From The Editor (Douglas September/October 2009)

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You wouldn’t call David Podmore a radical out to shatter the status quo or upset the political scene. The developer has been a key member of B.C.’s business community as chief executive officer of Concert Properties Ltd. and is now chairman of the big Vancouver-based development company. He was the guy Premier Gordon Campbell tapped last year to rescue the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion project when it was deep in cost-overrun territory.

So it was all the more surprising to hear him offer some pointed criticism of the provincial government, specifically how Victoria has been treated by the Campbell government — “shortchanged” was the word Podmore used. He was the featured speaker at the Downtown Victoria Business Association annual general meeting.

Before you write him off as just another developer from over the water, consider his bona fides. As much as anyone, Podmore has helped shape present-day Victoria, particularly in the Humboldt Valley. Concert has been around the city most of this decade and has built four substantial residential projects — Astoria and Belvedere on Humboldt Street, Chelsea on Burdett Street, and the 365 Waterfront on the Selkirk — plus the Victoria Marriott Hotel.

The company is staying here. Two more downtown development opportunities for residential projects are under study, and it’s also holding a 700-block Yates site for an office building. He knows Victoria and is certainly qualified to offer suggestions and advice on the city’s future.

Podmore is no Pollyanna. He is candid about the current economic problems. Things are slow and he predicts another 18 months of slow times before the economy rallies (although the recent boomlet in real estate may be signalling an earlier recovery).

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Victoria is fortunate someone of Podmore’s stature chose to speak candidly about the third-class treatment of the capital. People sitting around the cabinet table might simply brush off criticisms from local worthies. Podmore is saying to the province, in so many words: Get real, your government has to be a partner with the city, its residents, and the development community. It’s unrealistic to adopt a hands-off stance and particularly unfair considering all the goodies the Campbell government has doled out in Vancouver.

“I do think the provincial government has to take more time to work with Victoria and make an investment in the community.”

That comment brought loud applause from the downtown business people at the lunch. He figured his remarks will probably bring a call from the corner office at the legislature, and added: “What it’s going to require is an investment in Victoria. To a certain extent, I think Victoria has been shortchanged for some time.”

He refers to some of Victoria’s assets that are “significantly underutilized.” If you’ve been here even just a little while, you know the list. Makeshift facilities for travellers arriving in the harbour. Huge tracts of gorgeous waterfront used to park cars. Rundown office buildings next door to the legislative buildings. A provincial museum that needs more space. An art gallery ditto.

Podmore’s vision for Victoria depends on growth. “My vision sees Victoria continuing to grow. My vision builds on the unique characteristics of Victoria. You also have a set of values that seeks to protect that.”
You can grow, and preserve those values, is Podmore’s point. The present sluggish times offer a perfect opportunity for Victoria — the city and its people, the provincial government, business, and developers — to draft our own vision. Victoria has a unique setting, historical character, architectural palette. “You’ve got an incredible base to work from.”

It’s a very livable place, big enough to offer some amenities, small enough to be manageable. “You have access to nature close at hand…. You have avoided many of the pitfalls of other similar-sized cities.”

He’s not saying what that vision ought to be, just that Victoria needs a plan, a vision, or else, by default, it gets decided by others. “Keep moving forward and protect that vision.”

Here’s hoping the message gets through, particularly to a provincial administration that has been hard of hearing when it’s Victoria doing the talking.

 – Norman Gidney