Thursday, January 5, 2012

Northern Junk goes sideways

The Northern Junk proposal hit the news again lately.  Northern Jun k is a pair of buildings that are perched on Victoria’s waterfront just south of the Johnson Street Bridge, with a parking lot and a struggling patch of park bookending the site.  The buildings have been derelict for decades and only recently sold off to a Vancouver development company.   The company has been working with an architect with plenty of Victoria experience to plan a restoration of the heritage buildings and a new development embracing them on land the city has been ready to divest as surplus.


Parking lots are disposable and the land isn’t needed for the new bridge, so our last council was ready to work with the new owners to secure the heritage restoration project as well as find a development and land use design that would support a planned harbour pathway piece connecting to the bridge and a more sympathetic environment for foot traffic through the property and along the adjacent road network.

The new council has thus far found the proposal less than compelling, though with widely divergent views on where the plan failed to measure up.   Certainly the first iterations of proposed massing and density on the site were cause for concern, but many of the more negative impacts of that unfortunate proposal have been reworked and there remain many elements of the updated plan that make sense.

The project figures prominently in plans for Victoria’s new bridge.  The more site specific elements of transportation design for traffic and the pedestrian environment were well thought out and worked through by the last council.  Now, with new faces at the table, some new uncertainties about how those designs will work are being used as one of several points of departure to force another reworking of the project, along with some of the road works associated with the bridge connections to downtown.
Our council (I was on the last one) found early on in the development of the new bridge that the city parking lot (leased to the CRD) adjacent to Northern Junk would be surplus to our transportation needs and gave staff the green light to consider its sale to the new owners of the buildings.  It made good sense to assemble the land for sale (not a giveaway), and allow a more comprehensive development to help finance the heritage project.  It also made sense to provide for more of the density we are embracing through the various plans applicable to the site.  Victoria will need nearly 100 new buildings the size of the Juliet (a recent condo development sitting at the northwest corner of Blanshard and Johnson), in order to meet our growth strategy and population absorption targets over the next few decades.  They have to go somewhere, and many of those new buildings will fit in downtown.  An amenity package that included funding of harbour pathway projects and linking pedestrians through the site made good financial sense as well as enhance the connectivity, continuity and consistency of the walking experience between the bridge, the pathway and the pedestrian corridors through the site.

Notwithstanding discussions recently at council, the transportation design elements feeding traffic into downtown are well thought out and reflective of both the alignments associated with the new bridge and some of the other pedestrian improvements and traffic calming elements council was searching for as part of the bridge project.   Discussion, now with the new council having taken their seats, raised fresh objections to the curve feeding Johnson St. from the bridge and the apparent surfeit of travel lanes butting up against Wharf St.  Transportation concepts had been thoroughly worked through at council and actually it is pretty straightforward – the new bridge migrates northward and will have to find some way to connect to downtown.  It simply means that it will need the curve around towards Johnson St., (Pandora gets a little straighter in the exchange); and that just responds to the placement of the bridge relative to the downtown road network.
There is the issue of some apparent additional “storage” for vehicles on the approaches to Johnson, another necessary element that raised new objections.  It needs to be understood that the “free right” turn for traffic heading south onto Wharf is lost in the new design and turning traffic will be slowed, sometimes stopped, before they can make that right turn movement, and that will require some extra storage to absorb the impacts of the traffic calming benefits of this change.  It’s a lot better for pedestrians, but it does require a different kind of capacity at the intersection.

I don’t have any ideological resistance to selling off unneeded public land, and it is something that municipalities do frequently enough.  The sale of this particular parcel and the associated partnership with the developers on public amenities and other enhancements to the pedestrian realm are a good fit.  The city doesn’t have the resources to go it alone on the harbour pathway.  Those projects may be costly and will work best if designs for the pathway, as well as those threaded through the new development are complementary rather than isolated from one another.   Council will do a disservice to citizens and taxpayers if it doesn’t take advantage of a good opportunity here.

Restoring heritage buildings is never easy and every building and every project will be unique.  The costs and challenges require some creativity and often enough some support from the city to seal the deal.  Many of our recent heritage projects have benefitted from creative thinking and all of them take advantage of a 10 year property tax holiday Victoria provides to help developers finance the important seismic upgrading older buildings require before occupancy can be granted. 

But that is not always enough.   The last council understood that the Northern Junk heritage rescue would need to be financed in partnership with the developers and we were working towards some consensus to push forward in this direction.  Bringing the right design to the table will be essential to the project’s success, but the city needs to be a willing partner in making it happen, not present unnecessary barriers or discard some of the good work done to date.

We do need density and fresh commercial space downtown, and this development helps to add to that inventory.  While it might not yet be ideal, and the step back an opportunity to ensure the important issues of community design are treated carefully, there is a good foundation for moving forward.  Protecting the commercial elements while still allowing for residential density onsite is important.  The geometry of the site and the new buildings may need the careful review of the city’s advisory committees, though they could use a stronger link to and better directions from council.   The city and the public also need to be mindful of a commitment to preserving the rail right of way and the need, potentially, for a downtown station.  It’s not clear that the proposal embraces this opportunity well enough yet.
The new council is still getting their feet wet and it’s been a revelation, as a new spectator, to see how the last election have changed the tenor and directions of discussion, even among longer serving members.  Evidence again that council moves forward making decisions as a team, and not just as a collection of individuals.  On this proposal, I guess there’s much work still to be done, though I think that at least most of the transportation elements are already where they should be.  Here’s hoping they get it right on the rest of the project.


  1. John, I frankly cannot think of a better way to detract from the widely recognized aesthetic appeal of Victoria's inner harbour than to allow construction of view-blocking buildings right at the water's edge.

    What is now being considered at this location leaves me scratching my head for why there is not City policy to protect the waterfront for everyone's enjoyment, instead of caving in to tax-generating, profit-making initiatives by property developers.
    I thought something along that line was already in place with a gradation in height away from the water, with the obvious minimum or nil right where needed most.

  2. There have been changes to the project that will protect some views, but if you tour the landscape, there isn't much to protect. The primary views of Northern Junk are from the waterside and the proposal will add some appeal to those views. The other elements of the project will bring density closer to the harbour, which is just good city building, and help preserve the buildings, which are unlikely to be financed by other means. Halifax and Toronto have good examples of old and new development co-existing - Halifax on their waterfront and Toronto at the Distillery District.

  3. " The primary views of Northern Junk are from the waterside and the proposal will add some appeal to those views."
    My concern is for the views of the harbour and water itself.
    The developers are lined up, tripping over themselves seeking permits to build along the water's edge because it is prime location for views by it's occupant/buyers.

    The view of the water itself must be considered a public asset, not one for sale to the highest bidders.

  4. Are you seriously confusing the issue of views of the actual harbour with the aesthetic appeal of the proposed buildings themself, the ones that would block visibility of the harbour ?