New life in Victoria's New England Hotel

Government Street makeover continues, with more to come

The only signs left of rubble-filled upper floors in  the former New England Hotel are in large black-and-white photographs mounted in the entry way.

Otherwise, 1312 Government St. is pristine. All but one of its 22 studio units, on four floors, are rented. Its ground floor commercial space is being fixed up for new tenant Hemp and Co.

Developer Chris Le Fevre bought the circa-1892 heritage building in 2010. Once a posh 40-room hotel, its upper floors were vacant and an ice cream shop was on the sidewalk level.

Le Fevre has revamped and re-purposed the building.

Lorna Knowles, Hemp and Co. co-owner, is looking forward to relocating later this year from 1102 Government St. into the New England. The shop’s new Bitcoin virtual currency ATM is moving, too.

“I just think it is a magnificent building,” she said. “There’s a lot of natural light in the space.”

Knowles expects a slightly different make up of pedestrians, “hopefully more local traffic. We imagine the tourist traffic may drop off a little bit, but that only helps us for about four months of the year.”

The New England Hotel is the latest building to get an extreme makeover on Government Street, one of downtown’s retail magnets and tourist destinations. Another example is developer Stan Sipos’s work on the historic Vogue building at 1450 Government St. Today, Mountain Equipment Co-op is on the ground floor, with 40-plus condos above.

Sipos is proposing to redevelop 816 Government St., the Customs House building. The proposal would add some life to the street, with ground-floor commercial, and would have more than 100 condos above.

Another high-profile site awaiting redevelopment is on the corner of Government Street and Pandora Avenue. The Victoria Plaza Hotel is for sale at close to $5.8 million and comes with municipal approval for a 106-unit mixed-use project.

Units rented quickly in the New England, Le Fevre said.

“Having people downtown is absolutely fundamental to the well-being of the retail trade downtown.”

Le Fevre has revitalized other old downtown buildings by converting them to condominiums. In this case, the New England is for sale at $5.5 million.

Downtown is becoming an increasingly popular place to live. Developers have been putting up new condominium projects and rolling out plans to convert more old buildings into condos. In the New England, monthly rents are between $800 and $1,000, and there is bicycle parking only.

The units cater to people “who are living light in life but are enjoying the vibrant downtown,” Le Fevre said.

He favours further city efforts to encourage developers to add housing downtown.

Victoria Coun. Pamela Madoff praised the renovation of the New England’s facade. “It has just brought out the architectural detail in such an extraordinary way.”

Nearby, 1328 Government St., home to Cowichan Trading, received a “really lovely facelift” several years ago, with original architectural details reproduced, she said.

Madoff favours extending the Government Street mall, with its wide sidewalks, plants and lighting, north to Pembroke Street to attract locals and visitors toward Old Town and Chinatown.

As for what suits Government Street, Madoff believes in the principle that “You make a city for the people who live there.” The southern section is known for its many shops catering to visitors.

“Is there a potential that Government Street becomes T-shirts and beer?” Madoff asked. “I just think you need to have a balance and you need to have places that everybody wants to go, especially locals.”

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