At 21 floors, perched on a rocky outcrop high above the Inner Harbour, the Promontory, located just west of the Johnson Street Bridge between Songhees and Dockside Green, will be Vancouver Island’s tallest building.
It’s hard to think of any similarly tall buildings that have been built in Victoria’s downtown core in recent memory. Sussex Place, which dominates Victoria’s downtown core, stands at 11 stories. The Era, currently being built by Concert Properties on Yates Street, will eventually stand at 15 stories.
In terms of other buildings of stature comparable to the Promontory, there seems to have been a long building drought in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s; one has to go back 40 years to when the last ones were built.
View Towers (19 storeys), in downtown Victoria, was built in 1968. Orchard House (22 storeys) was completed in 1969. Until the condo building boom in Victoria over the last ten years or so, these were some of the last truly high-rise apartment buildings to be built in the city.
A bias against high-rise buildings?
Towering over James Bay, Orchard House juts out like a sore thumb behind the Inner Harbour and the Legislative Precinct. “There was a real effort to protect affordable housing in James Bay,” says Peter Pollen, who served two separate stints as Victoria mayor in the 70’s and 80’s. “In the 1960’s many developers were buying up lots, combining them, and building apartment buildings.”
While Pollen says that the planning and construction of Orchard House was before his time as mayor, he notes that what we now consider heritage houses in James Bay had traditionally provided low-cost housing for Victoria’s service workers.
Demolishing the old houses to create highly profitable apartment high-rises were pushing people out of the neighbourhood. Pollen recalls that one tool to deal with the problem was height restrictions, but that the establishment of neighbourhood plans had more of an effect on limiting building heights in Victoria.
Changing ways of thinking about planning
Doug Koch, retired City of Victoria planner, was hired in the 1970’s after the decision to approve and build Orchard House, View Towers and other high rises occurred.
Koch says changing planning decisions in Victoria were also influenced by worldwide trends. Post-war tower blocks like View Towers had been fallen out of favour because they were considered to cause crime and other social problems.
While Victoria never built tower blocks (“View Towers served, and continues to serve as an important source of low-cost housing in the heart of the city,” says Koch), the city experimented with a massive “urban renewal” project in the 1960’s.
As part of this post-war approach to planning, a large swath of “undesirable” housing in the Blanshard-Rose neighbourhood was removed north of Bay Street to make way for what is now the Blanshard Street connector to Hwy 17, as well the Blanshard Court public housing project to the east.
Heritage preservation versus urban renewal
While the Blanshard Court public housing project is still considered to be a success, attitudes towards development were changing by the late 1960’s. A backlash against the Blanshard-Rose project contributed to the changing mood.
“Instead of urban renewal, the focus changed to heritage preservation,” says Koch. “Initiatives coming out of the 1967 Centennial helped.” As part of the Centennial, the federal government created and offered funding for a neighbourhood renewal program.
A neighbourhood plan was needed qualify for the program and for funding. So, three neighbourhoods in Victoria – James Bay, Fernwood, and Vic West – each created neighbourhood plans of their own.
These plans essentially changed the way development was approached in Victoria from the 1970’s onward. “Until the 1970’s, there was no grassroots planning in Victoria,” says Koch. Residents of the various neighbourhoods had more of a say over planning, which contributed to a decline in massive high rise developments. There was more of an emphasis on heritage preservation, beautification and the creation of green space. It would become more difficult to combine lots and build high-rises.
Martin Segger, a former Victoria city councillor and UVic faculty member who has spent most of his professional career writing about Victoria’s architectural history, notes that infrastructure – or a lack of it – also contributed to a decline in tall, “dense” high-rises in neighbourhoods like James Bay.
“At one time James Bay was actually intended to resemble the dense West End neighbourhood of Vancouver. But after a number of high-rises were built in James Bay, Victoria realized there was service overload,” says Segger. “In order to support more densification in James Bay there would have to be major infrastructure upgrades including sewage and water, and Victoria did not have the money to do it.”
The construction of UVic in the 1960’s, says Segger, also influenced approaches to building in Victoria. “The University of Victoria originally planned to build high-density towers for student housing, but this met with a lot of resistance in Saanich and Oak Bay,” says Segger. “This controversy also had an effect on planning in Victoria, making planners wary of dense high rises.”
Segger says that Victoria actually has a long history of promoting densification. “If you had arrived in the Inner Harbour early in the last century, you would have stepped up from the harbour and, block by block, the building height would have become taller,” with Church Hill and Christ Church Cathedral dominating the skyline in the east.
A legacy of densification, says Segger, and efforts after the war to preserve a walkable downtown, was the creation of high-rise car parks, which still exist today in the downtown core. Planners recognized the automobile was going to have a profound effect on post-war cities. One discarded project was to construct a Trans-Canada Highway viaduct that passed through Vic West, over the Inner Harbour and into James Bay behind the Parliament Buildings.
In the end, says Segger, there is no one cause of building trends in Victoria, such as the apparent decline of high rise towers like Orchard House. Instead, multiple factors influence how things get built, and what does not.
Nevin Thompson regularly writes about Vancouver Island construction projects on behalf of Dinning Hunter, a law firm in Victoria BC.