlets along Store Street, for example – such as Capitol Iron and Ocean River Sports in the heritage buildings at 1900 Store – are drawing increasing numbers of Victoria residents downtown. Upscale restaurants such as Queen Mother Wharfside and Canoe… and clubs such as Evolution on Discovery… are attracting a young, hip clientele. As a result, people are now considering moving into areas north of Pandora and in new condo and loft-type developments near and in Chinatown. On Cormorant Street you can see the Corazon, a 12-storey tower that will contain 76 residential condominium units ranging in size 500 to 1,350 square feet. Nearby at 1450 Government Street, developers are converting an old timber frame warehouse and office building into loft condominiums and ground floor commercial space dubbed The Vogue. And with the pending sale of the old Bay Building to Townline Developments, downtown boosters expect that at least a portion of this landmark heritage building may allocated for residential use – further revitalizing the area north of Pandora.