The Royal B.C. Museum wants to grow and has outlined ambitious plans to more than double in size by 2025, but first it’s taking care of some unfinished business with a rezoning application.
Its 6.7-acre site at Belleville and Government Streets is actually zoned for duplexes (as is the block next door with the 110-year-old legislative buildings). Only Helmcken House, built in 1853, actually meets the R-2 zoning.
Both provincial government properties do not conform to the city of Victoria’s zoning bylaws. Apparently, B.C. just ignored them when it built the museum in 1967. Senior governments aren’t legally bound by city bylaws.
The RBCM wants a unique comprehensive development zone to regularize the current nonconforming uses of museum, retail shop, café, IMAX theatre, park, restaurant, education, and parking but also wants to add business offices and multiple residential uses.
“We are indeed embarking on a journey of change,” says museum CEO Pauline Rafferty.
It’s expected the rezoning will take 12 to 18 months, and the first construction — a new collections building — would start at least three years after that.
The new building at the back of the property would be up to 14 storeys high, and provide better storage for more than seven million museum artifacts, specimens, documents and records in the provincial archives, some now stored offsite for lack of space It would also let the public view collections and see restoration work going on behind the scenes.
Now, the museum is crowded and inefficient.
“We have significant artifacts stored below sea level,” says Rafferty.
The present RBCM lacks modern temperature and humidity controls to preserve fragile objects for the future, she says. It also doesn’t meet earthquake standards — the original exhibition building with galleries and dioramas would be refitted to meet current seismic regulations to keep it from collapsing.
Architect Peter De Hoog’s plan for the RBCM would demolish the present archives building and John Fannin curatorial tower to create a “galleria building” for enlarged restaurant and retail space, a new major entrance lobby and public plaza at the corner.
The RBCM, a Crown corporation which spends $20 million a year, is a centerpiece of Victoria’s tourism industry, but Rafferty acknowledged that attendance over the years has been flat, partly because of its cramped quarters.
In 2009 just 346,000 visitors came through the doors, although the periodic blockbuster exhibitions boost the numbers. The Titanic exhibition in 2007 pushed attendance to 450,000.
The new museum would double the size of the temporary exhibition gallery where the blockbusters are mounted. Rafferty says the museum isn’t proposing to alter or replace its existing popular galleries.
Overall, the development plan would see the RBCM “become B.C.’s leading cultural centre,” she says.
Although the zoning application includes multiple residential uses, Rafferty says there wouldn’t be additional housing development on the property, beyond what exists at the Glenshiel.
No costs are included in the RBCM’s plans but it’s clearly an expensive project that would cost hundreds of millions . The museum would grow by half a million more square feet — equivalent to one of Victoria shopping centres — to create an RBCM of 895,000 square feet, big enough for the next century.
No funds are lined up for the project yet. Rafferty says B.C. politicians she’s reported to are supportive and notes that it’s customary elsewhere for the province and federal government to contribute to museum expansion projects.