Friday, June 8, 2012

Dockside Green and Good Neighbours

Dockside Green, the languishing development project across the street from Point Hope Shipyards and likewise a stone’s throw from downtown and the Johnson St. Bridge, has been an issue of late, and truth be told, for much longer, as the second guessing continues in fits and starts.  To be fair, this and other way stations in the evolution of Victoria are targets of legitimate debate and discussion.  But or what it’s worth, here are some of my latest thoughts on the past and the present, and why Dockside still makes sense and well-tended, a promising future, and why the critics are off base.

Dockside was sold to private developers more than a decade ago, and with a grand vision to create a mixed use neighbourhood on what had been a busy rail-yard and a hodgepodge of industrial properties, long ago abandoned amid convoluted ownership arrangements.  City, provincial and private owners faced the challenge of contaminated soils needing millions in cleanup before it could be rescued for new uses and once again contribute to a vibrant local economy (a once again familiar issue as Transport Canada and BC Hydro struggle with more costs and more delays with Rock Bay lands north of downtown) .  As those issues were peeled away, with land exchanges between the province and the city and strategies for reclamation worked out, councils of the day and city staff began conversations with the community about the future use of the land and the unique opportunities and the now familiar challenges posed by its location.

The first fiction that continues to be promoted by more recent arrivals aggrieved by the busy shipyard across the street is that “the city should never have approved a residential development” on the site.  The city, it needs to be remembered, did not act alone in defiance of either good planning principles or contrary to the wishes of its citizens.  Whatever the hiccups in the evolution of the development, the project still makes the most sense for this particular corner of the city core.

The Dockside plan, the choice of developers, and the sale of the lands were all the subject of one of the more extensive public engagement processes in the city’s history.  The council of the day would have been pilloried by local neighbours and residents from across the city had they not gone ahead with the chosen development.  Everyone involved had a very clear picture of what the existing site was and who their new neighbours were going to be.  Point Hope Shipyards has been there since 1873 and nobody involved at the city, living in the residential Vic West neighbourhood, or among the diverse stakeholder groups invited into the tent had any misconceptions about the future of the shipyards and the ongoing presence of industrial activity.  They well understood that, while the shipyard business was going through some difficult times, it was not going away.  In fact, within the planning framework laid out on the table, Point Hope showed they were ready to make some changes to their business operations that would generate an increase in then current business activities; perhaps even expand operations across the road and onto Dockside Green property.  A paint shed planned for the Princess Mary site (and owned outright by the shipyard) was eventually conceded to the development in exchange for options on city land on harbour-side properties now under attack by some councillors.  Nice gesture.

Today’s grievances point fingers at the city, but that’s at best willful blindness on the part of those who bought into a development knowing that an active shipyard was operating right across the street.  Promotional materials and sales agreements spelled that out pretty clearly.  Good home buyers do their homework – they explore locations, find out who their new neighbours will be, get a feel for levels of noise and activity in the area, and should take some measure of responsibility for understanding what local zoning allows for.  Farm and rural communities get it all the time – people move in next door and start complaining that agriculture is noisy and smelly.  The shipyard is no different.  For many Dockside residents, fortunately, the shipyard is an asset – an always entertaining venue of industrial theatre with an ever changing flotilla of ships dropping in and out for maintenance and repairs.

To be fair, some of those new residents probably thought that the condos they bought would be a little more sheltered, and that is indeed what the plan has called for.  With any luck, they’ll soon be exchanging shipyard noise for construction noise as yet another development company takes the reins and starts again to grow the new condos, townhouses, affordable housing and the rest of the commercial space planned as part of the original development.  Many of those projects stalled in the world economic crisis that began in 2008 and one can’t imagine that Victoria alone would be immune to the turmoil.   The city has the authority for zoning and development permits and the like, but council cannot oblige owners to spend money they don’t have to build what they can’t sell.

The tricky part now will be to ensure that today’s council keeps an eye on the development agreements to make sure the original plan is followed.  That’s more likely than the councils of the day when much of Songhees was built.  Councils in the ‘80s and early ‘90s routinely buckled to developer demands to zone out mixed use in favour of a mono-culture of residential buildings that have created their own problems for residents and the city.  People living there like what they have, but there are no services and the neighbourhood is devoid of street life and commercial activity.  The quietude is so entrenched that existing marine dependent businesses now face constant pressure from Songhees and residential owners across the harbour to shut down the float plane industry and stand firm against the return of any marine commercial activity.  The prospect of a marina on their doorstep, although envisioned in the original development plans for the neighbourhood, fomented a small rebellion.  The city got onside very quickly, though in part because the new look marina was not the small pleasure craft moorage people imagined, and more of a parking lot for oversize luxury yachts captained by distant owners looking for cheap storage.

Dockside will have some distance to go before the neighbourhood becomes what the city and the community envisioned when plans were first unveiled.  Hundreds of units need to be sold, then built.  The right market conditions will be necessary to encourage timid investors to bulk up the built presence along the barren length of Harbour Road with the commercial, office, retail uses that the city must protect from rezoning pressures.  Once in place, many of those buildings will provide a buffer between the shipyard and the upland condos generating the current complaints.  Those projects too should also help calm the runway traffic some drivers feel entitled to enjoy along a straight, wide road without destinations, a mature tree canopy or other elements of design that would otherwise close in the corridor.  Equally unhelpful complaints emanate from those in Vic West who wanted a more residential feel to the street.  Harbour Road is still, in service to the shipyard and  other industrial neighbours, and that has always meant a more generous design for the trucks and service vehicles that come and go.

Ironically now, for some of the critics who were leaders in the fight to preserve the old crumbling blue bridge, the way forward now with the new bridge is one of the comforts the new development company has in hand to convince them that their Dockside projects can go ahead too.  Knowing well enough how badly the old bridge was deteriorated and how problematic any rescue operation might have been, no developer was keen to forge ahead and invest heavily in Dockside without the assurance that a sensible project and robust, durable, and attractive gateway crossing was going to complete to connect their market with the city’s downtown.

Ultimately, Dockside is well designed to work as intended, and both residents and the broader community need to understand again that change is a process, not an event, and the neighbourhood evolution will unfold over time.  We don’t have the tools to force development to satisfy every condo owner.  Neither can we, or should we, force a shutdown of the shipyard that some residents have only recently discovered is across the street (and a more counterproductive economic strategy would be hard to find in this city).  For those looking for sustainable communities, this is actually what it is all about – mixed use, workplaces and housing, services and shops, all bunched up together to create more walkable, affordable and accessible neighbourhoods.  It’s Victoria’s past come to life again.