Exploring the New Vibrancy of Vic West

With a new marina and several trendy developments in its future, Vic West is a neighbourhood with a vision, eager to embrace the future but mindful of its working-harbour roots.

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Photograph by Simon Desrochers

If slow and steady wins the race, Vic West must be in line for a gold medal. The little neighbourhood “across the bridge” has been marked for bigger things for decades now, but high-profile development dreams for former industrial lands in the community have been painfully slow to materialize.

“From my perspective, we’ve been sitting here waiting for 30 years,” says Spinnakers Brewpub owner Paul Hadfield, who opened his Catherine Street pub in 1984. “We need people. We need life, not derelict dirt like we currently have in the community.”

But could this be the year when it all comes together for Vic West? The massive Dockside Green development is finally back on track after stalling out eight years ago at only 22 per cent build-out. Meanwhile, developers of the Roundhouse development on Esquimalt Road say that much-anticipated project is “well-established and moving forward.” The 500-unit Railyards townhouse development is down to its final two buildings and set to be completed in 2018. A new luxury marina for mega-yachts is slated to open on the Songhees waterfront this summer.

Add in the scarcity of available land remaining for development in Victoria’s downtown core, and sleepy Vic West is suddenly top of mind.

“We see immense opportunity there,” says Dave Ganong, Victoria managing director of commercial real estate agency Colliers International. “In terms of urban fabric, they’ve got so much that other areas would be envious of. I’d almost say ‘overlooked’ to describe that area up to now, but it could be something truly special if they let the density come.

“When I look at Vic West, it has the best Victoria has to offer: An economic base due to the working harbour, availability of land in a city that’s extremely short of land, an affordability level and reasonable retail because it’s close to Esquimalt and close to the downtown. It’s a walkable subcommunity in an immensely walkable community. And there’s diversity.”

Defining Vic West
Even locals can end up confused about the boundaries of Vic West. The community, an approximately 158-hectare wedge bordering Esquimalt on the west side of the Gorge waterway, was created in 1890 under a City of Victoria bylaw that redefined and expanded city boundaries.

The triangle-shaped neighbourhood — bordered by Victoria Harbour, the Gorge and Esquimalt at Dominion Road — was a Songhees Nation stronghold once upon a time. But the Hudson’s Bay Company had other plans at the turn of the last century, ordering the relocation of the Songhees people to what is now Esquimalt in order to make room for new industry along the Upper Harbour.

Back then, Vic West was a mix of housing for the working class and the wealthy — the former enjoying proximity to industrial workplaces that soon lined the waterfront, the latter drawn to the ocean views, mountain vistas, and proximity to the downtown. Development proceeded at a stately pace even in those years, and many of the neighbourhood’s original homes still remain as a result.

Making the Transition to Modern
Much of modern Vic West is made up of single-family homes and small apartment buildings, with commercial pockets scattered in between. Large tracts of former industrial lands along Tyee Road were targeted for residential/commercial development as long ago as the 1970s, but the lands were contaminated and in a sorry state after decades of industrial use. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that developers took a more serious interest in Vic West.

“The industrial land was vagrant wasteland in those days,” recalls developer Chris Le Fevre, who bought CN land for his Railyards development. “When I bought the property, there was a crummy little path down by the water, and maybe half a dozen people walking along it at any given time. I built the Galloping Goose along the waterfront [from the Selkirk Trestle to the Bay Street Bridge] as part of my master development plan, and now there are thousands using that trail.”

The ambitious Dockside Green project was approved by the City of Victoria in 2004. Billed as a sustainable and relentlessly green neighbourhood of 1,200 condos and assorted commercial buildings to be built over the next decade.

The project, backed by Vancity Savings Credit Union, won a number of environmental awards before stalling out in 2009. (As it turned out, not enough potential buyers were willing to pay a premium just to be green at the time.) Developer Joe Van Belleghem sold his 25 per cent share in the project that year to Vancity, which became the sole owner.

Fast forward to 2014 and a reworked Vancity team was back at the table, pitching a new plan that will see individual builders contracted to build 12 condo towers and a number of commercial buildings. That plan finally won City of Victoria approval in January of this year, bringing the dormant project back to life.

While the condo towers will be phased in according to market demand, construction of 49 units of affordable rental housing got underway last summer and will be completed this fall. Commercial development and access to public spaces and community parks that are part of the plan will run along Harbour Road, across from Point Hope Maritime shipyard, while residential buildings will be on Tyee.

“What we’ve been undertaking is updating the neighbourhood plan and working with the community to talk strengths and challenges,” says Ally Dewji, director of development for Dockside Green. “It’s been a reflective process both for the immediate project and how it will fit into the community. A lot has changed since 2005 when Dockside was conceived, and Vic West has evolved in that time.”

Updating the original Dockside plan has been a critical aspect of reviving the project, he adds.

“The market has changed substantially even in the two or three years of our recent process,” he says. “The old plan was only achievable in a positive market; some of the buildings had 200 units. We needed to turn them into 80 to 120 units — a building scale deliverable in a regular market, where it’s all based on pre-sales. So now the plan allows for this. You need a plan that has resiliency.”

