By Dorothy Mindenhall
Dundurn, 240 pp., $28.99
The Victoria we have is not quite the Victoria we would have had if all of the plans, proposals and wild dreams had come to fruition.
We still have, for example, a city hall that dates from the 1870s, rather than a 1940s building next to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, close to the Christ Church Cathedral or on the site of the Centennial Square parkade.
On the other hand, we don't have a bridge or a tunnel linking Laurel Point to the Songhees, a lock on the Gorge, a replica of the Parthenon in Beacon Hill Park or an airport where the University of Victoria stands today.
We do have, however, Unbuilt Victoria, a book by Dorothy Mindenhall. It helps shine a light on ideas that never progressed much beyond the drafting table.
Mindenhall is an architectural historian who has been involved in several heritage conservation projects, so she is quite familiar with the topic. She has also spent years scouring through back issues of the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist, shining new light on proposals that would have been long forgotten if not for her efforts.
That is not to say that this book deals only with historic proposals. Mindenhall takes us through the 1980s and 1990s to the present day, outlining some of the ideas that are probably still simmering on a backburner in an architect's office somewhere.
Unbuilt Victoria is divided into several sections, with government proposals leading the rest. These include the various ideas for a city hall, both the original one - which does not quite have the look that architect John Teague envisioned - as well as later proposals to replace the historic structure.
She includes city-beautification ideas such as pedestrian zones on Broad, Government and View streets, as well as in Chinatown. These suggestions had proponents and opponents, and in the end, they faded away.
The Fairmont Empress could have had a much different look as well. The Canadian Pacific Railway considered a wide variety of plans for the site, including demolishing the wing on Humboldt Street or adding apartment towers and a shopping mall. In the end, these plans, like so many other plans, never resulted in action.
Despite the title, Mindenhall's work was not confined to Victoria. Along with material on the Gorge and the university, she includes proposals for the Oak Bay and Sidney harbours.
It's a fascinating topic, because getting a sense of what might have been forces us to reconsider what we have. A bit of self-analysis never hurts.
In the end, it's hard to escape the feeling that with many of these ideas, we are better off without them. Would it really have enhanced the city to lose its 1878 city hall, and seeing a department store in its place? Or a mystery tower, high above the city?
On the other hand, Unbuilt Victoria reminds us of many ideas that pop up from time to time, but never result in construction. Not all of them are bad ideas; they just need popular support and money before they can happen.
A downtown pedestrian mall is one example. Or how about a performing-arts centre? A new home for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria?
Most of all, how about a redevelopment of the Belleville Street terminal? It is an important gateway to the city, and as it stands, it gives a terrible first impression. There is little doubt that something needs to be done.
Nothing ever happens, but it is not for a lack of ideas. Just pick up a copy of Unbuilt Victoria and take your pick of plans from the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s. Any one of these proposals would have been many times better than what we have.
And just think of what could have been done with those parking lots around the legislature. Their potential is obvious, but potential without action is meaningless.
Not all of the ideas in Unbuilt Victoria were good ones. But there certainly were gems, and Mindenhall is correct: That they were never acted upon should be a matter of regret.
The reviewer is the author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
© Copyright 2013