As you can see in the second post, one of my commenters on Facebook remarked that for her, that stretch of Fort Street isn’t really downtown. I answered that it is officially a part of downtown – it’s in the Harris Green neighborhood. Also, my photos included the 700 and 800 blocks of Fort Street, and if that’s not downtown, nothing is.
I would argue that if people don’t think of it as “downtown,” it’s because it doesn’t look like a downtown.
To prove my point, take a look at the photo below (let’s call it Exhibit A):
I’ll have a lot to say about this scene in just a sec, but first, allow me to show you the other six already-empty or endangered storefronts on that same stretch of Fort Street, except this time the south side of the street (my first post in this series looked at the same blocks on the north side of the street).
Once again, we start at Fort and Cook Streets, heading east (this time on the south side of the street). First, a clothing boutique (which used to be in the 700 block of Fort a while back) is closing:
Next up, a high-end antiques place. The owner has had the building on the market for a while – don’t let the faux Tudorbethan decoration fool you, this is a plain cinderblock box. It’s just the front facade that has been prettied up:
Right next door is a real disgrace: the ex-Little Piggy, which has been an empty eyesore for going on years now:
Again, the Tudorbethan facade is just tacked on. The building itself is nothing much – and has been on the market for a while.
Alright, heading further east, we hit the 900 block where a new building recently completed. One retail space has been leased, but the other is still waiting for a tenant. At least this is a quality building (but rents are therefore accordingly steep, tough for indie businesses to enter into):
Leaving the 900 block behind, we’ve now crossed Quadra Street and are continuing toward Blanshard. On this block (800) we see a couple of holes:
And, same block:
Finally, in the 700 block (between Blanshard and Douglas Streets), the tacky frontage shown in the first photo that headed up this entry:
As you can see, if you compare my first Dying Downtown Victoria BC entry and this one, the empty storefronts exist on both sides of the street, and the 900, 800, and 700 blocks in particular are by any definition downtown.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
Let’s take another look at the picture I started with:
Look at it. What you see here is what is basically a tiny little lot with a tiny little structure on it – one can’t even deign to call it a building – which in any other market would be bulldozer bait. This is a one-story thing – it houses two retail units: one of them happens to be rented out at the moment, while the other one has gone bust and is empty. …And will probably stay that way for a long time.
Now, in any normal world, this structure would be torn down and developed because it’s right downtown, it’s sitting on incredibly valuable land. But instead, what we do here in Victoria, is we allow a one-story waste-of-space space waster to continue existing downtown.
So what should the city do?
Well, how about this?
Instead of enabling property owners like the one who owns the property in this picture to continue propagating this kind of decay downtown, why not say to him or her, “You know what? We’re going to put tax incentives in place so that you can develop this property. Forget about height restrictions, you can go as tall as you can need to make the numbers work, but let it be known that we are going to hold your feet to the fire for a real quality product. It has to be a total quality product. You don’t have the height restrictions, you don’t have the density restrictions, so in exchange you have to include rental components and on the street frontage you have to include retail spaces that are specifically affordable for local businesses. So. How about this, Mr or Ms Developer? You build something that’s anywhere in the 15- to 20-story range, or whatever it takes to make the numbers work. Your building is on a very small lot, so you have only a tiny footprint to work with. So the top 4 to 6 stories could be given over to duplex-style penthouse condos that you can sell at a premium, another 3 to 5 stories below the top 6 floors could be smaller condos, while everything below that is given over to rental, including market rental and a healthy percentage (30%?) of subsidized rental. And, as mentioned, at street level, we have retail. Ok, Mr or Ms Developer, go and make those numbers work. See what you can come up with. See how tall it has to be, and then get back to us and we’ll make sure it moves through the approvals process, pronto.”
That’s what I would do, and that’s my advice to the City. And I won’t even charge a consulting fee.*
…Although, if someone wants to hire me in some such capacity, I’m available…
Furthermore, if you did that with one site, other bulldozer-bait sites in the vicinity would also get the message and finally get developed.
Maybe, just maybe, if our downtown actually looked like one and if people could actually live there once again (we currently have fewer people living downtown than we did in the early 1970s!), we’d begin to treasure it. But as long as we have asinine restrictions that not only keep the built form low but also depress the entire ecosystem of the city, as long as we have councilors who cling to some weird notion of low-rise density, and as long as we have NIMBYs in the surrounding neighborhoods who scream blue murder because a highrise is going up downtown, we will continue to create market conditions that are inimical to human economic life downtown.
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