Victoria Heads Uptown

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There are five tower cranes sticking out of the property and two more mobile cranes — the biggest in North America — and often a couple of concrete pump trucks with their booms snaking out over the site.

Upwards of 400 people are working at the key intersection of two major highways and Victoria’s main street at Uptown, formerly Town and Country shopping centre, the biggest commercial construction project on Vancouver Island, actually in all of western Canada.

“In western Canada, I don’t know of a larger commercial project underway,” says Geoff Nagle, director of development for western Canada at Morguard Investments Ltd., which is putting about $300 million of the pension funds it manages into Uptown.

When both pieces of the development are built out in 2012, the new centre will total 850,000 square feet, 80 per cent of it of retail and restaurants, with offices making up the rest of the space. The total is nearly twice the space in downtown’s Bay Centre.

“Meet you at the corner of Central Plaza and Uptown Boulevard” could be the co-ordinates for meeting a friend if you decide to shop at Uptown when it opens next summer. Central Plaza is the junction of a T-intersection formed by the north-south main shopping street and a shorter pedestrian-only space that joins Uptown at a clock tower.

“We’ll be programming events and making sure that’s a lively central place,” Nagle says.
Morguard is promoting a new kind of shopping for people who prefer air-conditioned malls. It’s easy to poke a little fun at the promised “unique open-air shopping experience.” Stores will be lined up on streets and you walk outside to shop at the next one. But old-fashioned or not, it’s a growing movement in the shopping centre business, turning enclosed malls inside out to look like honest to goodness downtown streets.
Like the old Town and Country, which broke ground at that almost-rural location half a century ago, new Uptown will have a Wal-Mart store, but one almost as big as the entire old strip mall — just 10,000 feet short. While you might not imagine a Wal-Mart being “tucked away,” the big retailer’s two-storey superstore in Uptown is in the background at this new retail centre, where Mayfair Lanes bowling alley used to sit. It’s still a substantial 216,000 square feet and will sit on stilts over two levels of parking and under a couple of other big-name retailers, Best Buy and Shoppers Drug Mart. Future Shop will anchor the Saanich Road-Douglas Street corner.

It’s a huge transformation of the 18.8-acre site where Town and Country shopping centre was built over two years, starting exactly half a century ago, when it was “state-of-the-art 1959 retail,” says Nagle. What was an expanse of asphalt for parking cars and one 300-metre long strip of stores anchored by a Wal-Mart will turn into a very different and more densely built project over the next three years.

“The whole concept of the project is a real neighbourhood,” says Nagle, although for the first few years it’s just stores and offices. But nobody will live in this neighbourhood until Morguard finds a new partner to build the several hundred condos that are part of the plan and rezoning is approved by Saanich.
The design of Uptown doesn’t make everyone happy. Neighbourhood groups pushed hard for residential units to be scattered throughout the shopping centre, above the stores and offices. But Morguard said investment rules prohibit the company from putting pension funds into condos; it does own some rental buildings elsewhere but can’t build projects for sale.

Westbank Properties was to be Morguard’s residential partner on Uptown, but backed out in the economic downturn. Residential is still part of the project and “we have a great deal of confidence” that it will get built, says Nagle.

Rob Wickson, president of the Gorge Tillicum Community Association (who came close to getting elected to Saanich council last year), is a critic of Uptown. Morguard and Saanich missed an opportunity to build a real environmental showplace, he says. Instead, the new shopping centre will be mainly a car-based commercial project.

“It could have been a centre for people. It’s going to be a centre for cars,” Wickson says. He has a point about the cars. Renderings of the project have very few in view, but Uptown will park 1,325 vehicles when both phases are built, and that’s not including parking for the to-be-developed residential part.
And parking won’t all be hidden away on the three underground parkade levels, as there’s still a good amount of surface parking.

Nagle answers the green criticism by pointing to Uptown’s several progressive environmental features, starting with reuse of the old Town and Country property. Building at the previous low-density scale of Town and Country would have required a much bigger site. Densification of the site means “85 acres of Garry oak [saved] and urban sprawl that didn’t have to happen,” he says.

Uptown will also have 250 bike parking spots (with showers and change rooms for those who work there), major transit connections, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting for flushing toilets, irrigation, and outdoor fountains. Morguard will apply for LEED gold.

Uptown still includes a residential component of about 500 units, but they are squeezed into the northern corner of the property, a triangle between Blanshard Street and Ravine Way. Density of that scale on a three-acre property could mean a couple of towers 30 stories high.

Wickson is skeptical that Uptown will achieve density like that. Saanich wants to see this intersection built up as an urban centre as part of the regional growth strategy. Pushing all the residential development to one-fifth of the property will be a tough sell to Saanich residents. Wickson points to the neighbourhood pushback in the Tillicum area over just 13 storeys of condos at Tillicum Mall. Getting 500 or more units at Uptown, “it has to be very dense. Imagine the fight when the [Uptown] developer comes back and says it has to be 30 storeys.”

It will certainly be the catalyst for much more change. Saanich has begun to re-plan the whole neighourhood, an area of 1½ square kilometres centred on Uptown, two-thirds of it already commercial or industrial. The new plan, which should be finished by the spring of 2012, will pick “appropriate areas for redevelopment” from Mayfair centre — the municipal border is Tolmie Avenue — north to Saanich municipal hall. “Responsible intensification” of the Uptown area is the phrase and Uptown could set the pace for how much “intensity” residents will settle for. See www.shopuptown.ca.