12-storey tower proposed for Northern Junk site

A 12-storey tower is planned for the Northern Junk site on the south side of the new Johnson Street Bridge under the latest plan for the prominent harbourfront property.

The proposal has not yet gone to Victoria city hall but the question of whether a tower is appropriate is already being debated.

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Proponents say a tower would open up views by reducing the mass of a lower-height development and bring welcome high-density residential development to the city’s core, helping revitalize downtown.

Others say a tower doesn’t belong on the harbour, especially that close to Victoria’s historic Old Town and at the gateway to the city. Other parts of the downtown are already designated for buildings of 20 storeys or more.

Vancouver’s Reliance Properties is returning to the City of Victoria with a new idea on how best to develop the property it bought in 2010.

The Northern Junk land with two historic buildings is in a prime downtown location, next to Old Town.

The site sat unused and unkempt for decades until it was finally put on the market and purchased by Reliance, a major developer in Gastown and Yaletown in Vancouver. The company is also developing the Janion building on the north side of the Johnson Street Bridge.

Reliance had earlier proposed a five-storey development, which went through design revisions, for the Northern Junk site, but eventually decided not to proceed.

‘‘We were never really happy with the outcome of the previous design,” Jon Stovell, Reliance president, said.

‘‘There were too many adjustments and compromises and equivocations along the way and, by the time we got to the end of the process, the project wasn’t really viable anyway.”

The new design would better open up views of the water and of the old buildings, he said.

“We are very hopeful that it is going to find support.”

The proposal goes to Victoria’s Downtown Residents Association this month for feedback. After that, Reliance aims to submit a rezoning application, Stovell said.

The latest plan addresses concerns that the previous proposal was too long and too wide along Wharf Street, and that it blocked water views along Wharf Street and to the historic buildings, Stovell said.

“So we turned the building perpendicular to the shoreline and moved that massing that was in front of Northern Junk up on top of the building. So we now have a five-storey podium just like we always did and a 12-storey tower that comes out at the end.”

There are other buildings of similar height in the city and around the harbour, Stovell noted.

The new construction is like an L-shape. It is close to Old Town, but not within its borders, he said. A new wider road and two plazas on either side of the bridge are being developed.

The Northern Junk plan, in tune with the Janion, would balance out that area’s proportions at the city’s gateway, Stovell said. City-owned land abuts the Northern Junk site and is part of the area’s redevelopment.

Plans call for 130 condominium units, including some micro-units. The key to revitalizing downtown is bringing in more residents, he said.

The project would include about 18,000 square feet of commercial space combined in old and new buildings, Stovell said. He is hoping that a micro-grocer will move in.

Victoria Coun. Pamela Madoff, a heritage advocate, said the city’s downtown plan defines the core as an amphitheatre with “very low” structures at the water, moving to higher buildings east of Douglas Street.

Madoff said that she agreed, before the last election, to permitting a plan providing for 20 storeys or more on some areas of Blanshard Street as a “trade-off” to protect Old Town.

It is puzzling to see a proposal contravening the downtown core area plan and planning policies for Old Town, she said. Pointing to the city-owned land next to Northern Junk, Madoff said “the city would want to show that it practises its own policies.”

Travelling east on the Johnson Street Bridge brings people to the gateway of Old Town, “where it sets the tone for what is important in this part of town and what is important is the heritage buildings,” Madoff said.

The basic guide for height in Old Town is four to five storeys for new construction, she said.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said a proposal has not yet come to city hall but that she is looking forward to seeing it and her mind is open.

“I’m interested in seeing what the public has to say about it,” Helps said.

“I’m also very thrilled that people are wanting to invest in downtown Victoria in this way.”

There may be some changes, based on public and heritage input, she said. But if done well, Helps said, “it could be the very best of the past and the future together. And that’s what I will be looking for in anything that comes forward.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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