Up, down, and out

280

New houses are going up at Olympic View, home construction is slowing down slightly in Greater Victoria, and Colwood’s big gravel business is on its way out after more than a century.

Unless you’re a golfer, Olympic View Golf Course is unknown territory. You can’t miss the region’s other major golf courses driving by on local streets, but Olympic View is away in the forest at the end of a long drive off Latoria Road in Colwood.

That low profile will start to change soon, as development plans move ahead for housing several thousand people along the fairways over the next decade or two. Housing always was in the mix from the beginning when German investors built Olympic View and it was zoned in 2003 for 900 units.

Nothing was built at the time, but now the present owner, Vancouver-based Burrard International, is eager to start construction. “We’ve been working on this for years,” says vice-president Tom Weisbeck. The news is the increased density the Vancouver company wants.

{advertisement}

Olympic View is a development project like no other, involving three different municipalities. Colwood has the front nine holes, while the back nine and more than half of the entire property are in Metchosin, along with most of the clubhouse, although a sizeable piece of the lounge is on the Langford side.

The rural folks of Metchosin shouldn’t worry, says Burrard International which is not proposing any new buildings on that side of the municipal border.

“We accept the fact that’s not what Metchosin wants. Metchosin isn’t going to be harmed,” said Weisbeck.

Metchosin viewscapes will certainly be affected. If rezoning is approved, 33-storey high rises will peek over the trees, visible throughout a large part of the rural municipality.

The company is trying to “maintain the beauty of the site by not using up all the ground,” he says.
There are some trade-offs. At an open house, Burrard displayed computer renderings of the high-rise buildings at the edge of the forest — well, towering is the right word.

Heck, they’ll even be visible from downtown Victoria. The bulk of Triangle Mountain and the distance from the built-up areas of Langford and Colwood will hide them from the sight of many West Shore residents. But there should be a perfect view of the towers from the higher parts of the Bear Mountain subdivision and the upper floors of its tall towers.

Weisbeck describes the Olympic View high-rises — there are six in the plan, straddling Colwood and Langford — as “needle towers,” with a fairly small footprint of four units per floor. “Tall isn’t necessarily intrusive as long as it isn’t tall and broad.”

Depending on growth on the West Shore, Burrard is also planning to build a 200-room hotel in adjacent towers near the clubhouse, one in Colwood and the other in Langford.

Several kilometres of new paved roads will be built to serve the new subdivision, including a new entrance to Olympic View off the end of the Veterans Memorial Parkway. Two rezoning applications are proceeding at the same time in Colwood and Langford to double the density allowed under the 2003 zoning.

The towers are still a few years away as phase four of the project, which should commence this summer with single-family lot sales and some low-rise construction, similar to how neighbouring Royal Bay subdivision started. The Olympic View towers might be anywhere from three to six years ahead, says Weisbeck.

A 15-year build-out for Olympic View’s nearly 2,000 units is “pretty ambitious” and will depend on market demand. For example, Burrard International’s Arbutus Ridge at Cobble Hill took 19 years to completion and its Gallagher’s Canyon golf course development in Kelowna was 14 years.

Ironically, the golf course that forms the centerpiece of the project is not a draw for most residents-to-be. Burrard International, which operates ten golf courses around the province, several with real estate developments, has found consistently that only about 30 per cent of buyers are golfers.

They buy, says Weisbeck, “probably because it’s a huge green space. It’s a huge park where they don’t have to cut the grass.”

The real golfers among future residents don’t have to worry, says Weisbeck. Olympic View won’t be tampering with the golf course itself.

Housing Slowdown
It’s taken time for all the numbers to be totalled, but it appears now that 2006 was the pinnacle of the lengthy homebuilding boom that started with the new millennium. Construction is still robust, but is trending downward in Greater Victoria. The latest annual stats make clear that 2006 was a 17-year high for housing construction.

The numbers for 2007 from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show a decline in starts, including condos, single-family homes, and townhouses. The two previous high marks set in 1989 and 1981 — years that bracket an awful bust in the housing market — still stand unchallenged.

The Victoria metro area where the CMHC gathers its numbers (it’s the CRD minus the Gulf Islands and Jordan River-Port Renfrew) saw 2,579 housing starts in 2007, a drop of 160 units from 2006.

Single-family starts have shown a steady decline since 2004, though metro Victoria has seen lots of multiple starts. In 2004, there were 1,038 single-family home starts, which dipped a year later to 974, then again to 920 in 2006. The 2007 total is lower again at 795 single-family starts.

But condo starts are still very strong, higher than at any time in the last 30 years.

“Part of the demand is coming from people who want second homes or vacation homes,” says Peggy Prill of the CMHC. They don’t want security issues and “want to be able to lock the door and go away and not have to worry about it.”

Goodbye gravel
What did you do with your eight tonnes last year? Pave the driveway? Pour a foundation? Backfill trenches? That’s tonnes as in aggregate — sand and gravel — used every year, per person, in construction and road building around Greater Victoria.

Until this year, most of it was scraped out of a big hole in Colwood, which actually was hilly terrain at the beginning of gravel mining in the 1890s. It was one of Canada’s largest gravel pits, and material was shipped as far as Alaska and Hawaii, even to Guam. And it’s probably the only gravel pit to have been painted by Emily Carr.

The material was laid down at the melting of the giant glaciers of the last ice age. Geologists dubbed it the Colwood Delta, “arguably Victoria’s most significant geological feature,” according to a geology conference paper.

Most of the gravel and sand is still there in this irregular area of more than 17 square kilometres in Colwood and Langford, but houses, stores, parks, schools, and roads have been built on the surface.

The 2.6-square-kilometre gravel pit on Metchosin Road was rezoned for housing a decade ago by Colwood council, as the last deposits were barged away from the waterfront property. Only 400 units have been built to date.

In the final chapter, owner Lehigh Cement has now sold the land with its development plans. Building at Royal Bay, where 2,800 homes are planned, is expected to accelerate now that a real development company is running the show.