Dying Downtown Victoria BC Part 3

March 23, 2011 at 3:32 pm | In business, dying_downtown, land_use, victoria | 10 Comments

Welcome to the third in a series of now three posts about Victoria BC’s dying downtown. Read the first one here (3/21/11) and the second here (3/22/11).

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.

Creative Commons License
The Dying Downtown Victoria BC Part 3 by Yule Heibel, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Yule,

    This is a great post series. I recently explored leasing opportunities at some of the locations you’ve shown along Fort Street. In locations where tenancy/landlord improvements were required (i.e. most) the leases were typically lower than average. One space had not been upgraded in 30 years. Half was pretty much unusable. (Of course I tried to rent just the good half!) Even though upgrade costs are typically shared by landlords and tenants, theses costs can be prohibitive. On the other hand, leases are much higher in upgraded spaces and even higher in new buildings.

    Maybe one way to encourage business downtown is to offer smaller spaces where entrepreneurs can test the market. An example of this is the art gallery at Fort near Vancouver. Another is Bruce Wilson’s space at the foot of Market Square. It’s easy to imagine entrepreneurs taking risks and proving ideas in such locations. For what it’s worth, consider this just another other street side report.

    Comment by Matthew — March 23, 2011 #

  2. Very interesting series here Yule. Amazed to see Prices’ Alarms has moved away – a sign of the times perhaps, or better space, cheaper rent? Now, where to get a key cut I wonder.

    That block of Fort you speak of, I drove East on it today to Cook, has always been the Antique Row. Maybe it’s just had its day? I don’t know.

    When I think of “downtown”, the ‘core’ area comes to mind (well my mind anyway)! That being Wharf to Blanshard (East), & Wharf to Pembroke, South to Doug/Blanshard, and back South to Belleville.

    DT is certainly not the hive of activity/business it was in the 70′s……..I wonder if there are thousands of government employees in the core area during those years? Government workers sure kept Nootka Court going then. I’ve not a clue what is in Nootka Court now, (except for the movie theatre). No more Government Liquor Store, and just along to the left, no more Legion, just a fancy hotel.

    Comment by Jane — March 23, 2011 #

  3. Interesting. It looks as if they’ve wanted to keep a villagey atmosphere, which obviously doesn’t work if nobody lives in the village.

    High rise building won’t necessarily work either. I have a lot of them in my neighbourhood. Two office blocks recently converted to residences. The latest one has three shops on the ground floor that have been vacant since the building was finished more than a year ago.

    That said, there has been a certain amount of cafe creep towards my place from the much more lively area on the other side of the bridge. They’re opening at the rate of about 1 new one a year. So far all still surviving.

    Comment by melanie — March 23, 2011 #

  4. Thanks for commenting, Matthew, Jane, and Melanie. I like the “offer smaller spaces where entrepreneurs can test the market” idea, Matthew, but of course someone has to foot the bill. If developers (in the broadest sense) are hobbled on all sides by red tape & restrictions, that’s not going to happen easily…
    .
    @ Jane, you can still get keys cut at all Home Hardware stores! ;-) And believe me, the boundary of downtown has expanded beyond the core tourist zone. It’s supposed to include those areas (like Harris Green) where people actually live, but of course having screwy boundaries in place as we do confuses things (for example, the Starbucks at the corner of Blanshard and Fort is “officially” in Fairfield – you try and figure that one out, we give gerrymandering a whole new definition in Victoria…).
    .
    @ Melanie: true, a bunch of highrises don’t solve problems, but, trust me, Victoria has been kept artificially low for decades, and we have the additional problem that, what should be prime property, gets passed through generations, and the legatees too often find that it’s to their advantage to let the property “lie fallow” (as it were), collect outrageous rents from the on-again-off-again retail sector, and never do anything to fix up or develop the property further. In addition, woe be to them should they try to develop it, for at this point they will meet the full wrath of a city culture that is – for reasons beyond my comprehension – fixated on fighting change at all costs. The result of this pro-status-quo anti-change crusade, however, is the pitiful ROT you see on our streets via my photos (and if you were actually here, you’d see it’s even worse than the images suggest).

