Two Really Big Deals

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Two shopping centre-sized developments, the Radius and the Vancouver Island Technology Park expansion, are shaping the future of the region.

The Radius is a $165-million project that is leading development of most of a downtown Victoria block. It will add 350,000 square feet of offices, condos, restaurants, stores, a daycare, and a university at the corner of Blanshard and Caledonia. When it’s finished two years from now, it will be quite unlike any other building in Victoria.

In square footage, it’s in the same league as shopping malls like Mayfair and the Bay Centre. From the street, looking across the intersection from the Save-On Foods Memorial Arena, it will appear to be four separate buildings, deliberately designed to break up the massing with different facades and window treatments.

(Add in the Hudson remake of the old Bay department store next door, and the new Gateway Green office tower beside that, and there’s a major makeover coming to this neglected area.)

An office tower at the corner will anchor the Radius project. Its 14 storeys will contain 200,000 square feet of Class A office space. The other major part of the project is 125,000 square feet of condos.

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Long before the Paul Merrick-designed development starts rising out of the ground, it’s possible to speculate about the new community at that corner. A private university, University Canada West (UCW), and the B.C. Land Title and Survey Authority will be two of the tenants in the office part of the project.

UCW surprised many with the announcement that it will lease space in Radius, less than three years after opening the doors of Victoria’s first private university in the old Blanshard elementary school near Hillside and Quadra. But after a relatively short time, “this building is pretty much full,” says UCW president David Strong.

(It still has a long-term deal with Greater Victoria School District for the building but is going to sell its lease rights to another educational organization, called Origins, which offers courses for seniors along the lines of ElderHostel.)

Small but still growing quickly — its first convocation last year had five graduates — UCW now has 200 students, four bachelor degree programs, and an MBA program, and it has applied for new music and fine arts degrees. Strong figures there will be 500 students by the time they move into Radius, and the five-year plan anticipates three times that by 2014. UCW employs about 100 faculty and staff, many of them part-time, and the salary bill is $2 million annually.

A factor in its UCW’s growth has been its English-style academic year of four 10-week semesters — meaning a student can graduate in just two years by attending fulltime. It’s also grown through acquisitions. UCW bought the Victoria College of Art and Gerry LaBelle’s Canadian College, which was a major ESL school in Bastion Square.

The downtown campus will make a splash in Victoria, but it will eventually be only a satellite of the main campus destined for Sage Hills, the 2,040-acre community planned for the area between Union Bay and Cumberland, in the Comox Valley. UCW will have university programs there and a K-12 school on 20 per cent of the site. The university already has a satellite in Vancouver, now in its second year with 70 students.

UCW is leasing 33,000 square feet in Radius on two levels, and expects students will start classes there by the fall of 2009.

“We see it as a much bigger advantage to us to move into that area,” says Strong, who was president of the University of Victoria through the 1990s. UCW downtown will be a sharp contrast with suburban-based UVic, set in a leafy campus a long way out of the city core.

Strong is enthusiastic about bringing town and gown together, in a small way emulating much larger cities like Montreal, where the downtown has three major universities, a fourth university nearby on the other side of Mount Royal, and several colleges and specialized institutes in the city centre. It buzzes with vitality, and the tens of thousands of students are a big reason.

After the office component, condos take up the rest of Radius, 111 apartments in two buildings of seven and 14 storeys. A small commercial section of 16,000 square feet called Caledonia Mews will offer students, residents, and office workers some retail services. Radius is leasing spaces from 500 to 5,000 square feet. There will also be a child-care centre for 36 kids.

The development is proud of several “green building” features, led by a “geo-exchange” heating system, which will absorb heat during the day from the people and machines in the offices, store it in a water-filled tank in the basement, and send it upstairs to the condos at night. Developer John Schucht estimates this will provide about 70 per cent of Radius’ heating and hot water needs.

“Bio-swales” are another green feature, and are defined by the developer as “nature’s version of a gutter: a grassy depression that allows water to be absorbed into the ground and filters out many of the pollutants.” Buildings will have green roofs and fruit trees will be planted on the second-floor roof above UCW’s space. Schucht also mentions the 50,000-gallon cistern for rainwater storage that will irrigate the green roofs,

The B.C. Land Title and Survey Authority is also an out-of-the-usual tenant for Radius office space. At 37,000 square feet, the non-profit agency formed in 2004 to take over the province’s land title offices is leasing more space than UCW. More than a third of it is a large, below-ground vault to house its irreplaceable files of early maps, survey documents, and records of property sales now in the Victoria court house.

Vancouver Island Technology Park
Another shopping centre-sized development that will shape the future of the region even more than Radius is the expansion of the Vancouver Island Tech Park, where Saanich council last fall approved a plan to more than double its size to 415,000 square feet. The University of Victoria, which owns the VITP, wants to add three more office buildings to the present complex created in 2002 out of the old Glendale Hospital.

The concept plan may not be elegant architecture — this is a basic office park campus — but it’s sticking with a winning formula of separate buildings connected by covered walkways. They encourage mixing and meeting among people who work there, even the CEOs, and this works well now with the Hard Drive Café and fitness centre located in the middle of the complex. Excuse me, in the new plan there’s a bigger and better “premier interaction destination.”

Dale Gann, the Tech Park’s vice-president, says the old hospital layout, with enclosed walkways that made it easy to move beds around between wings, has created a co-operative style among the diverse companies, from biotech to new media, software, and hardware firms.

“That wouldn’t have happened without the skybridges,” he says. “This is really a collaborative industry.”

A 10,000-square-foot incubator is also part of the expansion. Its space would probably be below-market rent.

“We need to produce more entrepreneurs and more little companies,” says Gann.

Nobody’s offering a price tag on the VITP expansion, but at current construction costs, it’s at least $40 million. Gann, the “mayor of tech town” and now the first president of the Canadian chapter of the Association of University Research Parks, is keen to convince governments of the value in a tech park investment.

The just-established AURP is asking Ottawa to channel $500 million to technology parks across the country, and the VITP claims the benefits justify such an outlay.

All of the technology companies now located in Victoria generate about $1.7 billion in revenues, well ahead of the tourism sector. Average salary among the tech par
k’s 1,300 staff in 30 companies is $60,000, says Gann. And what’s the average salary in the Capital Regional District? Perhaps $30,000? As an economic development strategy, investing in technology looks strong.

“What strategies does Victoria have in place to create a future for us?” asks Gann. “We just need to get on with it. B.C. needs more of them.”