Developing the Vision
Up on the hilltop property off Esquimalt Road that’s home to the Bayview Place development, Focus Equities owners Patricia and Kenneth W. Mariash Sr. still aren’t putting any dates to when the eagerly anticipated Roundhouse development will begin. But Ken Mariash says “market response has been very positive” for condo towers on the property. The first two towers “have achieved a high degree of success,” and pre-sales for a third tower, Encore, are now fully subscribed.

The Roundhouse plan revolves around a former train-maintenance site owned by Focus Equities, and envisages a marketplace, cultural area and even a revival of rail service along the old E&N rail corridor.

“We are making sure the heritage district, the E&N Roundhouse site, evolves and doesn’t become someone else’s idea of what a brickyard market should look like. We are very committed to the authenticity of the site and are doing a great deal of research to achieve that through our design phase,” he says.

Construction of the 28-slip Victoria International Marina near the Songhees Walkway. Photograph by Simon Desrochers.

Construction of the Victoria International Marina is finally underway on the Songhees waterfront after more than three decades of heated community debate over whether it should be allowed. The 28-slip marina for luxury mega-yachts opens this summer, while a new marine business centre, posh crew lounge and restaurant are expected to open in October.

Craig Norris, CEO of Community Marine Concepts — which took over the project last year from developer Bob Evans — says the first order of business in getting things back on track was to rework the “Frankenplan” approved by the City of Victoria in 2008 so that it made financial sense.

So far, interest appears to be high among the mega-yacht (65 to 180 feet long) owners who are the target clients. “Three of the four bookings we’ve got for long-term rental are from locals, who have never had a local place to keep their yachts,” says Norris. “In terms of the transient piece, we’re close to being able to say we’re booked for the rest of the year.”

Remembering the Real Neighbourhood
A number of people interviewed for this piece used the word “overlooked” to describe Vic West to this point, but Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says that’s an outsider’s perspective. People who actually live in Vic West have long known that it’s a gem of a neighbourhood, she says.

“Vic West has a very strong sense of place. It might be overlooked by those who don’t live there, but not by those who do,” says the mayor. “Vic West has been a leader on urban gardens, orchards in the city, food-centred feasts at the community centre. It’s an innovative, forward-looking neighbourhood, with a lot of similarities with Fernwood.”

Big developments can present risks to the feel of a community, especially when so much of the Vic West development along the waterway is aimed at a higher-end market. Will new residents savour the unique flavour that Vic West’s working harbour provides? Are long-time residents worried that their proudly working-class neighbourhood could become the next candidate for tear-downs to make way for luxury homes?

The shopping village on Craigflower Road serves as a Vic West neighbourhood gathering spot and offers several stops, including a bakery, cafe, barber shop and general store. Photograph by Simon Desrochers.

“We want Vic West to continue feeling like a village in the centre of the city — a place for young families to thrive, that attracts single adults and couples and helps seniors to age in place,” says Justine Semmens, president of the Vic West Community Association.

“Some of the big themes to emerge have included a desire to maintain the heritage and character of the neighbourhood, while embracing opportunities that the future holds, such as building a more sustainable community that promotes local food security, ecology and conservation, multivalent transportation. Development needs to be managed carefully, but the influx of new community members through condominium development brings added opportunity.”

There have been times over the years when strong opinions were aired about whether residential development of the Vic West industrial lands could co-exist alongside harbour industries like Point Hope Maritime shipyard, which stretches along Harbour Road. But those with a stake in the neighbourhood now agree that the working harbour is a unique asset that not only creates well-paid, permanent employment, but adds visual interest to the landscape.

“I think the working harbour is awesome,” says Paul Hadfield. “Whenever I see those guys, I thank them for the show. It reminds me of Granville Island, and it speaks to something other than the typical urban environment.”

One of the appealing components of the original Dockside Green proposal was the construction of 49 units of rental housing designated for families with household incomes between $25,000 and $60,000. The original plan set aside $3 million to make that happen, and non-profit social enterprise Catalyst Community Developments Society — which counts Vancity among its founding supporters — is finally spending that money to bring the two Madrona buildings to life as its first project in Victoria. Catalyst president Robert Brown says the society will own the units, expected to be on the rental market by August or September.

Fol Epi proprietor Cliff Leir was an early tenant at one of the first Dockside Green commercial buildings, and says he has loved getting to know the Vic West residents who have shopped at his bakery since it opened in 2009. Leir acknowledges he picked the location to capitalize on what was then a plan for full build-out by 2014, but hung in there anyway after the project stalled the very year he moved in. “I love being in an older, working-class neighbourhood that has that industrial feel,” he says.

Developer Chris Le Fevre says he’s confident Vic West will hold on to its charm even as big projects get underway and reshape the waterfront.

“It’s not going to end up overrun with development. There’s not enough land, and there’s a solid community association whose active involvement is testament to what it’s all about,” he says. “There’s a nice balance there between preservation and common-sense growth. It’s all going to let Vic West keep shining in its own little way.”