    Comment by Yule — March 23, 2011 #

  5. @Yule: this is a GREAT series (in future, it’s okay if you don’t blot out my name from the FB comments).
    @Jane, that movie theatre in Nookta Court went out of business years ago.
    The generations of Old Money in Victoria seems like a strong theory. It would take some digging, but you can get the property information from the City of Victoria for these fallow properties, then do a title search at the Land Registry (Quadra side of the court house). I’ll bet some interesting patterns would emerge. Heck, if you don’t do it, I might just do it to see what it turns up.

    Comment by Mike DeWolfe — March 23, 2011 #

  6. Thanks for commenting, Mike – I’ll get back to you in a bit (running out the door in a bit), but maybe I can put you in touch with Shae and we could build that Google Map mashup! It would be very interesting…

    Comment by Yule — March 24, 2011 #

  7. Just goes to show how much time I “don’t” spend downtown! Still believed the theatre was there. It was popular as was Nootka Court.

    I had another reminder yesterday why I no longer go downtown. I had to visit the doc, corner of Cook & View. Blessed I was, a meter just waiting for my money! Dug out a looney……lawdy, the meter ate another one giving me 1hr. & 10 mins.

    Read a good magazine in the waiting room, dashed down the stairs and there was just 7 minutes left.

    Why (except for doc’s etc.) would I go downtown? Hassle w/the traffic, try to find parking and if successful, pay quite the price?

    @Yule, I know Harris Green is supposedly downtown, but it’s not in the downtown that’s in my head! I would not walk from Government to Harris Green. My criteria for downtown means I can park relatively easily, and reasonably, and walk with packages easily. Harris Green doesn’t meet my criteria, plus what would I do when I got there? Alix Goolden Hall isn’t always open………The x-ray clinic has moved to Yates…..London Drugs has it’s own parking…..

    @Yule, thanks for the key cutting tip!! :)

    Comment by Jane — March 24, 2011 #

  8. Wait a sec, Jane – you’re not making any sense. You just called Cook & View downtown, yet you don’t accept Harris Green as downtown. If your doc was to the East of Cook at Cook & View, s/he’s outside of Harris Green and is at any rate even further away from Government Street than the Harris Green I’m describing (Fort St around Vancouver through to Douglas), not to mention Harris Green the shopping area centered around London Drugs and Market on Yates.
    .
    Many doctors have on-premise parking. Yours doesn’t? Two dollar coins for the meter isn’t much, parking is valuable real estate. If you don’t like the parking meters (I don’t like them much because I worry about not getting back in time, before they expire), use one of the city parkades. They’re dirt cheap and all over the place. A couple of bucks for parking is NOT expensive.
    .
    There’s also the underground FREE parking underneath the Harris Green London Drugs (accessible from View St.) – admittedly, it’s for the use of HG patrons.
    .
    What is seriously wrong with Victoria is that there’s no free transit within the downtown core. Many cities offer transit for free in the downtown, and Victoria should do the same. You live in James Bay – you should be able to walk a couple of blocks from JB to catch a bus, for free, that goes anywhere within the downtown. Then you wouldn’t need your car.
    .
    Carrying packages is good exercise.
    .
    (I’m serious.)

    Comment by Yule — March 27, 2011 #

  9. Yule, great series – thought provoking on one hand, blood boiling on the other.

    While I agree with your premise that the rot is due to tax/city hall policies, your argument seems a bit one sided.

    If you want a vibrant downtown people you have to shop there. I am a small business owner and while not downtown, our area is also experiencing drastic decreases in traffic and patronage. If we want shops and services in our downtown, we have to frequent the establishments. Some do, but many can’t wait for the next biggest thing, like Uptown.

    That being said, I was in Uptown over Christmas because my favourite Apple retailer didn’t have any stock (again!) of what I wanted, and it was a ghost town a week before the 25th.

    I live in Colwood and shop regularly at a little bakery that is nothing to look at on the outside of the inside, in fact it is a bit scary when I think about it. The prices are higher too than at Walmart. But the quality is also far better, the service extraordinary, and selfishly I want to be able to shop within walking distance of home – so I buy my bread etc there.

    A vibrant downtown is like a language, use it or lose it.

    Comment by Scott — March 29, 2011 #

  10. Thanks for commenting – love that line, Scott: “A vibrant downtown is like a language, use it or lose it.”
    .
    So true.

    Comment by Yule — March 29, 2011 #

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